Abortions are a medical way to end a pregnancy. While the procedure may cause some pain or cramping, the discomfort is usually manageable.
In this article, we discuss whether abortions hurt, other side effects, and their potential risks and complications. We also explore the potential emotional effects of having an abortion, minimizing pain and side effects, and getting advice about abortion.
On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that secured a person’s constitutional right to an abortion.
This means that individual states are now able to decide their own abortion laws. As a result, many states will ban or severely restrict abortion access.
The information in this article was accurate and up to date at the time of publication, but the facts may have changed since. Anyone looking to learn more about their legal rights can message the Repro Legal Helpline via a secure online form or call 844-868-2812.
The experience of an abortion varies between individuals. The procedure may cause some pain or cramping, but many people can manage this discomfort.
The level of pain and other side effects a person may experience largely depends on the type of abortion. The three most common types of abortion are:
- medical abortions
- vacuum aspiration
- dilation and evacuation
There are also self-induced abortions, which often involve using unregulated and potentially dangerous methods.
We discuss what to expect during each of these procedures below.
A medical abortion is when a person takes two prescription abortion pills to end a pregnancy. According to the advocacy group Planned Pregnancy, a doctor will typically recommend this type of abortion up to 11 weeks after a person’s last period.
The first pill, mifepristone, stops the pregnancy from developing. The second pill, misoprostol, causes the uterus to contract and pass out the pregnancy tissue. Some people may experience moderate pain due to these uterine contractions.
Everyone who has a medical abortion will respond differently. Some people describe the experience as being similar to having a heavy period and cramps, while others may experience more intense cramping.
When someone has a medical abortion, they usually pass out the pregnancy tissue within 4–5 hours. Individuals may experience some bleeding or spotting for several weeks after taking the pills.
Vacuum aspiration is a type of surgical abortion that involves the use of gentle suction to remove the pregnancy tissue. Healthcare professionals typically use it up to 13 weeks into a pregnancy.
The doctor will give an injection or medication to numb the cervix before performing the aspiration. Sometimes they can prescribe a general anesthetic, but this is rare.
Because the procedure involves the use of pain relief medications, vacuum aspiration does not usually hurt. However, a person may experience a dragging or pulling sensation during the process.
Some people may experience moderate cramping for 1 or 2 days after having vacuum aspiration, while others may experience bleeding or spotting for up to 2 weeks afterward.
Dilation and evacuation
Dilation and evacuation is another type of surgical abortion that doctors typically recommend if the person has been pregnant for more than 13 weeks. This is according to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
Dilation and evacuation involve using a general anesthetic, which puts the person to sleep. This means they will not be conscious during the procedure and cannot feel pain.
The doctor begins by using dilators, which are thin rods, to open the cervix. They then use forceps and suction to remove the pregnancy tissue.
The ACOG states that after a dilation and evacuation procedure, a person may experience some cramping for 1 or 2 days. They may also have spotting or bleeding for up to 2 weeks.
Self-induced abortions do not involve a doctor in a clinic. People carry out these types of abortions by taking improper prescription medications or, on more rare occasions, by inserting foreign bodies into the vagina.
How much pain someone experiences with a self-induced abortion depends on the form they choose to end the pregnancy.
Some people may experience side effects after having an abortion. We discuss the possible side effects of each type of abortion below.
The potential side effects of a medical abortion include:
Surgical abortions include both vacuum aspiration and dilation and evacuation. The potential side effects of these procedures can include:
- blood clots
Having an abortion is typically a low risk medical process. However, in rare circumstances, complications can occur.
We discuss the potential complications of the different types of abortion below.
Although abortion pills are typically very safe and effective, they can sometimes fail to work, which can lead to an incomplete abortion.
According to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, around 2 in 100 medical abortions are incomplete, meaning the person may need to repeat the procedure. Sometimes, a doctor will need to perform a surgical abortion to remove the remaining pregnancy tissue.
Both vacuum aspiration and dilation and evacuation are safe and effective surgical procedures that carry a low risk of complications.
However, potential complications can include:
- remaining pregnancy tissue
- heavy bleeding
- injury to the cervix, uterus, or other organs
According to the ACOG, surgical abortions result in fewer complications than medical abortions. Fewer than 1 in 1,000 people experience complications during a second-trimester abortion.
Self-induced abortions are high risk procedures without the use of an in-clinic doctor.
Using unsterilized tools can cause bacterial infections, which
- incomplete abortions
- uterine, cervix, or other organ injuries
To minimize the pain and side effects of an abortion, a person can try:
- taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medication, such as ibuprofen
- using a hot water bottle or warm compresses to help ease abdominal cramping
- warm baths, if a healthcare professional recommends them
A doctor can also prescribe stronger medications if OTC pain relievers do not work.
A person may choose to have an abortion for any reason. Medical and surgical abortions are safe, simple, low risk ways to end a pregnancy.
Every person feels differently after having an abortion. Some people may feel relieved from the stress of an unintended pregnancy. Others may experience guilt or depression after having an abortion, even though they may know it is the right decision.
If a person feels guilty, sad, or anxious after having an abortion, they can speak with their doctor. The doctor can help them access talk therapy or support groups to process these feelings.
Having an abortion is a personal decision and a human right. What is right for one person may not be right for another.
To get advice about abortion, a person can consult their doctor or research online. ACOG has a frequently asked questions section on induced abortions that answers some of the common questions that people may have.
Nonbiased, scientific sources provide the most factual information on abortions. Understanding the science behind abortions will help a person to make an informed choice that they are most comfortable with.
Medical and surgical abortions are typically low risk ways to end a pregnancy, and every person’s experience is different.
Medical abortions may cause some pain and cramping because they cause the uterus to contract to expel the pregnancy tissue. A person can usually manage the pain using OTC medications.
Someone undergoing a surgical abortion will experience little pain during the procedure because doctors give a local or general anesthetic. However, people may experience some cramping for a few days afterward.