The abortion procedure

What actually happens on the day of your abortion? The Mix looks at what the abortion procedure involves and what to expect on the day.

girl in waiting room

It's natural to feel nervous, or just relieved.

Abortion waiting lists

If you’re pregnant and considering an abortion it’s important you see your doctor (GP) as soon as possible. Legally, in the UK, you can have an abortion up to 24 weeks; the law is different in Ireland. Waiting times for appointments can vary and will often depend on where you live. “If you’re having an abortion with the NHS, expect a wait of around three weeks before you first go to your abortion appointment and when you actually get your appointment through for the procedure,” says Rebecca at FPA. If you decide to have an abortion at a private clinic you will be seen quickly, but you can expect to pay around £500.

What happens once I decide to have an abortion?

You’ll need to attend a consultation at the clinic where your medical history will be taken and a nurse or doctor will discuss what will happen. You will also have a scan to see how many weeks pregnant you are. If you want an abortion in the UK you have to get the signatures of two separate doctors. You can see a doctor in three different places; a general practice, contraceptive clinic or a Brook clinic.

No one needs to know you’ve had an abortion, or that you’ve been considering it (including if you’re under the age of 18). It doesn’t need to go on any records at your GP’s surgery, if you request this. You also don’t need the agreement of your partner or your parents to have the procedure. If your doctor has a moral objection to abortion, they should refer you to see another doctor.

The day of the abortion

Before you have the abortion you will have another chance to talk things through with a doctor or nurse. You will have a blood test to check you aren’t anaemic and to find out your blood group. You may also be offered tests to see if you have any STIs. Finally, you’ll be given a consent form to sign.

There are no methods of abortion you can have at your doctor’s surgery. Abortions can only be carried out in licensed premises, such as an independent clinic or in a hospital. However, the Government has recently launched a consultation over whether to relax abortion rules.

Forms of abortion:

  • Early medical abortion: The Abortion Pill – up to nine weeks. This will involve two appointments on two separate days. You will be given a tablet called mifepristone to take orally and 36 to 48 hours later you will take another pill orally, or a tablet called prostaglandin, which will be placed in your vagina. These two drugs will end most early pregnancies within the following four to six hours by causing the womb to contract and shed its lining. Many women say it feels like having a heavy and painful period, and you may also feel sick.
  • Vaccum aspiration method – usually from seven to 13 weeks. This is also known as ‘the suction method’. You don’t have to stay overnight and this procedure will involve a general or local anaesthetic, or conscious sedation. There will be no wound or stitches as the abortion is carried out through the vagina. This normally takes around five to 10 minutes and is done by stretching the cervix to allow a tube to pass through it into the womb. Once the tube is inserted the pregnancy will be removed by suction. From 14 to 19 weeks pregnant the technique is slightly different and will involve forceps to remove the foetus.
  • Medical abortion – from nine to 24 weeks. This involves taking the same pills as you would with an early medical abortion. This procedure is like having a late natural miscarriage and you may have to stay in hospital overnight. The termination usually takes around 12 hours to happen. If you are 20 to 24 weeks pregnant it will require a two-stage process: stopping the heart of the foetus and softening the neck of the womb. The second stage will take place the next day by surgical evacuation.
  • Surgical dilation and evacuation (D&E) – from 15 to 24 weeks. This procedure will involve a general anaesthetic and takes around 10 to 20 minutes. The cervix is stretched and dilated and the pregnancy removed using forceps and a suction tube. If there are no complications, you may be able to return home the same day. After 21 weeks you will normally need to spend a night in the clinic or hospital.

“You can always change your mind right up to the last minute,” says Lisa at Brook. “If you’ve chosen to have your abortion in a private clinic you may be charged for the consultation, but not for the procedure.” Rebecca agrees: “The first thing you should do is to get yourself referred and on the waiting list and then you will have a couple of weeks between the initial appointment and the procedure. That will give you more time to think about it and change your mind if you want to.”

Photo of girl in waiting room by Shutterstock

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By Julia Pearlman

Updated on 29-Sep-2015