An abortion or termination of pregnancy, or termination, is a procedure to end a pregnancy so it does not result in the birth of a baby.
The procedure is carried out with medication or an operation before the 24th week of pregnancy and is regulated under the Abortion Act in England, Scotland and Wales. The regulations are different in Northern Ireland where the grounds for having an abortion are more restrictive.
Abortions can only be carried out in hospital or in a specialist clinic licensed for abortions. Abortions are carried out by the NHS, private clinics and charitable organisations, such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Marie Stopes International.
Reasons for an abortion
Before an abortion is performed in England, Scotland and Wales, two registered medical practitioners have to both agree that the procedure is necessary for medical reasons or the woman's personal circumstances.
Reasons for an abortion to be carried out are if:
- Continuing with the pregnancy would involve a greater risk to the woman's life than ending the pregnancy
- Continuing with the pregnancy would involve a greater risk of injury to the woman's physical or mental health than ending the pregnancy
- Continuing with the pregnancy would involve a greater risk to the physical or mental health of any of the woman's existing children
- There is a significant risk that if the child is born s/he would have a serious physical or mental disability
The NHS says that if an abortion is to be carried out, generally that should be as early in the pregnancy as possible and ideally before 12 weeks.
Before an abortion
A woman considering an abortion will be given the opportunity to talk about the reasons for the procedure with a doctor or nurse. A medical history will be taken and the risks involved discussed and details of the procedure should be explained.
Medical tests before an abortion include an ultrasound scan to confirm how many weeks pregnant a woman is, an internal or vaginal examination, blood tests, tests for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and in some cases, a cervical smear test.
The type of abortion will depend on individual factors, including the duration of the pregnancy.
Early medical abortion. This may be appropriate for women up to the ninth week of pregnancy. Two drugs are taken 48 hours apart to cause a miscarriage.
Vacuum aspiration or suction termination. This may be carried out between the 7th and 15th week of pregnancy. The cervix is dilated before a suction device is used to remove the foetus from the womb under local or general anaesthetic.
Surgical dilation and evacuation (D&E).This procedure is considered after the 15th week of pregnancy and carried out under general anaesthetic. The cervix is dilated and forceps and suction used to remove the foetus.
Late abortion. A surgical two-stage late abortion or medically induced late abortion are considered between the 20th and 24th week of pregnancy.