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Abortion - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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An abortion is the medical process of ending a pregnancy so it does not result in the birth of a baby.

It is also sometimes known as a 'termination' or a 'termination of pregnancy'.

Depending on how many weeks you have been pregnant, the pregnancy is ended either by taking medication or by having a surgical procedure.

Read more about how an abortion is performed.

An abortion is not the same as a miscarriage, where the pregnancy ends without medical intervention (although medical treatment may be needed after a miscarriage).

Why an abortion may be needed

There are many reasons why a woman might decide to have an abortion including:

  • personal circumstances
  • a health risk to the mother
  • a high probability that the baby will have a medical condition

Read more about why an abortion may be necessary.

When an abortion can be carried out

Under UK law, an abortion can usually only be carried out during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy as long as certain criteria are met (see below).

The Abortion Act 1967 covers the UK mainland (England, Scotland and Wales) but not Northern Ireland. The law states that:

  • abortions must be carried out in a hospital or a specialist licensed clinic
  • two doctors must agree that an abortion would cause less damage to a woman's physical or mental health than continuing with the pregnancy

There are also a number of rarer situations when the law states an abortion may be carried out after 24 weeks. These include:

  • if it is necessary to save the woman's life
  • to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman
  • if there is substantial risk that if the child were born, s/he would have physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped

Generally, an abortion should be carried out as early in the pregnancy as possible, ideally before 12 weeks.

Read more about when an abortion is carried out.

NHS abortions

If you want to have an abortion through the NHS, you may find it beneficial to discuss your options with a healthcare professional. You will usually need to be referred to a specialist service that deals with abortion.

If you do not want to ask your GP to refer you for an abortion, you can go to your local family planning clinic or genito-urinary medicine (GUM) clinic. Use the post code search facility to find your nearest sexual health clinic.

Some doctors at these clinics can refer women for an NHS abortion, but if they cannot, they must refer you to another doctor.

The law states that a doctor can decline to certify a woman for an abortion if they have a moral objection to abortion. If this is the case, they must recommend another doctor who is willing to help.

Before an abortion can proceed, two doctors must ensure that the requirements of the Abortion Act are fulfilled, and they must both sign the relevant certificate. Usually, one of the doctors will be your GP and the other doctor will work at the hospital or clinic where the abortion will take place. However, this is not always the case.

In some areas, you may also be able to refer yourself to your local Pregnancy Advisory Service, without first getting a referral from a local doctor. However, it does help to talk to other healthcare professionals, such as your GP or contraception clinic nurse, as well.

You can self-refer for an NHS-funded abortion by contacting:

Funding of NHS abortion services differs in various parts of the country. The level of NHS provision ranges from more than 90% of local demand to less than 60%.

In some areas, the NHS will pay for abortions at private clinics, but in other areas you may need to pay to have an abortion at a private clinic.

Private abortions

You can contact a private abortion clinic without being referred by a doctor. However, the NHS may not pay for this, and the agreement of two doctors is still required. The clinic will make the arrangements.

Costs for abortions in private clinics vary and will depend on:

  • the organisation or company that carries out the abortion
  • the stage of pregnancy (earlier abortions are usually less expensive)
  • whether an overnight stay is needed
  • the method of abortion used

If you are considering having an abortion, it is important to talk to somebody about it as soon as possible.

Risks

No clinical procedure is entirely risk free, but abortion poses few risks to a woman's physical health, particularly when carried out during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Having an abortion will not usually affect your chances of becoming pregnant and having normal pregnancies in future.

The risk of problems occurring during an abortion is low. However, there are more likely to be problems if an abortion is carried out later in a pregnancy.

The risks associated with abortions are:

  • haemorrhage (excessive bleeding) - occurs in about one in every 1,000 abortions
  • damage to the cervix (the entrance of the womb) - occurs in no more than 10 in every 1,000 abortions
  • damage to the womb - occurs in up to four in every 1,000 abortions during surgical abortion, and less than one in 1,000 medical abortions that are carried out at 12-24 weeks

Read more about the risks of abortion.

Medical Review: June 10, 2012
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