6 facts about abortion that everyone should know

Experts say that access to safe and legal abortions is important. (Photo: Getty Images)
Experts say that access to safe and legal abortions is important. (Photo: Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Whether you’re considering ending a pregnancy, have questions about abortion or just want to learn more, here are some important facts that everyone should know about abortion.

1) There are different types of abortions

For pregnant people considering terminating a pregnancy, there are two types of abortions: a medical abortion (also known as abortion pills) and a surgical (or procedural) one.

With a medical abortion, patients take an FDA-approved regimen of two different medications — mifepristone and misoprostol — “for the purpose of ending the pregnancy,” Dr. Deyang Nyandak, a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, tells Yahoo Life. “Many providers offer prescription medications to support potential side effects of these medications, including pain and nausea.”

Dr. Andrea Henkel of Stanford University, tells Yahoo Life that medication abortion is “routinely offered as an outpatient — at home — [procedure] through 10 weeks of pregnancy, though there is data for efficacy and safety later. Each facility will have their own comfort level with the upper gestational age limit.”

Procedural, or surgical, abortions are typically done in a clinic and involve emptying the uterus with suction — the most common option — or suction and medical tools, according to Planned Parenthood. “People choose procedural abortions if they are over 11 weeks of pregnancy and no longer are eligible to have a medication abortion,” says Nyandak. “Many people opt to have a procedure as it is a faster process in most cases compared to medication abortion.”

For most people, an in-clinic abortion is a “one-day process,” says Nyandak, “and they can opt to have general anesthesia if available. Many people opt to have the procedure done while they are awake so that they can preserve their privacy without needing someone to drive them to and from the clinic — something they need if they receive general anesthesia, and similar to when someone has a colonoscopy or their wisdom teeth removed.”

2) Medical abortions are the most common type of abortion

Medical abortions currently account for more than half of all abortions performed in the U.S., surpassing surgery for the first time, according to a February 2022 report by the Guttmacher Institute.

“Although there are major technical differences between medication and surgical abortions,” says Nyandak, “many of my patients choose medication abortions as they prefer to go through the process in the privacy of their own homes. They can take the medications they need for the abortion at home without medical supervision in most cases,” depending on state law.

Nyandak explains that patients in states where medication abortion via telemedicine is legal and available, “patients do not need to come in for an in-person appointment for their medication abortion. Therefore, patients may choose to have a medication abortion since they can have the medications directly delivered to their preferred address without needing to physically see their providers.”

3) Legal abortions are safe

“Modern abortion is incredibly safe,” says Henkel. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), complications that require hospitalization are rare. “Serious complications requiring hospitalization for treatment of infection or transfusion occur in less than 4 per 1,000 patients,” says Henkel.

To put the safety of abortions into perspective, Nyandak explains that “the risk of death during childbirth is 14 times higher compared to abortion.”

4) Abortions are common, but are declining in general

About 1 in 4 women in the U.S. will have an abortion by age 45, according to the ACOG. Women in their 20s account for more than half of all abortions in the U.S., according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Up until 2019, abortion rates had reached record-low levels, but then went up slightly that year. Organizations, including the Guttmacher Institute, state that “abortion restrictions were not the main driver of the decline.” Rather, it appears to be related to fewer pregnancies, as well as contraceptive use.

5) Morning-after pills are not the same thing as a medical abortion

Although some people may confuse the two, morning-after pills (also known as emergency contraception) and medical abortions are “very different,” notes Nyandak. The former prevents pregnancy in women who have had unprotected sex or whose birth control method failed, according to the Mayo Clinic, while the latter ends an existing pregnancy.

“Morning-after pills prevent ovulation so an egg doesn’t have the opportunity to meet sperm in the reproductive tract,” explains Henkel. “In contrast, abortion disrupts an established pregnancy where a sperm and egg have already come together.”

6) Banning abortion won't stop it from happening — it will only make it less safe

Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio, lead for equity transformation at ACOG and an ob-gyn trained in complex family planning, tells Yahoo Life, “Abortion is an essential component of comprehensive medical care. Access to abortion care improves the health and well-being of those who need it, and data have long shown that restrictions to access to care only cause harm.”

Nyandak says that people who are the most vulnerable will be hit the hardest if Roe v. Wade is overturned. “Restrictions on any type of health care service have the most negative impact on people of color and people of low income,” she says. “Similarly, abortion bans mostly affect people of lower socioeconomic status.”

She explains that “people with means,” on the other hand, “will be able to travel across state lines to find an abortion clinic, pay for their hotel stay, take off time from work and afford child care. However, people who do not have such means will face inequities in obtaining basic and essential medical care. Therefore, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will have a significant impact on the health and well-being of many people in the United States.”

Experts also point out that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, that doesn’t mean an end to abortion. It would be up to individual states to decide whether abortions are legal and up until what point in a woman’s pregnancy. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, abortion would “likely be prohibited” in 24 states if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

But as Henkel puts it, “Banning abortion will not stop people from ending pregnancies that are undesired.” Instead, restricting access to safe and legal abortion services will have “important negative health implications,” Ana Langer, professor of the practice of public health and coordinator of the Women and Health Initiative at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explained in a recent interview published on the school’s website. She added: “We’ve seen that these laws do not result in fewer abortions. Instead, they compel women to risk their lives and health by seeking out unsafe abortion care.”

Villavicencio adds: “Quite simply, people will always need access to abortion. Contraception fails, lives change, unexpected complications occur. No matter what an individual’s reason for an abortion, it is essential that they have access to an abortion when they need it.”

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