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Abortion

Your questions answered

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2

Are you pregnant but 

not sure you want to 

have the baby?

Do you need more information 

about your pregnancy choices? 

Unplanned pregnancy is very common. At least 

half of all pregnancies are unplanned, and in one in 

five pregnancies a woman will choose to have an 

abortion. It can be a difficult choice to make and it 

can be a very emotional time. Talking to people you 

trust and making sure you have accurate information 

and support can help. If you are undecided about 

what to do, see the FPA booklet Pregnant and 

don’t know what to do? It can give you information 

about your options, including abortion, adoption and 

keeping the baby. 

Contents


Do you need more information about your pregnancy 

choices? ........................................................................................................2

Do you need more information about abortion? ..............3

Is abortion legal? .....................................................................................3

How do i get an abortion? ...............................................................4

Can my doctor refuse to refer me for an abortion? .........4

Will anyone else be told about my abortion? ......................5

If I am under 16, do I have to tell my parents? .....................5

Do I need my partner’s agreement? ...........................................6

How long will I have to wait? ..........................................................6

Where will my abortion take place? ..........................................6

What will happen before I have an abortion? ......................6

What does an abortion involve?...................................................8

Is abortion painful? .............................................................................10

Is abortion safe? ...................................................................................10


3

Do you need more information 

about abortion? 

This booklet is about abortion. It will give you

information about getting an abortion and what is 

involved. It will tell you about the different types of 

abortion and what effects they may have. 

Is abortion legal?

Yes. In Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) 

the law (Abortion Act 1967, as amended by the 

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990) 

allows a woman to have an abortion up to 24 weeks 

of pregnancy, if two doctors agree that it is less likely 

to cause harm to her physical or mental health than 

continuing with the pregnancy. 

O

  More than 90 per cent of abortions are carried 



out before 13 weeks of pregnancy. 

O

  More than 98 per cent are carried out before 20 weeks. 



The weeks of pregnancy are usually worked out 

from the first day of your last normal menstrual 

period. If you have irregular periods, or no periods, 

or the stage of pregnancy is not clear, this can be 

checked with an ultrasound scan.

Are there risks at the time of the abortion? .......................10

Are there risks after the abortion? ...........................................11

What happens after my abortion? ...........................................12

How will I feel? .....................................................................................12

What happens to the fetal tissue after the abortion? ...13

How long will I bleed for after the abortion? .....................13

Does abortion cause breast cancer? .......................................14

Will abortion affect my chances of having a baby in the 

future? ........................................................................................................14

How soon after abortion should I start using 

contraception? ......................................................................................14

Where can I get more information and advice? ...............14

Clinics ........................................................................................................14

Emergency contraception ..............................................................15

Sexually transmitted infections ....................................................15



4

An abortion can be done after 24 weeks if there 

are exceptional circumstances, for example if there 

is a serious risk to the woman’s health or there is a 

substantial risk of physical or mental disability if the 

baby is born. 



Northern Ireland 

The 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to 

Northern Ireland. Abortion is legal in Northern 

Ireland in very exceptional circumstances. It is only 

lawful where there is a real and serious risk to the 

woman’s mental or physical health and the risk 

is permanent or long-term. Consequently, most 

women from Northern Ireland have to travel to 

England to obtain a private abortion. They are not 

entitled to an abortion on the NHS. Women can 

contact FPA in Northern Ireland (0845 122 8687) 

for confidential counselling, information and support 

on all options available. 

How do I get an abortion?

Abortion is available free if you are referred through 

the NHS. Abortion is also available through private 

clinics and hospitals where you will have to pay. 

O

  NHS. See your GP or go to your local 



contraception or sexual health clinic. They can 

refer you to your local NHS service. 

O

  Privately run clinics. You can contact fee-paying 



abortion providers directly, you do not have to be 

referred by a doctor.

O

  Self referral. You may be able to refer yourself 



for an NHS abortion without seeing a doctor 

first. Ask your GP or sexual health clinic if this is 

available in your area.

Can my doctor refuse to refer me 

for an abortion?

No. A doctor or nurse has the right to refuse to take 

part in abortion if they do not believe in abortion. 

However, they should always refer you on to another 

doctor or nurse who will help. The General Medical 

Council guidance for doctors makes it clear that a 



5

doctor’s personal beliefs should not affect patient 

care. There is similar guidance provided by the 

Nursing and Midwifery Council for nurses, and by 

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain 

for pharmacists. 

If your doctor is not being helpful, try to see 

another doctor or nurse at your general practice 

or visit a contraception or sexual health clinic near 

where you live. For details of how to find out about 

services see page 14. 

Will anyone else be told about my 

abortion? 

No. The decision to have an abortion is a matter 

between you and your healthcare team. All 

information and treatment is confidential whatever 

your age. This means that information cannot be 

shared with anyone else without your agreement. 

Wherever you have your abortion they are not 

required to tell your GP. 

Many abortion services like to let your GP know 

out of courtesy, to provide information in case you 

have any health problems after the abortion, and to 

allow your medical records to be updated. They can 

only do this with your permission. Tell your hospital 

or clinic if you do not want them to inform your GP. 

If I am under 16, do I have to tell my 

parents? 

No. You can have an abortion without telling your 

parents. Your health professional will encourage 

you to involve your parents or carers, or another 

supportive adult. If you choose not to do this, you 

can still have an abortion if the doctors believe it is 

in your best interests, and that you fully understand 

what is involved. 

All information, advice and services are 

confidential. However, health professionals will 

involve social services if they suspect you, or another 

person, are at significant risk of sexual abuse or 

emotional or physical harm. They will not do this 

without talking to you about it first. 


6

Do I need my partner’s agreement?

No. Your partner, or the father of the child, has 

no legal rights. You can go ahead with an abortion 

without your partner’s knowledge or agreement. 

Where partners have tried to prevent an abortion 

by legal action they have failed. 

How long will I have to wait?

Waiting times vary according to where you live. 

Once a referral has been made by your GP or NHS 

clinic, or you have contacted a private clinic directly:

O

  You should be offered an appointment for your 



first consultation within five working days. This is 

to confirm your pregnancy, discuss your eligibility 

to have an abortion and to assess whether any 

other procedures are necessary, for example 

sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing and 

treatment.

O

   The abortion should be carried out within five 



working days of the decision to go ahead being 

agreed.


O

  You should not have to wait more than two 

weeks from your first referral to the time of your 

abortion.

You should be seen as soon as possible if you need 

an abortion for urgent medical reasons. Sometimes 

women with medical problems may have to wait 

longer as they may need more specialist advice. 

Where will my abortion take place?

Abortions are carried out in either NHS hospitals or 

specialist clinics that are licensed and approved. 

What will happen before I have an 

abortion?

For most women, having an abortion will involve 

at least two separate visits – the first is for an 

assessment, the second is to carry out the abortion 

procedure. The abortion is generally a day-care 

procedure that does not involve an overnight stay. 

During your first appointment you should be given: 


7

O

  an opportunity to talk things through and offered 



extra support, including counselling if you want it, 

to help you make your decision

O

   information about the different methods of 



abortion, which is suitable for your stage of 

pregnancy and where the abortion will be carried 

out 

O

   information about what to expect during and 



after the abortion 

O

   information about any possible risks or 



complications relating to the abortion 

O

   a blood test to check your blood group and for 



anaemia 

O

  a consent form to say you agree to the abortion 



and the procedure being chosen. 

The doctor or nurse will ask you questions about 

your medical history to ensure that you are offered 

a suitable abortion method and they will ask you 

about your sexual history to check whether you 

should be tested for chlamydia or other sexually 

transmitted infections. To prevent the possibility of 

any infection occurring after the abortion you will 

normally be given some antibiotics. 

You may: 

O

   need to have an ultrasound scan to check your 



pregnancy dates (some women ask not to see 

the scan picture, some prefer to see it). This 

scan should not be carried out in antenatal 

settings where you would meet women who are 

continuing their pregnancies 

O

  need to have a vaginal examination 



O

   be offered a cervical screening test if you have 

not had one within the last three years. 

You should be offered a chance to talk about 

contraception and discuss which method you would 

like to use after the abortion. Sometimes the clinic 

can provide you with your chosen method or if they 

cannot they will tell you where you can get it. 



8

What does an abortion involve?

There are different abortion procedures and the 

method used depends on how long you have been 

pregnant. An abortion service should ideally be able 

to offer you a choice of abortion methods, although 

this may not always be possible. 

Medical abortion



Early medical abortion (up to nine weeks 

of pregnancy)

Early medical abortion (sometimes called EMA) 

involves taking drugs to cause an early miscarriage. It 

does not involve surgery or an anaesthetic and you will 

need three appointments. The first is an assessment - 

the abortion will not be carried out at this visit. You will 

need two more appointments on two separate days. 

You should be able to carry out your usual activities 

between appointments.

At the second appointment, you will be given a 

tablet (called mifepristone) to swallow. This blocks 

the pregnancy hormone that is necessary for the 

pregnancy to continue. It is very unlikely that the 

abortion will happen after taking only the mifepristone, 

but very occasionally it can happen. Some women 

change their mind about the abortion after they have 

taken mifepristone. Although studies so far do not 

show that mifepristone is associated with any risks of 

fetal abnormality, women are advised to continue with 

the abortion once they have taken mifepristone. You 

will be given a 24-hour contact telephone number in 

case you are worried or would like to talk to someone 

at any time.

At the third visit (one or two days later) you will 

be given prostaglandin tablets, (called misoprostol or 

gemeprost). Misoprostol can be used in the vagina 

or taken by mouth; gemeprost can only be used in 

the vagina. This causes the uterus (womb) lining to 

break down and you will start to bleed. You may feel 

cramping pains similar to period pains; you will be 

offered pain-relieving drugs. The pregnancy is lost 

with the bleeding just like a miscarriage. This normally 

happens 4-6 hours after using the prostaglandin tablets.


9

Medical abortion after 9 weeks

The drugs used for early medical abortion are also 

used for abortion later in pregnancy. Because the 

abortion is being carried out later in the pregnancy 

it may take longer, and higher and repeat doses of 

prostaglandin may need to be used along with pain 

relieving drugs. The abortion is like having a late 

miscarriage and is usually completed in time for you 

to return home on the same day, but sometimes it 

is necessary to stay overnight, particularly when the 

abortion is carried out later in the pregnancy.

Surgical abortion



Vacuum aspiration from 7-15 weeks of 

pregnancy

Vacuum aspiration (sometimes called suction 

abortion) involves a small tube being inserted into 

the vagina, through the cervix (entrance to the 

uterus) and into the uterus to remove the pregnancy 

by suction. To make this easier, tablets containing 

misoprostol are sometimes inserted into the vagina 

before the procedure is carried out to help soften 

the cervix. To reduce any discomfort or pain during 

the abortion there is a choice of pain relief. A local 

anaesthetic can be injected into the cervix or you 

can have a light general anaesthetic so you are 

asleep during the procedure. Some women choose 

conscious sedation - drugs that make you sleepy but 

you stay conscious during the abortion procedure - 

you won’t remember everything that happens during 

the abortion. Vacuum aspiration takes about 5-10 

minutes. You will usually go home on the same day, a 

few hours after the abortion has been carried out.

Surgical dilation and evacuation (D&E) 

from 15 weeks of pregnancy

This method is usually carried out under general 

anaesthetic. The cervix is gently stretched and 

opened (known as dilation) to allow special forceps 

to remove the pregnancy in fragments. Remaining 

tissue is removed by suction as in vacuum aspiration. 

This takes 10-20 minutes. You may be able to return 


10

home on the same day if you are healthy and there 

are no complications.

Abortion after 21 weeks

Abortion at this stage is not common. It involves 

either the surgical dilation and evacuation method, 

or medical abortion. Whichever method is used, a 

doctor will ensure the heart of the fetus is stopped 

so it is not born alive. The procedure takes time 

and you will have to stay in the hospital or clinic, 

sometimes overnight. Having a late medical abortion 

will involve you going through what is similar to 

labour to deliver the fetus.

For more information on having an anaesthetic, 

talk to your doctor. 

Is abortion painful?

Whatever method of abortion is chosen, you will 

have some period-type pain or discomfort. The later 

the abortion the more painful it might be. You will 

always be offered and advised about appropriate 

pain relief for this. 

Is abortion safe?

Yes. For most women an abortion is safer than 

having a baby. Abortion is not entirely risk-free, but 

problems are less likely to occur when abortion is 

performed early in pregnancy, when local anaesthetic 

is used and steps are taken to reduce any infection 

after the abortion. You will be told about any 

possible complications relating to the type of 

abortion you have.

Are there risks at the time of the 

abortion?

Problems at the time of the abortion are not very 

common and are less likely to occur when the 

abortion is carried out in early pregnancy and when 

an experienced doctor performs it.

O

  Excessive bleeding (haemorrhage) happens 



in around one in every 1,000 abortions; this 

increases to four in 1,000 abortions carried out 



11

after 20 weeks.

O

   Damage to the cervix happens in less than 10 in 



every 1,000 surgical abortions. 

O

   Damage to the uterus happens in up to four in 



every 1,000 surgical abortions. 

O

  Damage to the uterus happens in less than one in 



every 1,000 medical abortions carried out after 

12 weeks of pregnancy.

Should complications occur, further treatment such 

as a blood transfusion or surgery may be required.

O

  All methods of early abortion carry a small risk 



of failure to end the pregnancy and a further 

procedure will need to be carried out. This is 

uncommon and occurs in fewer than one in 100 

women.


Are there risks after the abortion?

Most women have no problems after an abortion. 

Of those who do, infection is the most common 

problem. Usually this is caused by a pre-existing 

infection. You are most likely to get an infection in the 

two weeks after the abortion. Taking antibiotics at 

the time of the abortion helps to reduce this risk. 

Most infections are easy to treat. If not treated, 

you could get a more severe infection of the 

reproductive organs, known as pelvic inflammatory 

disease (PID) which could lead to infertility in the 

future and ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy that 

develops outside the uterus, usually in the fallopian 

tube – the tube that the egg travels down from 

the ovary to the uterus). Ectopic pregnancy can be 

dangerous. 

In some cases the abortion may fail to remove 

the pregnancy (see Are there risks at the time of the 

abortion? on page 10). This is not harmful, as long as 

it is recognised at the time. It just means that you will 

need further treatment.

The doctor or nurse will tell you what symptoms 

to look out for after the abortion. You should see 

your doctor or nurse as soon as possible if you have 

any of the following, as they may be symptoms of an 


12

infection or suggest that the abortion has failed: 

O

   pain in your lower abdomen that does not 



improve with simple pain relief 

O

   unusual vaginal discharge and any vaginal 



discharge that smells unpleasant 

O

  persistent bleeding 



O

  feeling unwell 

O

  a high temperature or fever 



O

  ongoing pregnancy symptoms (such as nausea or 

sore breasts). 

What happens after my abortion? 

You should be offered: 

O

  Written information telling you what you are 



likely to experience, for example what bleeding to 

expect and how long it might last. 

O

  A 24-hour telephone helpline number for advice 



on any problem or worry. 

O

  The opportunity to discuss future contraception, 



get supplies or have your chosen method fitted.

O

   An anti-D immunoglobulin injection if your blood 



group is rhesus negative. This will help prevent 

problems in any future pregnancy. This should be 

given within 72 hours of the abortion. 

O

   A follow-up appointment if you wish within 



two weeks of the abortion. This is particularly 

important after early medical abortion to check 

the abortion is complete.

O

   An opportunity to go back and talk about any 



worries or concerns, or to talk about your 

feelings about the abortion if you are finding the 

experience difficult or distressing. See How will I 

feel? below. 

How will I feel?

A woman can experience many feelings after an 

abortion. 

You may feel relieved or feel sad or you may have 

mixed feelings. These are natural reactions. Only a 

few women experience any long-term psychological 



13

problems and those women who do often had 

similar problems before pregnancy. A lot depends 

on the circumstances and reasons for having the 

abortion and how comfortable you are with the 

decision. It is always important to seek help and 

support if you are feeling distressed about having 

had an abortion. 

You can talk to: 

O

  your doctor or practice nurse



O

  a doctor or nurse at your contraception or sexual 

health clinic 

O

  FPA’s counselling service (Northern Ireland only - 



0845 122 8687). 

What happens to the fetal tissue 

after the abortion?

All tissue from the abortion is disposed of in a 

sensitive way. If you have a specific request about 

how you would like the fetal tissue to be disposed of, 

you will need to talk about this with your healthcare 

team at the hospital or clinic where you are having 

your abortion. This should be done before you have 

your abortion. 

How long will I bleed for after the 

abortion? 

Bleeding after abortion is normal. How long you 

bleed for after the abortion depends on the 

abortion method. Bleeding can vary, some women 

bleed for long periods of time and some do not 

have much bleeding at all. Bleeding after medical 

abortion can last for several weeks – this might be 

spotting or heavy. Bleeding after surgical methods 

can last for about two weeks - this might be spotting 

or heavy. If you have very heavy bleeding you should 

seek advice straightaway. 

If you do not have a period within 4–6 weeks of 

the abortion see your doctor or clinic as sometimes 

the pregnancy can continue. This is uncommon. 


14

Does abortion cause breast cancer?

No. Research shows that having an abortion does 

not increase your risk of developing breast cancer. 

Will abortion affect my chances of 

having a baby in the future?

Having an abortion will not affect your chances of 

having a baby in the future if there are no problems 

with the abortion, such as injury to the uterus or 

cervix, or serious infection. These problems are not 

common. There is some evidence that if you have 

had an abortion there may be a small increased risk 

of premature birth if you get pregnant again. 

How soon after abortion should I 

start using contraception?

Normal fertility returns immediately after having an 

abortion. If you do not want to become pregnant 

you should start to use contraception immediately 

after the abortion. All methods of contraception can 

be used at this time. If you start your contraception 

immediately you will be protected against pregnancy 

straightaway. The clinic should be able to give you 

information and advice about contraception and 

provide your chosen method.

Where can I get more information 

and advice?

The Sexual Health Information Line provides 

confidential advice and information on all aspects of 

sexual health. The number is 0300 123 7123 and the 

service is available from Monday to Friday from 9am 

- 8pm and at weekends from 11am - 4pm.

For additional information on sexual health visit 

www.fpa.org.uk

Information for young people can be found at 

www.brook.org.uk

Clinics 


To locate your closest clinic you can:

O

  Use Find a Clinic at www.fpa.org.uk/clinics



15

O

  Download FPA’s Find a Clinic app for iPhone or 



Android.

You can find details of general practices and 

pharmacies in England at www.nhs.uk and in Wales 

at www.nhsdirect.wales.nhs.uk. In Scotland you can 

find details of general practices at www.nhs.24.com 

and in Northern Ireland at www.hscni.net

Emergency contraception

If you have had sex without contraception, or think 

your method might have failed there are different 

types of emergency contraception you can use.

O

  The emergency contraceptive pill, Levonelle – can 



be taken up to three days (72 hours) after sex. It 

is more effective the earlier it is taken after sex. It 

is available with a prescription or to buy from a 

pharmacy. 

O

  The emergency contraceptive pill, ellaOne – can 



be taken up to five days (120 hours) after sex. It 

is only available with a prescription. 

O

   An IUD – can be fitted up to five days after sex, 



or up to five days after the earliest time you could 

have released an egg (ovulation). 

Ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist about getting 

emergency pills in advance, just in case you need 

them.

Sexually transmitted infections



Most methods of contraception do not protect you 

from sexually transmitted infections. 

Male and female condoms, when used correctly 

and consistently, can help protect against sexually 

transmitted infections. If you can, avoid using 

spermicidally lubricated condoms. The spermicide 

commonly contains a chemical called Nonoxinol 9, 

which does not protect against HIV and may even 

increase the risk of infection. 


A final word 

This booklet can only give you general information. The 

information is based on the Royal College of Obstetricians 

and Gynaecologists (RCOG) evidence-based Clinical 

Guideline Number 7, 2011: The Care of Women Requesting 

Induced Abortion.

Remember - contact your doctor, practice nurse or a 

sexual health clinic if you are worried or unsure about 

anything.

Ref:

 1036


www.fpa.org.uk

The Sexual Health Line is provided by the Department of Health. This 

booklet is produced by the sexual health charity FPA, registered charity 

number 250187. Limited liability company registered in England, number 

887632. FPA does not run the Sexual Health Line.

© FPA June 2014. Reprinted June 2015. 

© Crown Copyright Public Health England. 

ISBN 978-1-908249-77-7

The information in this booklet was accurate at the 

time of going to print. Booklets are reviewed regularly. 

Next edition available in 2016.

If you would like the information on the evidence used 

to produce this booklet or would like to provide us with 

feedback about this booklet email feedback@fpa.org.uk





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