If you find yourself pregnant and do not wish to keep the baby or have it adopted for any reason, you can seek an abortion to bring the pregnancy to an end, otherwise known as a termination of pregnancy. By law in England, Scotland and Wales, this is usually up to 24 weeks, although later in certain exceptional circumstances. The law is more complicated in Northern Ireland.
If you find yourself with a positive pregnancy test and are unsure of your decision, you do not need to rush into things. You can turn to your partner, trusted friends or family. You might wish to discuss with someone outside your circle, so your doctor can be a good source of guidance and can refer you for maternity or abortion services. Alternatively, you can refer yourself to abortion services, and they will have counsellors to talk through your options and the turbulent emotions it can bring up.
An abortion carries less risk the earlier it is carried out. Earlier discussions also allow for more time to think about the right option for you.
An abortion is authorised by two medical practitioners after discussion with you, and the decision to go ahead or not is yours alone – you cannot be forced into it by family members or a partner or spouse, and your partner cannot prevent it. The practitioners will discuss your reasons, and the law is fairly broad: if continuing the pregnancy puts a higher risk to a woman’s mental or physical well-being than continuing the pregnancy, this is acceptable grounds to authorise the abortion.
Abortions are carried out in licensed clinics or NHS hospitals, by a registered medical practitioner, and are free of charge to UK residents.
Medical information is always kept confidential, apart from those who are involved in your care in the clinic and they may let your GP know. It is only breached on the rare occasion that there may be a serious risk to your health or that of others.
You can refer yourself for an abortion, or speak to your GP or a sexual health clinic for them to refer you.
You can still have an abortion if you are aged between 13 and 16. The practitioner involved will encourage you to tell your parent or parents, but if together you decide that proceeding without them knowing is the best way forward, your parents do not need to be informed.
As long as the practitioner feels you understand the information given to you and can use it to weigh up and communicate any decision, you have a right to confidentiality as any adult. The only exception to this is if you may be a danger to yourself or others, or if you may have been the victim of sexual abuse.
An abortion is brought about by either medication or a surgical procedure – your practitioner and you will discuss the best option based on length of pregnancy, other medical conditions and your own preference. Medication is usually preferred for a pregnancy that is less than 10 weeks. You will be given two pills, to be taken 24 to 48 hours apart. If the pregnancy is less than 10 weeks, this can be at home, if 10 to 24 weeks, this will be in a clinic.
Surgery involves a minor procedure in a clinic – if you are less than 14 weeks pregnant, this is usually under local anaesthetic (you are awake throughout). If you are more than 14 weeks, you may be given a sedative (which makes you sleepy) or a general anaesthetic (you are kept asleep).
An abortion is different to the morning-after pill or emergency contraception, where either a contraceptive coil (intrauterine device) is inserted or a tablet is taken to prevent a pregnancy occurring. It prevents a fertilised egg implanting in the womb, and therefore is only effective up to five days after unprotected sex. After this time it is unlikely to have any effect.
Most women recover quickly after an abortion. You are likely to experience some abdominal pain and bleeding afterwards. After a medical abortion, this may be fairly heavy with some clots or tissue passed within hours and up to a few days afterwards – light spotting may continue for a couple of weeks. With a surgical abortion, bleeding is lighter, more like a period, and should finish after one to two weeks. Paracetamol and ibuprofen can help with abdominal cramps.
If you experience excessive or prolonged bleeding, significant abdominal pain or your tummy is sore when you press on it, if you have vaginal discharge or you feel feverish or unwell, contact the clinic or seek urgent medical attention at your local Emergency Department.
Your period is likely to return four to six weeks afterwards. If it’s delayed, take a pregnancy test.
It’s common to feel a whole range of emotions after an abortion: guilt, sadness, relief, regret. It’s important to talk to someone if this feels overwhelming or is preventing you getting on with home or work life – the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has a service to call for counselling post-abortion, and the website provides a reliable source of other information.
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