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Methods of Abortion


Updated May 20, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Methods of Abortion
Photo Courtesy of Adam Crowley/Getty Images
An abortion is a procedure that ends pregnancy. Abortion is the most common surgical procedure performed for women in the U.S., it is also the most stigmatized. There are both medical and surgical methods of abortion. Abortions can be performed throughout a pregnancy. What stage you are in a pregnancy determines which methods of abortion are used. Typically, second-trimester abortions tend to carry higher risks than first-trimester ones. Despite popular belief, it is also important to note that the American Psychological Association has found that there is no evidence that a single abortion will cause mental health issues.

Medical vs. Surgical Methods of Abortion:

Both medical and surgical methods of abortion are available, yet they differ at each stage of pregnancy. A medical abortion is an early abortion option. It uses medication to end the pregnancy. Medical abortion is FDA approved for use up to 49 days after the first day of your last menstrual period (7 weeks pregnant). The alternative to medical abortion is surgical abortion, which terminates a pregnancy by emptying the uterus with special instruments. Typically, once a pregnancy is past 7 weeks, only surgical abortion methods can be used.

Early Methods of Abortion:

There are three early abortion options that can effectively and safely terminate a pregnancy. These methods of abortion can be performed during the first trimester of your pregnancy (1-12 weeks).

  • RU486 (The Abortion Pill): this method of abortion can be used as soon as a pregnancy is confirmed. RU486 (brand name Mifeprex) has been widely, safely, and effectively used in France, Sweden and Great Britain for years. The abortion pill is FDA-approved for women up to 7 weeks pregnant (5 weeks since conception) or up to 49 days after one's last menstrual period. Typically, a second medication, misoprostol, is given 48 hours after the Mifeprex. RU486 effectively terminates a pregnancy (allowing a woman to completely pass the pregnancy) without surgery.

  • Manual Vacuum Aspiration: the manual vacuum aspiration is available as a method of abortion 5 to 12 weeks after your last menstrual period. During the aspiration procedure, a hand-held syringe is used to generate suction. It only takes a few minutes, has a quick recovery and a very high success rate.

  • Machine Vacuum Aspiration: the machine vacuum aspiration is another method of abortion that can be performed 5 to 12 weeks after your last menstrual period. Before this procedure, your cervix will probably need to be dilated (opened). During the machine vacuum aspiration, a pump is used to create a gentle vacuum that suctions the tissue out of the uterus. The machine aspiration method of abortion is done quickly, safely and effectively in a regular medical office or clinic.

Dilation and Curettage (D&C):

Dilation and Curettage (D&C) is a surgical procedure often used to diagnose or treat abnormal uterine bleeding. A D&C may be necessary after a vacuum aspiration abortion procedure. During a D&C, a curette (a spoon-shaped instrument) is used to scrape the uterine walls. Because there are more non-invasive methods of abortion now available, D&C use has been declining.

Dilation and Evacuation (D&E):

Dilation and Evacuation (D&E) is a surgical procedure to terminate a pregnancy. A D&E is usually performed during the second trimester of a pregnancy (typically 13 to 24 weeks). This method of abortion takes about 30 minutes and usually includes a combination of vacuum aspiration, dilation and curettage, and the use of surgical instruments (such as forceps).

Induction Abortion:

Induction Abortion is a procedure that is performed to end a second- or third-trimester pregnancy. This method of abortion is usually only used if there is a medical problem or illness present in the fetus or the pregnant woman. During an induction abortion, a woman will be given medications that trigger the start of contractions and will undergo all the steps of delivery and childbirth.

Intact Dilation and Extraction (D&X):

Intact Dilation and Extraction (D&X) is a late-term abortion procedure. The intact dilation and extraction is performed after 21 weeks of pregnancy. This late-term method of abortion results in the extraction of an intact fetus and is perhaps the most controversial of all the abortion procedures. The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act only allows for the use of intact D&X if it is necessary to save a mother's life.


Paul, M. (1999). A clinician's guide to medical and surgical abortion. New York: Churchill Livingstone.

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