Abortion is the ending of a pregnancy by removal or expulsion of an embryo or fetus before it can survive outside the uterus. An abortion that occurs without intervention is known as a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion. When deliberate steps are taken to end a pregnancy, it is called an induced abortion, or less frequently "induced miscarriage". The unmodified word abortion generally refers to an induced abortion. A similar procedure after the fetus has potential to survive outside the womb is known as a "late termination of pregnancy" or less accurately as a "late term abortion".
When properly done, abortion is one of the safest procedures in medicine, but unsafe abortion is a major cause of maternal death, especially in the developing world. Making safe abortion legal and accessible reduces maternal deaths. It is safer than childbirth, which has a 14 times higher risk of death in the United States. Modern methods use medication or surgery for abortions. The drug mifepristone in combination with prostaglandin appears to be as safe and effective as surgery during the first and second trimester of pregnancy. The most common surgical technique involves dilating the cervix and using a suction device. Birth control, such as the pill or intrauterine devices, can be used immediately following abortion. When performed legally and safely on a woman who desires it, induced abortions do not increase the risk of long-term mental or physical problems. In contrast, unsafe abortions (those performed by unskilled individuals, with hazardous equipment, or in unsanitary facilities) cause 47,000 deaths and 5 million hospital admissions each year. The World Health Organization recommends safe and legal abortions be available to all women.
Around 56 million abortions are performed each year in the world, with about 45% done unsafely. Abortion rates changed little between 2003 and 2008, before which they decreased for at least two decades as access to family planning and birth control increased. As of 2008, 40% of the world's women had access to legal abortions without limits as to reason. Countries that permit abortions have different limits on how late in pregnancy abortion is allowed.
Historically, abortions have been attempted using herbal medicines, sharp tools, forceful massage, or through other traditional methods. Abortion laws and cultural or religious views of abortions are different around the world. In some areas abortion is legal only in specific cases such as rape, problems with the fetus, poverty, risk to a woman's health, or incest. There is debate over the moral, ethical, and legal issues of abortion. Those who oppose abortion often argue that an embryo or fetus is a human with a right to life, and they may compare abortion to murder. Those who support the legality of abortion often hold that it is part of a woman's right to make decisions about her own body. Others favor legal and accessible abortion as a public health measure.
An induced abortion may be classified as therapeutic (done in response to a health condition of the women or fetus) or elective (chosen for other reasons).
Approximately 205 million pregnancies occur each year worldwide.
Reasons for procuring induced abortions are typically characterized as either therapeutic or elective.
Miscarriage, also known as spontaneous abortion, is the unintentional expulsion of an embryo or fetus before the 24th week of gestation. A pregnancy that ends before 37 weeks of gestation resulting in a live-born infant is a "premature birth" or a "preterm birth". When a fetus dies in utero after viability, or during delivery, it is usually termed "stillborn". Premature births and stillbirths are generally not considered to be miscarriages although usage of these terms can sometimes overlap.
Only 30% to 50% of conceptions progress past the first trimester. The vast majority of those that do not progress are lost before the woman is aware of the conception, and many pregnancies are lost before medical practitioners can detect an embryo. Between 15% and 30% of known pregnancies end in clinically apparent miscarriage, depending upon the age and health of the pregnant woman. 80% of these spontaneous abortions happen in the first trimester.
The most common cause of spontaneous abortion during the first trimester is chromosomal abnormalities of the embryo or fetus, accounting for at least 50% of sampled early pregnancy losses. Other causes include vascular disease (such as lupus), diabetes, other hormonal problems, infection, and abnormalities of the uterus. Advancing maternal age and a woman's history of previous spontaneous abortions are the two leading factors associated with a greater risk of spontaneous abortion. A spontaneous abortion can also be caused by accidental trauma; intentional trauma or stress to cause miscarriage is considered induced abortion or feticide.
Medical abortions are those induced by abortifacient pharmaceuticals. Medical abortion became an alternative method of abortion with the availability of prostaglandin analogs in the 1970s and the antiprogestogen mifepristone (also known as RU-486) in the 1980s.
The most common early first-trimester medical abortion regimens use mifepristone in combination with misoprostol (or sometimes another prostaglandin analog, gemeprost) up to 10 weeks (70 days) gestational age, methotrexate in combination with a prostaglandin analog up to 7 weeks gestation, or a prostaglandin analog alone. Mifepristone–misoprostol combination regimens work faster and are more effective at later gestational ages than methotrexate–misoprostol combination regimens, and combination regimens are more effective than misoprostol alone. This regime is effective in the second trimester. Medical abortion regiments involving mifepristone followed by misoprostol in the cheek between 24 and 48 hours later are effective when performed before 70 days' gestation.
In very early abortions, up to 7 weeks gestation, medical abortion using a mifepristone–misoprostol combination regimen is considered to be more effective than surgical abortion (vacuum aspiration), especially when clinical practice does not include detailed inspection of aspirated tissue. Early medical abortion regimens using mifepristone, followed 24–48 hours later by buccal or vaginal misoprostol are 98% effective up to 9 weeks gestational age; from 9 to 10 weeks efficacy decreases modestly to 94%. If medical abortion fails, surgical abortion must be used to complete the procedure.
Early medical abortions account for the majority of abortions before 9 weeks gestation in Britain, France, Switzerland, and the Nordic countries. In the United States, the percentage of early medical abortions performed in non-hospital facilities is 31% as of 2014.
Medical abortion regimens using mifepristone in combination with a prostaglandin analog are the most common methods used for second-trimester abortions in Canada, most of Europe, China and India, in contrast to the United States where 96% of second-trimester abortions are performed surgically by dilation and evacuation.
Up to 15 weeks' gestation, suction-aspiration or vacuum aspiration are the most common surgical methods of induced abortion. Manual vacuum aspiration (MVA) consists of removing the fetus or embryo, placenta, and membranes by suction using a manual syringe, while electric vacuum aspiration (EVA) uses an electric pump. These techniques can both be used very early in pregnancy. MVA can be used up to 14 weeks but is more often used earlier in the U.S. EVA can be used later.
MVA, also known as "mini-suction" and "menstrual extraction" or EVA can be used in very early pregnancy when cervical dilation may not be required. Dilation and curettage (D&C) refers to opening the cervix (dilation) and removing tissue (curettage) via suction or sharp instruments. D&C is a standard gynecological procedure performed for a variety of reasons, including examination of the uterine lining for possible malignancy, investigation of abnormal bleeding, and abortion. The World Health Organization recommends sharp curettage only when suction aspiration is unavailable.
Dilation and evacuation (D&E), used after 12 to 16 weeks, consists of opening the cervix and emptying the uterus using surgical instruments and suction. D&E is performed vaginally and does not require an incision. Intact dilation and extraction (D&X) refers to a variant of D&E sometimes used after 18 to 20 weeks when removal of an intact fetus improves surgical safety or for other reasons.
Abortion may also be performed surgically by hysterotomy or gravid hysterectomy.
In places lacking the necessary medical skill for dilation and extraction, or where preferred by practitioners, an abortion can be induced by first inducing labor and then inducing fetal demise if necessary. This is sometimes called "induced miscarriage". This procedure may be performed from 13 weeks gestation to the third trimester. Although it is very uncommon in the United States, more than 80% of induced abortions throughout the second trimester are labor-induced abortions in Sweden and other nearby countries.
Only limited data are available comparing this method with dilation and extraction. Unlike D&E, labor-induced abortions after 18 weeks may be complicated by the occurrence of brief fetal survival, which may be legally characterized as live birth.
In 1978 one woman in Colorado died and another was seriously injured when they attempted to procure an abortion by taking pennyroyal oil. Because the indiscriminant use of herbs as abortifacients can cause serious—even lethal—side effects, such as multiple organ failure, such use is not recommended by physicians.
Abortion is sometimes attempted by causing trauma to the abdomen.
Reported methods of unsafe, self-induced abortion include misuse of misoprostol and insertion of non-surgical implements such as knitting needles and clothes hangers into the uterus. These and other methods to terminate pregnancy may be called "induced miscarriage". Such methods are rarely used in countries where surgical abortion is legal and available.
The health risks of abortion depend principally upon whether the procedure is performed safely or unsafely.
Vacuum aspiration in the first trimester is the safest method of surgical abortion, and can be performed in a primary care office, abortion clinic, or hospital. Complications, which are rare, can include uterine perforation, pelvic infection, and retained products of conception requiring a second procedure to evacuate. Infections account for one-third of abortion-related deaths in the United States. The rate of complications of vacuum aspiration abortion in the first trimester is similar regardless of whether the procedure is performed in a hospital, surgical center, or office. Preventive antibiotics (such as doxycycline or metronidazole) are typically given before abortion procedures, as they are believed to substantially reduce the risk of postoperative uterine infection; however, antibiotics are not routinely given with abortion pills. The rate of failed procedures does not appear to vary significantly depending on whether the abortion is performed by a doctor or a mid-level practitioner. Complications after second-trimester abortion are similar to those after first-trimester abortion, and depend somewhat on the method chosen. Second-trimester abortions are generally well-tolerated.
There is little difference in terms of safety and efficacy between medical abortion using a combined regimen of mifepristone and misoprostol and surgical abortion (vacuum aspiration) in early first trimester abortions up to 10 weeks gestation. Medical abortion using the prostaglandin analog misoprostol alone is less effective and more painful than medical abortion using a combined regimen of mifepristone and misoprostol or surgical abortion.
Some purported risks of abortion are promoted primarily by anti-abortion groups, but lack scientific support. For example, the question of a link between induced abortion and breast cancer has been investigated extensively. Major medical and scientific bodies (including the World Health Organization, National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society, Royal College of OBGYN and American Congress of OBGYN) have concluded that abortion does not cause breast cancer.
In the past even illegality has not automatically meant that the abortions were unsafe.
Authors Jerome Bates and Edward Zawadzki describe the case of an illegal abortionist in the eastern U.S. in the early 20th century who was proud of having successfully completed 13,844 abortions without any fatality.Cri]] Frederick J. Taussig wrote that a cause of increasing mortality during the years of illegality in the U.S. was that
Current evidence finds no relationship between most induced abortions and mental-health problems other than those expected for any unwanted pregnancy. A report by the American Psychological Association concluded that a woman's first abortion is not a threat to mental health when carried out in the first trimester, with such women no more likely to have mental-health problems than those carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term; the mental-health outcome of a woman's second or greater abortion is less certain. Some older reviews concluded that abortion was associated with an increased risk of psychological problems; however, they did not use an appropriate control group.
Although some studies show negative mental-health outcomes in women who choose abortions after the first trimester because of fetal abnormalities, more rigorous research would be needed to show this conclusively. Some proposed negative psychological effects of abortion have been referred to by anti-abortion advocates as a separate condition called "post-abortion syndrome", but this is not recognized by medical or psychological professionals in the United States.
Women seeking an abortion may use unsafe methods, especially when abortion is legally restricted.
Unsafe abortions are a major cause of injury and death among women worldwide.
A major factor in whether abortions are performed safely or not is the legal standing of abortion.
Forty percent of the world's women are able to access therapeutic and elective abortions within gestational limits, while an additional 35 percent have access to legal abortion if they meet certain physical, mental, or socioeconomic criteria. While maternal mortality seldom results from safe abortions, unsafe abortions result in 70,000 deaths and 5 million disabilities per year. Complications of unsafe abortion account for approximately an eighth of maternal mortalities worldwide, though this varies by region. Secondary infertility caused by an unsafe abortion affects an estimated 24 million women. The rate of unsafe abortions has increased from 44% to 49% between 1995 and 2008. Health education, access to family planning, and improvements in health care during and after abortion have been proposed to address this phenomenon.
In 2019, a US Senate Bill entitled the "Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act" raised the issue of live birth after abortion. The bill would mandate that medical providers resuscitate neonates delivered showing signs of life during an abortion process. During the debate around this issue, US Republicans falsely alleged that medical providers "execute" live-born babies. Existing US laws would punish execution as homicide. Furthermore, US abortion experts refute the claim that a "born-alive" fetus is a common event and reject laws that would mandate resuscitation against the wishes of the parents.
Only 1.3% of abortions occur after 21 weeks of pregnancy in the US.
If medical staff observe signs of life, they may be required to provide care: emergency medical care if the child has a good chance of survival and palliative care if not. Induced fetal demise before termination of pregnancy after 20–21 weeks gestation is recommended by some sources to avoid this and to comply with the US Partial Birth Abortion Ban. Induced fetal demise does not improve the safety of an abortion procedure and may incur risks to the health of the woman having the abortion.
There are two commonly used methods of measuring the incidence of abortion:
- Abortion rate – number of abortions per 1000 women between 15 and 44 years of age
- Abortion percentage – number of abortions out of 100 known pregnancies (pregnancies include live births, abortions and miscarriages)
In many places, where abortion is illegal or carries a heavy social stigma, medical reporting of abortion is not reliable. For this reason, estimates of the incidence of abortion must be made without determining certainty related to standard error.
The number of abortions performed worldwide seems to have remained stable in recent years, with 41.6 million having been performed in 2003 and 43.8 million having been performed in 2008. The abortion rate worldwide was 28 per 1000 women, though it was 24 per 1000 women for developed countries and 29 per 1000 women for developing countries. The same 2012 study indicated that in 2008, the estimated abortion percentage of known pregnancies was at 21% worldwide, with 26% in developed countries and 20% in developing countries.
On average, the incidence of abortion is similar in countries with restrictive abortion laws and those with more liberal access to abortion.
The rate of legal, induced abortion varies extensively worldwide.
An American study in 2002 concluded that about half of women having abortions were using a form of contraception at the time of becoming pregnant. Inconsistent use was reported by half of those using condoms and three-quarters of those using the birth control pill; 42% of those using condoms reported failure through slipping or breakage. The Guttmacher Institute estimated that "most abortions in the United States are obtained by minority women" because minority women "have much higher rates of unintended pregnancy".
The abortion rate may also be expressed as the average number of abortions a woman has during her reproductive years; this is referred to as total abortion rate (TAR).
Abortion rates also vary depending on the stage of pregnancy and the method practiced.
The Guttmacher Institute estimated there were 2,200 intact dilation and extraction procedures in the US during 2000; this accounts for <0.2% of the total number of abortions performed that year. Similarly, in England and Wales in 2006, 89% of terminations occurred at or under 12 weeks, 9% between 13 and 19 weeks, and 2% at or over 20 weeks. 64% of those reported were by vacuum aspiration, 6% by D&E, and 30% were medical. There are more second trimester abortions in developing countries such as China, India and Vietnam than in developed countries.
The reasons why women have abortions are diverse and vary across the world. Some of the reasons may include an inability to afford a child, domestic violence, lack of support, feeling they are too young, and the wish to complete education or advance a career. Additional reasons include not being willing to raise a child conceived as a result of rape or incest.
Some abortions are undergone as the result of societal pressures. These might include the preference for children of a specific sex or race, disapproval of single or early motherhood, stigmatization of people with disabilities, insufficient economic support for families, lack of access to or rejection of contraceptive methods, or efforts toward population control (such as China's one-child policy). These factors can sometimes result in compulsory abortion or sex-selective abortion.
An additional factor is risk to maternal or fetal health, which was cited as the primary reason for abortion in over a third of cases in some countries and as a significant factor in only a single-digit percentage of abortions in other countries.
In the U.S., the Supreme Court decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton: "ruled that the state's interest in the life of the fetus became compelling only at the point of viability, defined as the point at which the fetus can survive independently of its mother. Even after the point of viability, the state cannot favor the life of the fetus over the life or health of the pregnant woman. Under the right of privacy, physicians must be free to use their "medical judgment for the preservation of the life or health of the mother." On the same day that the Court decided Roe, it also decided Doe v. Bolton, in which the Court defined health very broadly: "The medical judgment may be exercised in the light of all factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age—relevant to the well-being of the patient. All these factors may relate to health. This allows the attending physician the room he needs to make his best medical judgment."
Public opinion shifted in America following television personality Sherri Finkbine's discovery during her fifth month of pregnancy that she had been exposed to thalidomide. Unable to obtain a legal abortion in the United States, she traveled to Sweden. From 1962 to 1965, an outbreak of German measles left 15,000 babies with severe birth defects. In 1967, the American Medical Association publicly supported liberalization of abortion laws. A National Opinion Research Center poll in 1965 showed 73% supported abortion when the mother's life was at risk, 57% when birth defects were present and 59% for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
The rate of cancer during pregnancy is 0.02–1%, and in many cases, cancer of the mother leads to consideration of abortion to protect the life of the mother, or in response to the potential damage that may occur to the fetus during treatment.
Exposure to a single chemotherapy drug is estimated to cause a 7.5–17% risk of teratogenic effects on the fetus, with higher risks for multiple drug treatments. Treatment with more than 40 Gy of radiation usually causes spontaneous abortion. Exposure to much lower doses during the first trimester, especially 8 to 15 weeks of development, can cause intellectual disability or microcephaly, and exposure at this or subsequent stages can cause reduced intrauterine growth and birth weight. Exposures above 0.005–0.025 Gy cause a dose-dependent reduction in IQ. It is possible to greatly reduce exposure to radiation with abdominal shielding, depending on how far the area to be irradiated is from the fetus.
The process of birth itself may also put the mother at risk.
History and religion
Since ancient times abortions have been done using herbal medicines, sharp tools, with force, or through other traditional methods. Induced abortion has long history and can be traced back to civilizations as varied as China under Shennong (c. 2700 BCE), Ancient Egypt with its Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BCE), and the Roman Empire in the time of Juvenal (c. 200 CE). There is evidence to suggest that pregnancies were terminated through a number of methods, including the administration of abortifacient herbs, the use of sharpened implements, the application of abdominal pressure, and other techniques. One of the earliest known artistic representations of abortion is in a bas relief at Angkor Wat (c. 1150). Found in a series of friezes that represent judgment after death in Hindu and Buddhist culture, it depicts the technique of abdominal abortion.
Some medical scholars and abortion opponents have suggested that the Hippocratic Oath forbade Ancient Greek physicians from performing abortions; other scholars disagree with this interpretation, and state that the medical texts of Hippocratic Corpus contain descriptions of abortive techniques right alongside the Oath. The physician Scribonius Largus wrote in 43 CE that the Hippocratic Oath prohibits abortion, as did Soranus, although apparently not all doctors adhered to it strictly at the time. According to Soranus' 1st or 2nd century CE work Gynaecology, one party of medical practitioners banished all abortives as required by the Hippocratic Oath; the other party—to which he belonged—was willing to prescribe abortions, but only for the sake of the mother's health.
Aristotle, in his treatise on government Politics (350 BCE), condemns infanticide as a means of population control. He preferred abortion in such cases, with the restriction "[that it] must be practised on it before it has developed sensation and life; for the line between lawful and unlawful abortion will be marked by the fact of having sensation and being alive". In Christianity, Pope Sixtus V (1585–90) was the only Pope before 1869 to declare that abortion is homicide regardless of the stage of pregnancy; and his pronouncement of 1588 was reversed three years later by his successor. Through most of its history the Catholic Church was divided on whether it believed that abortion was murder, and it did not begin vigorously opposing abortion until the 19th century. In fact, several historians have written that prior to the 19th century most Catholic authors did not regard termination of pregnancy before "quickening" or "ensoulment" as an abortion.
A 1995 survey reported that Catholic women are as likely as the general population to terminate a pregnancy, Protestants are less likely to do so, and Evangelical Christians are the least likely to do so. Islamic tradition has traditionally permitted abortion until a point in time when Muslims believe the soul enters the fetus, considered by various theologians to be at conception, 40 days after conception, 120 days after conception, or quickening. However, abortion is largely heavily restricted or forbidden in areas of high Islamic faith such as the Middle East and North Africa.
In Europe and North America, abortion techniques advanced starting in the 17th century.
Soviet Russia (1919), Iceland (1935) and Sweden (1938) were among the first countries to legalize certain or all forms of abortion. In 1935 Nazi Germany, a law was passed permitting abortions for those deemed "hereditarily ill", while women considered of German stock were specifically prohibited from having abortions. Beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, abortion was legalized in a greater number of countries.
Society and culture
Induced abortion has long been the source of considerable debate.
In both public and private debate, arguments presented in favor of or against abortion access focus on either the moral permissibility of an induced abortion, or justification of laws permitting or restricting abortion. The World Medical Association Declaration on Therapeutic Abortion notes, "circumstances bringing the interests of a mother into conflict with the interests of her unborn child create a dilemma and raise the question as to whether or not the pregnancy should be deliberately terminated." Abortion debates, especially pertaining to abortion laws, are often spearheaded by groups advocating one of these two positions. Anti-abortion groups who favor greater legal restrictions on abortion, including complete prohibition, most often describe themselves as "pro-life" while abortion rights groups who are against such legal restrictions describe themselves as "pro-choice". Generally, the former position argues that a human fetus is a human person with a right to live, making abortion morally the same as murder. The latter position argues that a woman has certain reproductive rights, especially the right to decide whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term.
Current laws pertaining to abortion are diverse.
In jurisdictions where abortion is legal, certain requirements must often be met before a woman may obtain a safe, legal abortion (an abortion performed without the woman's consent is considered feticide). These requirements usually depend on the age of the fetus, often using a trimester-based system to regulate the window of legality, or as in the U.S., on a doctor's evaluation of the fetus' viability. Some jurisdictions require a waiting period before the procedure, prescribe the distribution of information on fetal development, or require that parents be contacted if their minor daughter requests an abortion. Other jurisdictions may require that a woman obtain the consent of the fetus' father before aborting the fetus, that abortion providers inform women of health risks of the procedure—sometimes including "risks" not supported by the medical literature—and that multiple medical authorities certify that the abortion is either medically or socially necessary. Many restrictions are waived in emergency situations. China, which has ended their one-child policy, and now has a two child policy, has at times incorporated mandatory abortions as part of their population control strategy.
Other jurisdictions ban abortion almost entirely.
The organization Women on Waves, has been providing education about medical abortions since 1999. The NGO created a mobile medical clinic inside a shipping container, which then travels on rented ships to countries with restrictive abortion laws. Because the ships are registered in the Netherlands, Dutch law prevails when the ship is in international waters. While in port, the organization provides free workshops and education; while in international waters, medical personnel are legally able to prescribe medical abortion drugs and counseling.
Sonography and amniocentesis allow parents to determine sex before childbirth. The development of this technology has led to sex-selective abortion, or the termination of a fetus based on sex. The selective termination of a female fetus is most common.
Sex-selective abortion is partially responsible for the noticeable disparities between the birth rates of male and female children in some countries.
Many countries have taken legislative steps to reduce the incidence of sex-selective abortion.
In a number of cases, abortion providers and these facilities have been subjected to various forms of violence, including murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, stalking, assault, arson, and bombing.
In the United States, four physicians who performed abortions have been murdered: David Gunn (1993), John Britton (1994), Barnett Slepian (1998), and George Tiller (2009). Also murdered, in the U.S. and Australia, have been other personnel at abortion clinics, including receptionists and security guards such as James Barrett, Shannon Lowney, Lee Ann Nichols, and Robert Sanderson. Woundings (e.g., Garson Romalis) and attempted murders have also taken place in the United States and Canada. Hundreds of bombings, arsons, acid attacks, invasions, and incidents of vandalism against abortion providers have occurred. Notable perpetrators of anti-abortion violence include Eric Robert Rudolph, Scott Roeder, Shelley Shannon, and Paul Jennings Hill, the first person to be executed in the United States for murdering an abortion provider.
Legal protection of access to abortion has been brought into some countries where abortion is legal. These laws typically seek to protect abortion clinics from obstruction, vandalism, picketing, and other actions, or to protect women and employees of such facilities from threats and harassment.
Far more common than physical violence is psychological pressure.
Spontaneous abortion occurs in various animals.
Viral infection can cause abortion in dogs. Cats can experience spontaneous abortion for many reasons, including hormonal imbalance.
Abortion may also be induced in animals, in the context of animal husbandry. For example, abortion may be induced in mares that have been mated improperly, or that have been purchased by owners who did not realize the mares were pregnant, or that are pregnant with twin foals. Feticide can occur in horses and zebras due to male harassment of pregnant mares or forced copulation, although the frequency in the wild has been questioned. Male gray langur monkeys may attack females following male takeover, causing miscarriage.