Everything you need to know about how to get an abortion

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Whether you've had an unexpected pregnancy yourself or supported a friend through one, you might well have Googled 'how to get an abortion' at some point.

But with so much information out there, it can be overwhelming. Particularly when you're dealing with a stressful situation already. Whether you're deciding between a surgical abortion or abortion pills, looking for your nearest abortion clinic or are simply wondering how you even begin to organise the whole thing, we've spoken to the experts at BPAS and MSI Reproductive Choices to talk you through exactly how to plan an abortion, and what to expect during each step of the way:

How to get an abortion in the UK

In England, Scotland and Wales, abortion is legally available before 24 weeks of pregnancy (or later in some very specific circumstances, such as the mother's life being at risk), as written in the 1967 Abortion Act. Abortions can be carried out in an NHS hospital, a licensed clinic or at home via telemedicine and are usually available free of charge on the NHS.

Abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019. It came into effect in 2020 and the law now states that women and girls can get an abortion up to 12 weeks. Abortions can also be carried out in Northern Ireland up to 24 weeks in cases where there is a risk to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl.

How to get an abortion

For those living in England, Scotland or Wales, there are three main ways to get an abortion on the NHS:

  1. Contact an abortion provider directly. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), MSI Reproductive Choices and the National Unplanned Pregnancy Advisory Service (NUPAS) can tell you about eligibility and services in your area

  2. Book an appointment with your GP, who can arrange an appointment with an abortion service

  3. Visit a contraception clinic, family planning clinic, or contraception and sexual health clinic and ask to be referred

From here, you will be given a consultation, where a specialist will talk you through the process and explain aftercare. Most women will have an abortion within two weeks of their initial appointment.

If you wish to go private and pay for the procedure, you can; however, costs vary depending on the clinic.

What are the different types of abortion?

There are two kinds of abortion: surgical, and medical (also sometimes referred to as 'abortion pills').

MSI Reproductive Choices’ associate clinical director Sarah Salkeld tells Cosmopolitan UK: “The method that’s right for each person will depend on their gestation (how many weeks pregnant they are), a review of their medical history, and their personal choice.”

Medical abortion (the abortion pill)

“Medical abortion involves taking two types of pills, which can be taken in the clinic or at home,” Salkeld explains. “The first is called mifepristone. It stops the pregnancy from growing by blocking the hormone progesterone.

“The second medication is called misoprostol. This softens and opens the cervix and causes the womb to contract, causing cramping and bleeding, similar to an early miscarriage.”

You can expect to experience strong cramps and bleeding after taking the second pill. However, you will be given painkillers to help you feel more comfortable. The abortion will usually begin within two to five hours and is usually fully complete within one to two days.

“At MSI Reproductive Choices, medical abortion is available up to nine weeks and six days of pregnancy,” says Salkeld.

Both BPAS and NUPAS also offer medical abortion pills.

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Surgical abortion

“Surgical abortion involves the pregnancy being removed by an experienced doctor, using suction or a method called dilatation and evacuation to gently open the cervix and remove the pregnancy,” says Salkeld. “MSI Reproductive Choices, surgical abortion is available up to 23 weeks and six days of pregnancy.”

BPAS also carries out the surgical abortion up to 24 weeks, while NUPAS offers this procedure up to 18 weeks. However, if you do not wish to use general anaesthetic, some clinics will offer the procedure under local anaesthetic up to 14 weeks.

How will getting an abortion affect my body?

Everyone is different, and the effects of the procedure will depend on whether you choose a medical or surgical abortion. "You will be given advice by the healthcare team looking after you, but you can usually start your usual activities, such as exercising and swimming when you feel ready. Bleeding can take a few weeks to settle, especially after medical abortion," says Salkeld.

According to the NHS, most women won't experience any problems, but there is a small risk of complications, such as:

  • Infection of the womb – occurs in up to 1 in every 10 abortions

  • Some of the pregnancy remaining in the womb – occurs in up to 1 in every 20 abortions

  • Excessive bleeding – occurs in about 1 in every 1,000 abortions

  • Damage to the entrance of the womb (cervix) – occurs in up to 1 in every 100 surgical abortions

  • Damage to the womb – occurs in 1 in every 250 to 1,000 surgical abortions and less than 1 in 1,000 medical abortions carried out at 12 to 24 weeks

Having an abortion should not affect your chances of becoming pregnant again.

Do I need someone to accompany me to get an abortion?

Not necessarily, although you may feel comforted by company, and patients are encouraged to bring someone with them if they feel comfortable doing so. Katherine O’Brien, associate director of communications and campaigns at BPAS, tells Cosmopolitan UK: “Most women we see will bring a friend, family member, or their partner on the day, but it is not compulsory.

“During the course of the treatment, all women will be seen by healthcare professionals on their own so that we can ensure that they are not under any pressure and that they are making the choice that is right for them.

“If a woman is having a surgical abortion, they must have someone to accompany them after their treatment. This is to ensure they get home safely.”

Can women under the age of 18 get an abortion?

Yes, and your medical record will not be shared. O’Brien says, “Women and girls can have an abortion at any age as long as they understand the procedure and are certain of their decision.

“Parental consent is not required, and our staff would not share a client’s information without their permission unless the client or someone else was at risk of serious harm. This applies to women at all ages.”

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What aftercare is offered following an abortion?

Most women can expect to have one or two days off work to recover following an abortion. Patients are encouraged to seek any help they may need following a procedure, and this is offered at all clinics and surgeries.

O’Brien explains: “Our telephone aftercare service is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (you can contact BPAS on 03457 30 40 30). We can also provide counselling either in person or over the phone, although most women do not feel this is necessary."

Similarly, MSI Reproductive Choices will support patients following the procedure. “Recovery time after an abortion will be different for everyone, but people usually feel better within a few days,” Salkeld explains. “The abortion clinic will provide aftercare information and advice such as being at home in comfy clothing, and when to use pain relief.

“If anyone feels like they need any support – either physical or emotional – we’re here to help. You can call our 24-hour aftercare line on 0345 122 1441 and talk to one of our nurses.”

For more help with abortion information, visit msichoices.org.uk or bpas.org

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