An abortion is the medical process of ending a pregnancy so it doesn't result in the birth of a baby.

It's also sometimes known as a termination.

The pregnancy is ended either by taking medications or having a minor surgical procedure.

One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime.

This page covers:

How to get an abortion

When it can be done

Making a decision

What happens

Risks of an abortion

How to get an abortion

Abortions can only be carried out in an NHS hospital or a licensed clinic, and are usually available free of charge on the NHS.

There are three main ways to get an abortion on the NHS:

Waiting times can vary, but you shouldn't have to wait more than two weeks from your initial appointment to having an abortion.

Abortions can also be paid for privately if you prefer. Costs for private abortions vary depending on the stage of pregnancy and the method used to carry out the procedure.

When an abortion can be carried out

Most abortions in England, Wales and Scotland are carried out before 24 weeks of pregnancy.

They can be carried out after 24 weeks in certain circumstances – for example, if the mother's life is at risk or the child would be born with a severe disability.

The length of your pregnancy is calculated from the first day of your last period. If you're not sure how long you've been pregnant, you may need an ultrasound scan to check.

Abortions are simpler and safer the earlier they're carried out. Getting advice early on will give you more time to make a decision if you're unsure.

Deciding to have an abortion

Some women may be certain they want to have an abortion, while others may find it more difficult to make a decision.

The decision to have an abortion is yours alone. But all women requesting an abortion should be offered the opportunity to discuss their options and choices with, and receive support from, a trained pregnancy counsellor.

Impartial information and support is available from:

  • your GP or another doctor at your GP practice
  • counselling service at the abortion clinic
  • organisations such as the FPABrook (for under-25s), BPASMarie Stopes UK and NUPAS – but beware of so-called "crisis pregnancy centres" that claim to provide impartial advice but often do not

You may also want to speak to your partner, friends or family, but you don't need to discuss it with anyone else and they don't have a say in the final decision.

If you don't want to tell anyone, your details will be kept confidential. If you're under 16, your parents don't usually need to be told. Information about an abortion doesn't go on your medical record. 

What happens during an abortion

Before having an abortion, you'll attend an appointment to talk about your decision and what happens next.

Whenever possible, you should be given a choice of how you would like the abortion to be carried out.

There are two options:

  • medical abortion (the "abortion pill") – you take two medications, usually 24 to 48 hours apart, to induce a miscarriage
  • surgical abortion – you have a minor procedure to remove the pregnancy and normally go home soon afterwards

After an abortion, you'll probably need to take things easy for a few days. It's likely you'll experience some discomfort and vaginal bleeding for up to two weeks.

Read more about how an abortion is carried out.

Risks of an abortion

Abortions are safest if they're carried out as early as possible in pregnancy.

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

If complications do occur, further treatment – including surgery – may be required.

Having an abortion won't affect your chances of becoming pregnant again and having normal pregnancies in the future.

In fact, you may be able to get pregnant immediately afterwards and should use contraception if you want to avoid this.

Read more about the risks of abortion.

Page last reviewed: 17/08/2016

Next review due: 17/08/2019