An abortion is the medical process of ending a pregnancy so it does not result in the birth of a baby.
It is also sometimes known as a 'termination' or a 'termination of pregnancy'.
Depending on how many weeks you have been pregnant, the pregnancy is ended either by taking medication or by having a surgical procedure.
Read more about how an abortion is performed.
An abortion is not the same as a miscarriage, which is where the pregnancy is lost or ends naturally. The loss starts without medical intervention, although medical or surgical treatment may be needed after a miscarriage has started to help empty the womb.
Why an abortion may be needed
There are many reasons why a woman might decide to have an abortion, including:
- personal circumstances – including risk to the wellbeing of existing children
- a health risk to the mother
- a high chance the baby will have a serious abnormality – either genetic or physical
Read more about why an abortion may be necessary.
When an abortion can be carried out
Under UK law, an abortion can usually only be carried out during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy as long as certain criteria are met (see below).
The Abortion Act 1967 covers England, Scotland and Wales but not Northern Ireland, and states:
- abortions must be carried out in a hospital or a specialist licensed clinic
- two doctors must agree that an abortion would cause less damage to a woman's physical or mental health than continuing with the pregnancy
There are also a number of rarer situations when the law states an abortion may be carried out after 24 weeks. These include:
- if it's necessary to save the woman's life
- to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman
- if there is substantial risk that the child would be born with serious physical or mental disabilities
Generally, an abortion should be carried out as early in the pregnancy as possible, usually before 12 weeks and ideally before 9 weeks where possible.
Read more about when an abortion is carried out.
If you want to have an abortion through the NHS, you'll usually need to be referred to a specialist service that deals with abortion.
You can ask your GP to refer you or you can go to your local family planning clinic or genito-urinary medicine (GUM) clinic. Use the post code search facility to find your nearest sexual health clinic.
The law states that any doctor with a moral objection doesn't have to certify a woman for an abortion. But they must recommend another doctor who is willing to help.
Before an abortion can proceed, two doctors must ensure that the requirements of the Abortion Act are fulfilled, and they must both sign the relevant certificate.
This will often – but not always – be your GP and the doctor at the clinic where the abortion will take place.
Although it's often very helpful to talk through the options with your GP or a family planning nurse before being referred, it's possible to refer yourself for an NHS abortion in some parts of the country.
You can self-refer for an NHS-funded abortion by contacting:
Please note that these telephone numbers are not necessarily free to call and can be particularly expensive if called from a mobile.
Funding of NHS abortion services differs in various parts of the country. The level of NHS provision ranges from more than 90% of local demand to less than 60%.
In some areas, the NHS will pay for abortions at private clinics, but in other areas you may need to pay to have an abortion at a private clinic.
You can contact a private abortion clinic without being referred by a doctor. However, the NHS will not usually pay for this, and the agreement of two doctors is still required. The clinic will make the arrangements.
Costs for abortions in private clinics vary and will depend on:
- the stage of pregnancy (earlier abortions are usually less expensive)
- whether an overnight stay is needed
- the method of abortion used
If you are considering having an abortion, it is important to talk to somebody about it as soon as possible.
No clinical procedure is entirely risk free, but abortion poses few risks to a woman's physical health, particularly when carried out as early as possible in the pregnancy (preferably during the first 12 weeks).
Having an abortion will not usually affect your chances of becoming pregnant and having normal pregnancies in future.
The risk of problems occurring during an abortion is low. However, there are more likely to be problems if an abortion is carried out later in a pregnancy.
The risks associated with abortions are:
- haemorrhage (excessive bleeding) – occurs in about one in every 1,000 abortions
- damage to the cervix (the entrance of the womb) – occurs in no more than 10 in every 1,000 abortions
- damage to the womb – occurs in up to four in every 1,000 abortions during surgical abortion, and less than one in 1,000 medical abortions that are carried out at 12-24 weeks
Read more about the risks of abortion.
There are many reasons why a woman might decide to have an abortion, including personal circumstances or a health risk to the mother or baby
Women vary greatly in their emotional response to having an abortion. You may experience a number of different feelings and emotions.
If you need to discuss how you are feeling, you can contact a post-abortion counselling service such as CareConfidential, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Marie Stopes UK, or find NHS counselling services near you.
Practical advice if you're pregnant and considering having an abortion, with links to useful organisations
Page last reviewed: 18/07/2014
Next review due: 18/07/2016