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Abortion and health

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) advises that “Abortion is a safe procedure for which major complications are uncommon at any stage of pregnancy. The earlier in your pregnancy you have an abortion, the safer it is." Statistically, abortion is safer than carrying to term and giving birth.

There are risks, as with any medical procedure, and the chance of a complication occurring increases as gestation increases. 2 per 1000 women overall will experience a complication, the most common of which is infection.

Abortion and physical health

Abortion and fertility

Uncomplicated abortion does not cause infertility.

The RCOG states that:

"Women should be informed that there are no proven associations between induced abortion and subsequent ectopic pregnancy, placenta praevia or infertility".

Abortion and breast cancer

There is no proven link between abortion and an increased risk of breast cancer.

Cancer Research UK states:

"Pregnancies that end in miscarriage or abortion do not increase a woman's risk of developing breast cancer."

Abortion and mental health

In 2011, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges produced a report on mental health and abortion. The report is a systematic review of the best available evidence on any association between induced abortion and mental health outcomes.

The report finds that:

  • The rates of mental health problems for women with an unwanted pregnancy were the same whether they had an abortion or gave birth.
  • An unwanted pregnancy was associated with an increased risk of mental health problems. 
  • The most reliable predictor of post-abortion mental health problems was having a history of mental health problems before the abortion. 
  • The factors associated with increased rates of mental health problems for women in the general population following birth and following abortion were similar. 
  • There were some additional factors associated with an increased risk of mental health problems specifically related to abortion, such as pressure from a partner to have an abortion and negative attitudes towards abortions in general and towards a woman’s personal experience of the abortion. 

Unsafe abortion

What is unsafe abortion?

Unsafe abortion is abortion that is unhygienic, is carried out by untrained practitioners, uses inappropriate methods, or is where healthcare systems cannot provide adequate care.

Unsafe abortion exists in areas where abortion is illegal (as in many African, Middle Eastern, Asian and South American countries) and in countries in which abortion is legal, but there is not adequate provision of services (for example India).

Backstreet abortion

Many illegal abortions are carried out using primitive surgical methods: injecting poisonous solutions into the uterus or inserting objects intended to dislodge the foetus. These kinds of abortions are referred to as backstreet abortions because they are often carried out by someone with no training, in an unhygienic environment, in conditions of great secrecy.

Self-induced abortion

Methods of self-induced abortion include the taking of abortifacients – herbal remedies or poisons intended to induce a miscarriage. Some of these methods are harmless, but also ineffectual. Others work more effectively, but can be extremely dangerous to the pregnant person.

Some people resort to inflicting physical abuse (falling down stairs, blows to belly, jumping from heights) when they cannot find any other way in which to end an unwanted pregnancy. This is extremely risky for the woman and is often not effective in ending the pregnancy.

Illegal abortion in the UK

Before the 1967 Abortion Act was passed most women who wanted to end their pregnancies would have had to resort to self-induced or backstreet abortions. Currently, abortion is still very severely restricted in Northern Ireland (and Ireland) and people who take illegal abortion medication risk life imprisonment according to the law.

Unsafe abortion around the world

According to the World Health Organisation, nearly half of all abortions worldwide are unsafe, and nearly all unsafe abortions (98%) occur in developing countries. In the developing world, 56% of all abortions are unsafe, compared with just 6% in the developed world.

The estimated annual number of deaths from unsafe abortion declined from 56,000 in 2003 to 47,000 in 2008. Complications from unsafe abortion accounted for an estimated 13% of all maternal deaths worldwide in both years.

Worldwide, medication abortion (a technique using a combination of the drugs mifespristone and misoprostol, or misoprostol alone) has become more common in both legal and clandestine procedures. Increased use of medication abortion has likely contributed to declines in the proportion of clandestine abortions that result in severe morbidity and maternal death.