What you can expect
Medical abortion doesn't require surgery or anesthesia. The procedure can be started in a medical office or clinic. A medical abortion can also be done at home, though you'll still need to visit your doctor to be sure there are no complications.
During the procedure
Medical abortion can be done using the following medications:
Oral mifepristone (Mifeprex) and oral misoprostol (Cytotec). This is the most common type of medical abortion. These medications are usually taken within seven weeks of the first day of your last period.
Mifepristone (mif-uh-PRIS-tone) blocks the hormone progesterone, causing the lining of the uterus to thin and preventing the embryo from staying implanted and growing. Misoprostol (my-so-PROS-tol), a different kind of medication, causes the uterus to contract and expel the embryo through the vagina.
If you choose this type of medical abortion, you'll likely take the mifepristone in your doctor's office or clinic. Then you will probably take the misoprostol at home, hours or days later.
You'll need to visit your doctor again about a week later to make sure the abortion is complete. This regimen is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Oral mifepristone and vaginal, buccal or sublingual misoprostol. This type of medical abortion uses the same medications as the previous method, but with a slowly dissolving misoprostol tablet placed in your vagina (vaginal route), in your mouth between your teeth and cheek (buccal route), or under your tongue (sublingual route).
The vaginal, buccal or sublingual approach lessens side effects and may be more effective. These medications must be taken within nine weeks of the first day of your last period.
- Methotrexate and vaginal misoprostol. Methotrexate (Otrexup, Rasuvo, others) is rarely used for elective, unwanted pregnancies, although it's still used for pregnancies outside of the uterus (ectopic pregnancies). This type of medical abortion must be done within seven weeks of the first day of your last period, and it can take up to a month for methotrexate to complete the abortion. Methotrexate is given as a shot or vaginally and the misoprostol is later used at home.
- Vaginal misoprostol alone. Vaginal misoprostol alone can be effective when used before nine weeks of gestation of the embryo. But vaginal misoprostol alone is less effective than other types of medical abortion.
The medications used in a medical abortion cause vaginal bleeding and abdominal cramping. They may also cause:
You may be given medications to manage pain during and after the medical abortion. You may also be given antibiotics, although infection after medical abortion is rare.
Your doctor will let you know how much pain and bleeding to expect, depending on the number of weeks of your pregnancy. You might not be able to go about your normal daily routine during this time, but it's unlikely you'll need bed rest. Make sure you have plenty of absorbent sanitary pads.
If you have a medical abortion at home, you'll need access to a doctor who can answer questions by phone and access to emergency services. You'll also need to be able to identify complications.
After the procedure
Signs and symptoms that may require medical attention after a medical abortion include:
- Heavy bleeding — soaking two or more pads an hour for two hours
- Severe abdominal or back pain
- Fever lasting more than 24 hours
- Foul-smelling vaginal discharge
After a medical abortion, you'll need a follow-up visit with your doctor to make sure you're healing properly and to evaluate your uterine size, bleeding and any signs of infection. To reduce the risk of infection, don't have vaginal intercourse or use tampons for two weeks after the abortion.
Your doctor will likely ask if you still feel pregnant, if you saw the expulsion of the gestational sac or embryo, how much bleeding you had, and whether you're still bleeding. If your doctor suspects an incomplete abortion or ongoing pregnancy, you may need an ultrasound and possibly a surgical abortion.
After a medical abortion, you'll likely experience a range of emotions — such as relief, loss, sadness and guilt. These feelings are normal. It might help to talk to a counselor about them.
Ovulation usually occurs as soon as two weeks after a medical abortion, and another pregnancy is possible even before your period begins. Before the abortion, talk to your doctor about contraception that you can start as soon as the procedure is over.