Medical abortion, also known as non-surgical abortion, is one way to terminate an early pregnancy using medications. Medical abortion is provided by trained health care providers in private office settings, family planning clinics and hospitals.
Medical abortion is not the same as emergency contraception, also referred to as the morning-after pill. Emergency contraception prevents a pregnancy. Therefore, once pregnancy has occurred, this is no longer effective. Medical abortion, on the other hand, is used to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. A medical abortion can be performed from the time a woman suspects and confirms that she is pregnant until up to nine weeks from her last menstrual period.
In clinical practice, medical abortion is about 95 percent to 98 percent effective, causing a woman to completely pass the pregnancy without the use of surgery. In comparison, early surgical abortion is effective 98 percent of the time.
Medications commonly prescribed for medical abortion are mifepristone and misoprostol. A medical abortion results when the two drugs are combined.
Mifepristone, also known as "Mifeprex" or "RU-486," blocks the action of the natural hormone progesterone on the uterus. This causes the lining of the uterus to shed, as it does during a period, and stops the growth of the pregnancy.
Misoprostol, also known as "Cytotec," causes the uterus to contract and initiates bleeding and cramping.
Medical abortion should be avoided if the patient:
All studies have shown the medical abortion method to be safe and effective. There have been no reports of any long-term risks. Heavy bleeding requiring blood transfusion is extremely rare, occurring in less than 0.5 percent of study patients.
Short-term side effects of a medical abortion include:
There is no evidence of long-term risks with mifepristone when used for medical abortion and no long-term effects have been associated with misoprostol. Little is known about the effect of mifepristone on a developing embryo. Misoprostol has been associated with birth defects when given in early pregnancy. Therefore, a woman should have a surgical abortion if a medical abortion fails.
There are no indications that any of the early abortion methods affect a woman's fertility.