Abortion Methods: Medication Abortion, Abortion Pill, RU-486

We will review the different methods of abortion currently used in the United States. Here we will give you a detailed overview of medical abortions.

What is a Medication Abortion?

They often go by various names:

    • Medication Abortion
    • Medical Abortion
    • Abortion Pill
    • RU-486

History of Medication Abortion

In 2000, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved two abortion pills. The two medicines are mifepristone and misoprostol. [1]

In 2016, the FDA approved a new label for the medicines. This change allowed for lower dosages, increased gestational age limit, and fewer follow up visits.

How Common is Abortion by Medication?

Medication abortion is increasingly popular. It accounted for 6% of nonhospital abortions in 2001, and 31% by 2014 (the most recent year for which data are available according to the Guttmacher Institute, the former research arm of Planned Parenthood). [2]

This is for several reasons.

Medication abortion is cheaper for abortion providers. A patient is typically charged the same amount for either a medication abortion or a surgical abortion. The medication abortion, though, takes less manpower, clinic time, and does not involve anesthesia. The woman is responsible for giving herself Ibuprofen and relieving her own pain outside the clinic.

Also, abortion advocates want nurse practitioners and physician assistants to offer medication abortion. They say that simply performing a physical exam and giving a pill does not require a doctor. Pro-life advocates point out that abortion is not routine healthcare, and that it’s potentially very serious consequences deserve the oversight of an actual physician.

Prescribed medicines usually come from a pharmacy, and the patient can ask the pharmacist if they have questions. The abortion pill is only available at an abortion clinic. The abortion doctor signs very detailed paperwork about the abortion medicines and returns it to the manufacturer.

What happens during a Medication Abortion?

First, an ultrasound is done to confirm that the pregnancy is intrauterine (inside the uterus) and not ectopic (growing outside the uterus). A nurse or other staff member takes the woman’s vital signs like heart rate and blood pressure. The abortion doctor also listens to the woman’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope and does a pelvic exam, except in webcam abortions (see below). Sometimes, the woman receives antibiotics to prevent infection.

Mifepristone or Mifeprex or RU-486, is the first medicine. It is given to the woman at the abortion clinic. Misoprostol is the second medicine. The woman takes Misoprostol at home. 

The abortion usually takes  24-48 hours after the second medicine, Misoprostol, is taken. The woman signs a Patient Agreement Form that she will come back for a follow up appointment in 14 days. This is to be sure that the abortion worked. In 2-7% of cases, this type of abortion does not work. If that happens and the woman is still pregnant, she is then encouraged to have a surgical abortion such as a dilation and curettage (D&C). If she chooses to carry the baby to term after a failed medication abortion, the baby might have birth defects.  

About the Drugs used in Medical Abortion

Mifepristone works by blocking progesterone. Progesterone is the hormone that sustains pregnancy. Without progesterone, the lining of the uterus breaks down and sheds like in a menstrual period. This cuts off nutrients and support to the fetus. [3]

Misoprostol was first developed to prevent stomach ulcers in people who take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or advil. [4]  Another way it works is by releasing prostaglandins in the body. This effect is the reason Misoprostol is part of medication abortions. Prostaglandins cause the uterus to have contractions and expel the dead fetus. This happens while at home and the fetus is usually expelled into the toilet. These strong uterine contractions are said to feel like the pain from very strong period cramps. According to Planned Parenthood’s own website, fetal tissue may be visible along with “lots of bleeding.” 

In very rare cases, when a woman is allergic to Mifepristone, a different medication called Methotrexate may be used by itself without the Misoprostol. Methotrexate is typically a chemotherapy medication or a rheumatoid arthritis treatment. In medication abortion, it kills the embryo by stopping the reproduction of fast-growing fetal cells.

At what point does the Fetus die?

Typically, the fetus dies when its nutrients are cut off because of the first abortion medicine, Mifepristone.

What Percentage of Abortions are Medication Abortions?

Medication abortion is increasingly popular. It accounted for 6% of nonhospital abortions in 2001, and 31% by 2014 (the most recent year for which data are available according to the Guttmacher Institute, the former research arm of Planned Parenthood). [5]

This is for several reasons.

Medication abortion is cheaper for abortion providers. A patient is typically charged the same amount for either a medication abortion or a surgical abortion,  but the medication kind takes less manpower, clinic time, and does not involve anesthesia. The woman is responsible for giving herself ibuprofen and relieving her own pain outside the clinic.

Also, abortion advocates want nurse practitioners and physician assistants to offer medication abortion. They say that simply performing a physical exam and giving a pill does not require a doctor. Pro-life advocates point out that abortion is not routine healthcare, and that it’s potentially very serious consequences deserve the oversight of an actual physician. Prescribed medicines usually come from a pharmacy, and the patient can ask the pharmacist if they have questions. The abortion pill is only available at an abortion clinic. The abortion doctor signs very detailed paperwork about the abortion medicines and returns it to the manufacturer.

Side Effects of the Abortion Pills [6]

Abortion is never safe for the developing embryo or fetus. A medication abortion is also not safe for women themselves who meet any of the following criteria:

    • Pregnancy greater than 10 weeks along
    • An ectopic pregnancy, also known as pregnancy outside the uterus
    • Have an intrauterine device (IUD) currently in place
    • History of adrenal gland problems
    • Take blood thinners
    • Have a blood clotting disorder or other bleeding problem
    • Have porphyria
    • Take steroids
  • Have an allergy to misoprostol, mifepristone, or other prostaglandins

Common side effects up to 24 hours after taking the medicines can include:

    • Nausea/vomiting
    • Weakness
    • Fever/chills
    • Headache
    • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness

Rare but serious side effects include:

    • Life-threatening bleeding requiring hospitalization and possibly a blood transfusion
  • Life-threatening infection

Bleeding is not listed as a side effect because it is expected. This does not mean that the amount of bleeding will necessarily be safe. Serious or life-threatening bleeding is more likely with medication abortion because of the way the medicines work. Since every woman’s body reacts differently to medications, some women’s bodies may not automatically stop bleeding and contracting just because the fetus has already been expelled. This can progress to life-threatening bleeding depending on how much the woman bleeds and how long she bleeds for.

Additionally, there is a risk of infection. This risk is highest for women who experience “incomplete abortion.” This is when the fetus is dead and expelled but the body retains some of the membranes or placenta that were supporting it. [7]

How often do Complications occur?

In a 2014 research study in California, there were four times as many complications from medication abortions as surgical abortions in the first trimester. About 5.2% of women had to go to the emergency room for a medication abortion complication. [8] In another research study in Finland, there were four times as many complications from medication abortions at or before 7 weeks gestational age compared to surgical abortions. 20% of women, or 1 in every 5 women, who had medication abortions in the study experienced a complication. [9]

Deaths from the Abortion Pill

After the original FDA protocol was released in 2000, eight young women who took Misoprostol vaginally died of a bloodstream infection caused by clostridium sordelli bacteria. The FDA protocol did not mention vaginal use, but this “off-label” use was common at the time.  The FDA said those deaths were “infection-related” rather than “abortion-related. ” Nowadays, Misoprostol is no longer used vaginally. It is placed inside the cheek until it dissolves.

In total, 22 women who took RU-486 have died since 2000. 2 of those women died from ruptured ectopic pregnancies, even though the FDA insert says that no woman with an ectopic pregnancy should take RU-486. [10]

In 2016, the FDA accepted off-label dosages that were being widely used by abortion doctors, instead of the dosages from the 2000 protocol. When this protocol change was made, no safety research studies were cited.

What are Webcam or Telemedicine Abortions?

Telemedicine or “webcam” abortions are becoming more popular. After an ultrasound and a review of the woman’s medical history, she takes the first medicine in clinic. A physician watches remotely on a webcam. Abortion advocates say that webcam abortions give rural woman more access. Pro-life advocates point out that women miss out on an actual physical examination. Also, living in rural areas could mean less access to a hospital when complications occur. Iowa was the first state to pilot webcam abortions, and Sue Thayer managed a Planned Parenthood clinic there. She was fired for refusing to participate.

As this article was being written, California’s legislature is considering HB320, which would mandate that health centers at state-run colleges and universities dispense abortion medicines.

What if I Change my Mind?

For women who have only taken Mifepristone and change their minds, stopping the abortion may be possible. A large dose of oral progesterone may be able to reverse Mifepristone’s effects. In a research study, the abortion was effectively stopped in 68% of patients who took the progesterone. More information is available here: https://abortionpillreversal.com/

What does Baby Look Like at 10 weeks?

At 10 weeks, the brain, heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys are all formed. Baby’s heart has been beating since about 3 weeks. Baby’s fingernails and hair are starting to grow.

Abortion Methods: Intracardiac Abortion

We will review the different methods of abortion currently used in the United States. Here we will give you a detailed overview of  intracardiac abortions.

History of Intracardiac Abortion

The first successful intracardiac abortion was in 1978.[5] A woman pregnant with twins chose to abort a fetus with a lethal disease with the hope of saving its twin. Since then, abortionists have used injectable medications particularly before second or third trimester dilation & evacuation (D&E) abortions, to make sure that the fetus is dead before it is delivered.

Reasons for Intracardiac Abortion

Reasons for these late term abortions include aborting fetuses who have a disability that won’t allow them to live outside of the womb, or who may have health issues for the rest of their life after birth like Down Syndrome. Injected medication abortions are also sometimes done after in vitro fertilization.

Selective Reduction

Abortion of one or more fetuses after in vitro fertilization is called “selective reduction.” Abortion after in vitro fertilization might not seem to make sense, since the couple was obviously trying to get pregnant.  However, as part of in vitro fertilization, typically multiple embryos are implanted in the woman’s uterus. That way, there’s a higher likelihood of having at least one live birth.

But, sometimes multiple embryos survive the transfer process from the lab to the womb. The risk of health problems if these embryos live until birth is high. There are higher rates of preterm (early) delivery, low birth weight, brain problems, development problems, and many other issues if multiple babies are born at once rather than if just one baby is born at a time.

“Selective reduction”, then, is the process of aborting one or more of these fetuses so that the one (or two) fetus(es) that makes it to birth has (have) a higher chance of being relatively healthy. [6]

End Goal

Whatever the reason that the woman may be aborting, these medications are injected to ensure that the fetus is not alive when it is born. Some women who are aborting fetuses with health problems believe that abortion is the “merciful” thing to do. They want to be sure that the fetus isn’t alive when it is born because then they would feel conflicted about trying to resuscitate it or watching it die.

Connection to Partial Birth Abortion 

Also, the Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003 in the United States states that killing a living fetus when it has been partially delivered from the woman’s body is illegal. [7] Some abortion doctors make sure that the fetus is dead before delivery so that they don’t get in trouble for breaking this law.

What are Intracardiac Abortions?

An intracardiac abortion happens when a medication being injected through the pregnant woman’s abdomen (stomach area) into the fetal heart. The medicine stops the fetus’ heart from beating.

Potassium Chloride

This is often done with a medicine called Potassium Chloride. Outside of its use in abortions, Potassium Chloride is also one of several medicines given for execution of prisoners by the death penalty.


Medications to stop the fetus’ heartbeat are also sometimes injected into the amniotic fluid around the fetus, or into a random fetal body part. The most common of these medicines is called Digoxin.[1]

Outside of its use in abortions, Digoxin was originally developed for adults  to make the heart beat stronger and with a regular rhythm, or to treat an irregular heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation. Digoxin injected into the fetus is given in a lethal dose that slows the heart beat gradually until it stops.


In research studies, injected Digoxin failed to stop the fetal heartbeat in 6.6% to 13% of abortions. [2][3] In research studies, Potassium Chloride failed less than 1% of the time. [4]

What Percentage of Abortions are Intracardiac Abortions?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collect abortion data each year, and the results of their data collection are available online through the year 2014.[8] Abortion data since 2014 have not yet been published. States and several large cities like Washington D.C. and New York City have the option to report their data to the CDC each year or not. For 2014, California, Maryland, and New Hampshire abortion numbers were not reported.

In the CDC report, abortion methods are classified as surgical or medical (medication). Exact numbers on how many of these surgical abortions were intracardiac abortions are not available because most of the states that report their data to the CDC did not provide this information.

The studies used in this article included from fewer than 10 up to nearly 5,000 women. Studies of digoxin included 8 women, 126 women, and 4,906 women. [9] [10] [11] Studies of Potassium Chloride included 192 women and 239 women. [12] In one study from Britain in 2004, where abortions by type are tracked better than in the United States, about 1% of abortions were intracardiac or injectable. [13]

What Happens During an Intracardiac Abortion?

On the day of the procedure, the woman first has a blood sample drawn to check her blood type, and vital signs like heart rate and blood pressure taken. She is positioned on the clinic or hospital bed as if she were having a regular pregnancy ultrasound. A numbing shot is given through a small needle into her belly. Then a long, large needle with the medicine in it is put in her belly. An ultrasound is used to determine where the fetal heart is, and when the needle is in the fetal heart.

The medicine is then injected, and the abortion doctor watches on the ultrasound screen until the heart stops. An ultrasound is often done again 30 minutes after the fetal heartbeat has stopped, to make sure that it is still stopped.

After the fetal death, the woman may be induced or may wait up to several weeks to go into labor on her own. [14] Sometimes, she goes into labor and delivers the stillborn baby before she can get back to the hospital. If she does deliver at the hospital, sometimes it is on a bed as with a planned live birth, and other times it is into a toilet.

A visual overview is here.

At What Point Does the Baby Die During the Abortion?

Typically, the baby dies within several minutes after a Potassium Chloride injection because the medication stops its heartbeat immediately. The abortionist watches the ultrasound until it shows that the heart has stopped. With Digoxin, fetal death can take hours.

An ultrasound may be done periodically to check when the heart stops beating. Around 30 minutes after electrical activity stops, another ultrasound is done to confirm that the heart has not started beating again. If the heart has restarted, a repeat dose of medication may be given. [15]

What are the Side Effects of an Intracardiac Abortion?

Side effects after a Potassium Chloride injection abortion are different from a Digoxin injection abortion. Digoxin injections are not recommended as standard practice before a dilation and evacuation abortion because they don’t decrease how long the abortion takes. Side effects include vomiting, women going into labor on their own at home or other places before the scheduled dilation and evacuation, and infections inside the uterus. Digoxin cannot be given to any woman with a history of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. [16]

In one Potassium Chloride study, a woman suffered cardiac arrest (her heart stopped) and was successfully brought back to life. In another research study, a woman developed a life-threatening infection after the medicine was accidentally injected into her bloodstream instead of into the fetus’ heart. [17]

How Often Do Complications Occur?

Complications other than vomiting occurred less than 1% of the time in women who received Digoxin injections. Vomiting occurred in around 15% of women. Complications occurred less than 1% of the time in women who received Potassium Chloride injections, but when they did occur they were very severe (see above).

Sometimes intracardiac injections are given before a woman is induced to go into labor. Research shows that induction abortions can be complicated by retained placenta up to 30% of the time. Retained placenta puts the woman at significant risk for life-threatening infection. [18]


[16] [16] Cassing Hammond MD, and Stephen Chasen MD, Management of Unintended and Abnormal Pregnancy. Ed. Paul, Lichtenberg, Borgatta, Grimes, Stubblefield and Creinin. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

[18] Autry AM, Hayes EC, Jacobson GF, Kirby RS. A comparison of medical induction and dilation and evacuation for second-trimester abortion. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2002; 187: 393– 397.

Is Abortion ever Medically Necessary?

Most abortions laws in the United States of America have exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and “life of the mother.” Whatever the restrictions on abortion are in the particular law, cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the mother’s life are still legal.

Let’s examine the legal meaning of “medically necessary” abortions and whether they are the same thing as abortions for the life or health of the mother. We’ll also look at what types of health conditions fall under “medical necessity”, how often they are performed, and who pays for them. We’ll also study the pro-life response to “medically necessary” abortions. “Medically necessary” abortions are typically performed starting in the middle or late second trimester and may be performed throughout the third trimester. We’ll conclude by examining possible complications of these late-term abortions.

What is the Legal Definition of “Medically Necessary”?

Pro choice advocates claim that abortion must be legal because some abortions are not elective, and are in fact “medically necessary.” The term “medically necessary” originated in the 1940s, “to ensure that hospitals and physicians were paid for the services they performed.” [1] It was a vague catchall phrase used by insurance companies that mostly relied on physician judgment about what services were necessary for a patient’s care. Abortion rights advocates ever since Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton in 1973 have argued that “medical necessity” is an objective standard based on medical judgment. But in reality, “medical necessity” is more nuanced because “doctors often differ in their estimation of comparative health risks and appropriate treatment.” [2]

Is “Medically Necessary” the same as “Life of the Mother”? What about “Health of the Mother”?

“Health of the Mother” and “Life of the Mother”

As we’ll see by the legal definition of maternal “health” below, “medically necessary” abortions can technically include abortions for the life of the mother or the health of the mother.

Abortions to “save the (physical) life of the mother” are recommended for a variety of maternal reasons, including the mother having preexisting heart disease or uncontrolled diabetes or cancer. Sometimes, the mother develops pregnancy complications like preeclampsia or eclampsia (toxemia of pregnancy) or chorioamnionitis. [3]

Abortions to “save the life of the mother” also may be recommended when something goes wrong with the fetus itself, as in ectopic or molar pregnancies.  Abortions for the “health of the mother” generally refer to medical conditions which cause the mother illness and varying degree of physical discomfort. One example is gestational diabetes (diabetes that develops during pregnancy and goes away when the fetus is delivered). Another example is hyperemesis gravidarum (severe nausea and vomiting during pregnancy). “Health of the mother” conditions do not endanger the mother’s life.

Doe v Bolton

“Mary Doe” in Doe v Bolton was a Georgia woman who sought an abortion at 9 weeks pregnant in 1968. “Bolton” in Doe v Bolton was Arthur Bolton, Attorney General of Georgia. Mary Doe wanted an abortion because she was financially unable to provide for another child. She also did not have custody of any of her three other children. She had been a patient of a mental hospital. Finally, she had recently been left by her husband. At that time, Georgia law allowed for an abortion only in the following cases: 1) endangerment of or serious and permanent injury to the woman’s life 2) pregnancy because of rape 3) baby “very likely” to be born with a grave mental or physical defect. [4]

The Doe v Bolton case started in a district court and went all the way to the Supreme Court. The case was decided on the same day in 1973 as Roe v Wade. Doe v Bolton set a legal precedent, or legal definition of a term that is used in other court cases on similar topics in the future. That legal precedent says that the “health” of the mother includes her physical, emotional, psychological, and familial health, and her age. This Supreme Court ruling struck down many state restrictions on abortion. [5] So, any pregnancy that could impact the mother’s physical, emotional, psychological or family health could be grounds for a “medically necessary” abortion. Likewise, presumably a woman who is older than 35 years or younger than, say, 18, could also have grounds for a “medically necessary” abortion.

How often are Abortions performed for “Medical Necessity”?

The Alan Guttmacher Institute has published several studies on reasons that women have abortions. One of these was published in 1987, and another was from 2004. In both studies, “mother has health problems” was cited in 2.8-4% of cases. “Mother has health problems” is another term for “medically necessary” cases and includes both life-threatening and non-life-threatening cases. So, the total of abortions done for the life of the mother is, at the most, less than 4% of all abortions. The most recent abortion statistics are from 2014, and there were 652,639 abortions that year. At the most, then, somewhere between 13,053 and 26,106 abortions were for “medically necessary” reasons, and a portion of these would have been for “life of the mother” cases. [6]

Are Tax Dollars used for “Medically Necessary” Abortions?

Medicare and Medicaid

Tax dollars pay for both Medicare and Medicaid. [7] Medicare is a federal health insurance program available to all American citizens over age 65. Tax payer money goes directly to Medicare at the federal level. Every American citizen who gets a paycheck pays a small percentage of their earnings directly into Medicare. Since Medicare covers Americans over age 65, there is no argument about it covering abortions since all women participants are past child-bearing age.

Medicaid is a health insurance program for poor Americans. Medicaid has both federal and state branches. Each state has its own office and its own rules for eligibility. Some funds from incomes taxes go to Medicaid at the state level. Other federal funds support Medicaid at the national level. [8]

Hyde Amendment

The Hyde Amendment states that federal Medicaid funds cannot be used for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or the mother’s life being endangered. [9] The Hyde Amendment was originally passed in 1976. Every president since then has either repealed or reinstated the Hyde Amendment depending on his political affiliation.

In 17 states, only state Medicaid money is used to pay for medically necessary abortions. No federal funds are used in these states. In the other 33 states of the 50 states total, federal Medicaid funds are used for some “medically necessary” abortions. [10]

A research study of 25 abortion providers in 6 different states found that in many cases Medicaid did not reimburse them for abortions that qualified under the Hyde Amendment. Many providers reported that going through so much paperwork only to be turned down was a waste of their time. In the few cases where they did actually get reimbursed, the amount of money was so small that it was not worth their time to keep applying. [11]

What is the Pro-life Response to “Medically Necessary” Abortions?       

Moral Principle of Double Effect

Pro-lifers respond that the goal of medical interventions should always be to save life. In select rare cases, the fetus may die as a result of interventions to save the mother’s life. However, the goal is never to purposefully end the life of the fetus. [12] This concept is called the moral principle of double effect, a good action is done that has a foreseen bad side-effect. [13] So, in the case of a woman with uterine cancer, she might have to have her uterus removed to get rid of the cancer. The fetus would unfortunately die as a result, but the woman was helped as a result of the uterus being removed and not because of the fetus’ death.

Moral Principle of Double Effect and Flight 93

Let’s take another example of the moral principle of double effect. Recall the passengers of Flight 93 on September 11, 2001? When they learned that the plane had been hijacked, they made a decision to resist and to prevent the plane from hitting the hijackers’ target. Their goal was to save lives, even though they knew that in the process they would lose their own. So, the goal was to save lives, even though they foresaw that the bad side effect would be their own deaths. Each passenger was granted the Congressional Medal of Honor for this bravery. Pro-lifers abide by this same principle when a mother’s life is in danger.

The Dublin Declaration

The Dublin Declaration on Maternal Healthcare was written in 2012 and signed by over 1,000 Irish obstetricians and other healthcare professionals. It states that:” direct abortion – the purposeful destruction of the unborn child – is not medically necessary to save the life of a woman. We uphold that there is a fundamental difference between abortion, and necessary medical treatments that are carried out to save the life of the mother, even if such treatment results in the loss of life of her unborn child. We confirm that the prohibition of abortion does not affect, in any way, the availability of optimal care to pregnant women.” [14]

What about Abortion for Maternal Health Conditions?

Some medical problems may be exacerbated by pregnancy. These include preexisting heart disease and diabetes and a known or new diagnosis of cancer. Typically, close monitoring and treatment of heart disease or diabetes by a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, also known as a high-risk pregnancy doctor, can prevent threats to the mother’s life. In rare cases where the mother’s life is in danger the longer that the pregnancy continues, the fetus can be delivered early either through induction of labor or a cesarean section.

Generally, a fetus is viable, or can live outside the womb with medical assistance, starting around 24 weeks (less than 6 months pregnant). If a woman has cancer and needs treatment, the treatment could either be started promptly and potential birth defects be managed after delivery, or treatment could be delayed until an early delivery is achieved. Either of these options ensures effective treatment of the woman’s health conditions, and respects the life of the fetus to the fullest extent possible.

Occasionally, a mother decides to forego medical treatment altogether, to give her baby the best chance at a healthy life. While this is not necessary from an ethical standpoint, it is consistent with mothers throughout history who have given their lives to save their children. Mothers have run into burning buildings to rescue children, carried them on their backs through flooded waters, and jumped into dangerous waters to save a drowning child. [15]

What about Abortion for Preeclampsia or Eclampsia?

Preeclampsia, also known as toxemia of pregnancy, develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy and involves high blood pressure and oftentimes kidney, liver, heart, lung, or eye damage. Preeclampsia plus seizures is considered eclampsia. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to seizures, stroke, and even death of the mother. Liver, kidney, heart, or lung failure can also be life-threatening.

Once symptoms start, they do not generally go away until the pregnancy ends. Typically, goals of treatment include outpatient medications to control blood pressure, and frequent doctor’s office monitoring of fetal wellbeing. If symptoms are severe enough, the mother has to be hospitalized until delivery. She is often on intravenous (IV) medication to prevent seizures.

Once a fetus reaches the age of viability, labor can be induced or a Cesarean section performed. If the mother progresses to eclampsia before 24 weeks, the fetus must be delivered regardless. This would not be considered a direct abortion because the goal would be to end the pregnancy by delivery, not to kill the fetus. The preterm fetus would not be expected to live outside the womb, but its death would not be directly caused. [16]

Preeclampsia occurs in between 5 and 8 pregnancies out of 100, but progression to life-threatening eclampsia is rare with proper treatment. [17]

What about Savita Halappanavar?

In 2012, a woman named Savita Halappanavar who was living in Ireland went into the hospital at 17 weeks pregnant with symptoms of a miscarriage. Her situation was unusual from the beginning, as only 1-2% of all miscarriages occur during the second trimester.

Unfortunately, the miscarriage was related to an uterine infection called chorioamnionitis, which was not diagnosed and treated appropriately and in a reasonable timeframe. Chorioamnionitis is typically treated by intravenous (IV) antibiotics, and spontaneous miscarriage of the fetus often occurs. If spontaneous miscarriage does not occur, the fetus may have to be delivered regardless of gestational age because infection in the fetus can progress to life-threatening systemic infection via the mother’s bloodstream. This would not be considered a direct abortion because the intent was to deliver the pregnancy, though the fetus was not expected to survive due to prematurity.

By the time that the spontaneous miscarriage completed, Savita’s untreated infection had progressed to her entire bloodstream and caused organ damage, a condition known as sepsis. Her sepsis worsened to severe sepsis and then septic shock. Her heart stopped, causing her death, seven days after she entered the hospital.

Abortion advocates called for a repeal of Ireland’s abortion laws. They argued that if Savita had received an abortion then she would not have developed sepsis. Unfortunately for them, the facts lead to a different conclusion in Savita’s case. The investigation into her death found that the real problems were that she was not monitored closely enough, that the fetus’ infection was not treated appropriately, and that her own possibility of infection was not anticipated correctly.  By the time her treatment team realized just how sick she was and responded, it was too late. [18]

What about Abortion for Ectopic Pregnancies?

An ectopic pregnancy occurs when the embryo implants somewhere other than the woman’s uterus, oftentimes in a Fallopian tube. Because the Fallopian tube is small, the pressure of the growing embryo on the Fallopian tube can cause it to rupture. Fallopian tube rupture can lead to life-threatening complications.  Ectopic pregnancy affects about 1 in 50 to 1 in 100 pregnancies. [19]

Ectopic pregnancies can be treated in three ways. Two of these ways arguably constitute a direct abortion. Methotrexate is considered a direct abortion because it stops production of the trophoblast. The trophoblast is produced by the embryo and normally develops into the placenta. [20] Salpinogotomy is also considered a direct abortion. The Fallopian tube is sliced open and the embryo is scooped out and dies. The woman’s Fallopian tube may still function correctly in the future.

Salpingectomy is not considered direct abortion because the whole diseased section of the Fallopian tube is removed. The death of the embryo inside is an undesired but expected side effect. Because a section of the Fallopian tube is removed, that tube will not be functional in the future. Having only one functional Fallopian tube reduces the woman’s fertility. [21]

What about Abortion for Hydatidiform Mole or Molar Pregnancies?

A hydatidiform mole, also known as a molar pregnancy, may be a partial (or incomplete) molar pregnancy or a complete molar pregnancy. Something goes wrong during fertilization of the egg by the sperm. The placenta develops abnormally and the fetus develops only partially (partial molar pregnancy) or not at all (complete molar pregnancy). In rare cases, the placental mass that develops from the molar pregnancy may become cancerous. This cancer can be life threatening, but is generally treated successfully with chemotherapy. [22]

Complete molar pregnancies occur in about 1 in 1,000 pregnancies. [23] Incomplete or partial molar pregnancies occur less frequently. If the embryo does not develop, a dilation & curettage procedure is recommended to clean out the uterus. This would not be considered a direct abortion because there is no life there. If an embryo does partially develop, the woman will typically miscarry.

What kind of Complications can occur during “Medically Necessary” Abortions in the 2nd or 3rd Trimester?

Late term abortions, or abortions performed in the second half of the second trimester or anytime during the third trimester, require several days to dilate the cervix. Risk of death from abortion increases by 38% each week starting in the second trimester. [24]  Serious, documented risks for late-term abortions include:

  • Cervical injury
  • Uterine perforation
  • Infection (may become life-threatening)
  • Life-threatening hemorrhage (bleeding)
  • Uterine rupture
  • Incomplete abortion due to body parts or placenta or other tissue left inside the uterus
  • Disseminated intravascular coagulopathy (life-threatening blood clotting and bleeding)
  • Anesthesia-complications such as respiratory depression[25]

So, is abortion ever medically necessary?

We see from the examples above that direct abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of the mother. In rare cases where the mother’s life is in danger if the pregnancy continues, the baby can be delivered via induction or cesarean section. If the baby has not yet reached the age of viability, the mother and her medical team may anticipate the baby’s death after delivery as an unintended consequence. In these unfortunate cases, perinatal hospice programs can help facilitate and guide the woman and her family through the bonding and grieving process. This approach respects the lives of both the mother and her child. [26]