What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Abortion

by BUST Magazine

If you’re with child and want to be without, plan a safe, simple abortion with straightforward advice from doctors, experts, and women who’ve been there.

Imagine it’s 1965 and you’ve discovered you’re pregnant. You’ve recently embarked on the beginning of your career in Manhattan, so this is clearly no time to raise a baby. You consider abortion, but since it’s illegal, you have no legitimate doctors to call and no one willing to support your decision to abort. Your boyfriend makes some calls, finally finding a self-proclaimed doctor in New Jersey who performs under-the-radar procedures. You arrange to meet the man in a city park at midnight and hand over some cash before heading to his house, where he performs the abortion on a makeshift bed set up in the kitchen. 

“[I] had little or no anesthetic,” says Rose Morrison, the now 70-year-old survivor of this story, who spoke to BUST under an alias. When she got back to Manhattan, Morrison “was hemorrhaging so badly that I called my OB/GYN,” who had told her he wouldn’t help with the abortion but then agreed to treat her because she was in serious danger. “I’d lost so much blood that when I got to his office, I fainted. They rushed me to the hospital, where I remained for 30 days and almost died,” says Morrison. Over the course of a month, she received six blood transfusions, a procedure that in those days went unscreened. “Three months later, I was diagnosed with one of the worst recorded cases of hepatitis in the state of New York,” says Morrison. 

Fortunately, women in the United States no longer have to suffer horrific trauma when terminating an unplanned pregnancy. Since the breakthrough 1973 Roe v. Wade decision to legalize abortion, Americans are free to choose to terminate their pregnancies; approximately 1.4 million abortions are now performed annually in the United States. Still, if you’re facing the possibility of an abortion, you probably have tons of questions: What will I be putting my body through? How expensive is the procedure? What’s involved in the recovery? What are the differences between surgical and medication abortions? If you’re fretting over issues like these, fear not. We spoke with nutritionists, doctors, herbalists, and women who’ve been there—all to help you make decisions, formulate a plan, and take care of what needs to be done.

Lorena Dorris wrote a story about her abortion experience for Washington State’s Feminist Women’s Health Center (fwhc.org), a nonprofit organization that supports reproductive care and rights. The Health Center’s website is a place where women around the nation can write personal abortion stories so that others can know more about the process. Dorris was 20 when she became pregnant, and after she and her boyfriend discussed their options, they agreed to abort. “Basically, I decided that even though things could work out just fine, there was a greater chance that they wouldn’t,” she wrote. “It was a gamble with my life, my boyfriend’s life, and most importantly with the baby’s. It was a gamble I decided I couldn’t take.”  

Even if it’s the right choice, it’s not always an easy choice. At the same time, if it is an easy choice, let it be easy! Don’t tough it out.

Experts advise women to emotionally and physically prepare themselves before an abortion. Veronica Arreola, 36, who spent five years on the board of the Chicago Abortion Fund, understands the anxiety the procedure can inspire. “The [pro-life] community has done an excellent job of making women believe that abortion is shameful and selfish,” she says. Californian Lasára Allen, 39, has had three abortions and points out, “Even if it’s the right choice, it’s not always an easy choice. At the same time, if it is an easy choice, let it be easy! Don’t tough it out.” 

In case you do find yourself agonizing over the decision, there are psych professionals who can help. Nancy Irwin, a doctor of clinical psychology, offers post-abortive assistance and has counseled hundreds of women and men. She recommends writing the fetus a letter expressing concerns about bringing it into the world. If you think you may want a child in the future, Irwin says that in the letter, you might try to “make a ‘deal’ with the baby that you think so highly of them that you will wait until it is a better time for their sake.” 

If you’ve decided to abort, finding a doctor or a clinic is the next logical step. Your primary-care doctor or OB/GYN should be the first phone call, but note that some (including those affiliated with Catholic hospitals) have a policy that prohibits them from advising patients who want to terminate a pregnancy. In that case, Allen recommends contacting your local women’s health center or Planned Parenthood. “Try to find an environment you feel comfortable in to have the procedure done,” says Allen. Note that some pro-life extremists advertise fake abortion clinics, so be sure to avoid clinics that are shifty about details over the phone but offer free on-site pregnancy tests. Gynpages.com and prochoice.org (run by the National Abortion Federation) offer state-by-state clinic searches, so you can ensure that yours is reputable. 

Rachel Youens, a 28-year-old from Texas who had an abortion in 2009, has worked as a clinic escort, keeping women safe from protesters’ advances when they enter and leave the clinic. “Research beforehand and talk to the clinic about when it’s least likely protesters will be there,” she says. “When I had [my abortion], I cased the joint.” Note that not all clinics get protesters, and it’s not uncommon for churches to single out a few places and ignore others entirely.

For those with or without insurance, Planned Parenthood provides both in-clinic surgical procedures and medication abortions. Depending on the stage of pregnancy and clinic location, a visit costs anywhere from $350 to $950. The abortion pill, the medication option, ranges from $350 to $650. The surgical procedure is completed in-clinic or in a hospital because it often involves machinery and, if you choose, general anesthesia—meaning you’ll be totally unconscious during the abortion. This method can be performed between the 6th and 12th week of pregnancy, takes only a few minutes, and has a 99 percent success rate. Many women will notice cramping, as well as spotting or bleeding, for one to six weeks afterward. 

The most common kind of in-clinic abortion is an aspiration abortion, a 5-to-10-minute procedure that involves suctioning and emptying the uterus. The other, less commonly utilized procedure is known as D&E, or dilation and evacuation. This approach is similar to aspiration but involves dilating the cervix and can be performed later in the pregnancy. Both types of procedures will require you to take antibiotics to prevent infection. Parental consent or notification may also be required if you’re under 18, depending on the state you live in. Visit the Guttmacher Institute (guttmacher.org) to read about your state’s consent laws.

Many herbalists recommend taking echinacea to help support the immune system before the procedure.

Once you’ve got your method of choice nailed down, you should prepare your body to undergo the abortion. Medicinal herbs can help keep you healthy beforehand, and many herbalists recommend taking echinacea in tincture or tea form to help support the immune system before (and after) the procedure. Wear loose-fitting, comfy clothing to the clinic, and check with your doctor for detailed instructions of when and what to eat beforehand—that depends on the method of termination you’ve chosen. For example, food and drink aren’t allowed six hours prior to surgery with general anesthesia. Experts also recommend getting a good night’s rest and avoiding excessive quantities of booze. 

Upon your arrival at the clinic, you’ll likely have to chill in the waiting room and fill out forms for a bit. Kathleen (not her real name) had her abortion in 2007 at a New York City Planned Parenthood and waited for about 45 minutes to be called into the operating room. She got into her paper gown and laid down on the table, and the doctors administered general anesthesia via an IV in her arm. “I was so nervous beforehand that I didn’t want to remember any of it, so I just wanted them to knock me out. One of the doctors said, ‘You’re going to go to sleep now’ really calmly, and the next thing I knew, they were waking me up, saying, ‘You’re all set.’” Kathleen was tired and groggy afterward, and was kept in a recovery room, drinking juice and eating cookies, for about 30 minutes—until she felt well enough to get dressed and head home. 

Darla (an alias) opted for local anesthesia for her 1990 abortion in N.Y.C. “I remember that the consent forms for general anesthesia included the fact that it can result in death, and that turned me off.” She waited in her paper gown to be seen in a too-busy clinic and recalls, “When they did the actual abortion, it was pretty painful, and I remember squeezing the nurse’s hand really hard. I really could feel the sucking. It was like the worst, worst menstrual cramps you could ever have, but it didn’t last very long. Once it was over, I was in the recovery room and I was completely alert because I hadn’t had general [anesthesia]. The women being wheeled in who had decided on general anesthesia came out all slumped over in their chairs, like rag dolls. That looked scary to me. I was glad I hadn’t gone for that.”

Whichever anesthesia option you choose, Arreola, the Chicago pro-choice advocate, recommends having a trusted friend or companion with you before and after the procedure. Some clinics allow partners or friends to be in the room during it, but at the very least, “someone should drive you home afterward,” she says. 

Many women prefer the idea of a medication abortion, especially because it can be done in the privacy of your home sweet home. It can be effective approximately nine weeks into pregnancy and usually requires two visits to the clinic. On the first visit, a doctor or nurse administers a pill, called mifepristone, which will block progesterone, the hormone your body makes naturally when pregnant. Within three days, you’ll need to take a second pill that causes the uterus to empty. This pill usually triggers heavy bleeding and cramping, inducing a miscarriage, so be prepared for some discomfort, and give your body plenty of time to process the medication. Plan on being homebound for at least a few days.

Keep in mind that there’s no “right” way to feel after an abortion, and your feelings may change from day to day or minute to minute.

Dorris underwent her abortion pharmaceutically, saying that taking medicine seemed less scary than a surgical procedure. “I experienced cramping and bleeding for a few days,” she says. “All in all, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.” Two weeks after taking the second pill, Dorris went in for a follow-up exam to make sure the abortion was complete, which it was. The success rate for this type of termination varies depending on the stage of pregnancy, but according to Planned Parenthood, the pill is effective “97 out of every 100 times,” similar to the surgical option. 

Once the abortion is complete, treat your body right. Drink lots of fluids, take your regular multivitamins, eat healthily, and get eight hours of sleep a night so your immune system will be in top form. Avoid being submerged in water for two weeks, which means no swimming, hot tubs, or baths. Right after the abortion is not the time to start a new jazzercise regime—you should refrain from any vigorous exercise for at least a couple of days. Experts also advise not to insert anything vaginally for two to four weeks—tampons, penii, etc.

After an abortion, you may be feeling extra emo, both from your shifting hormone balances and any feelings of guilt, confusion, or loneliness that are floating around in your head. Luckily, there are numerous ways you can help yourself recover. Arreola says that post-abortion, a lot of women find themselves reevaluating their lives. “Don’t be afraid to ask yourself tough questions: How did I get here? Why did I choose to not carry my pregnancy to term?” Dr. Irwin treats some troubled post-abortive ladies with hypnosis and other methods of clearing away “negative programming.” Talking to friends and loved ones is ideal, but if you’re not comfortable being candid with them, there are plenty of women you can contact who’ve been in your shoes. Exhale (exhaleprovoice.org), a California-based, community-led organization that addresses the “emotional health and well-being of women and men after abortion,” offers a free and confidential after-abortion counseling hotline. Keep in mind that there’s no “right” way to feel after an abortion, and your feelings may change from day to day or minute to minute.

Though sex may be the last thing on your mind after the procedure, it’s important to remember that post-abortive women are extremely fertile. Stephan Dorlandt, author and 20-year clinical nutritionist and herbalist, believes this is the most neglected detail. Ovulation can occur as soon as two weeks after an abortion, which Dorlandt says is “important to note, because couples often feel depressed or relieved after the abortion, and they forget about contraception.” He suggests avoiding kid-centric locations—day-care centers, amusement parks, and the like—for a while, so you’re not confronted with an onslaught of babies. “Focus on the present,” he recommends. 

In 1965, Rose Morrison and millions like her didn’t have the option of a safe, comfortable abortion. But today we’re lucky enough to have myriad resources when we can’t or don’t want to carry a baby to term. “I pray that women in this country never again have to risk health and well-being, or have to rely upon knowing the right person to have access to choice,” says Morrison. “Whether legal or illegal, abortion will always be sought.” 


In case of emergency, follow these steps:

Read about your state’s consent laws at guttmacher.org.

Find a reputable clinic on gynpages.com or prochoice.org.

 Visit fwhc.org to read other women’s stories.

Decide which procedure, surgical or medication, you’ll undergo and which anesthetic you’ll want, if any.

Get plenty of rest beforehand, and take vitamins to boost your immune system. Wear comfy, loose clothing to the procedure.

 Get plenty of rest afterward, and avoid swimming, baths, and sex for at least two weeks.

 Call Exhale (exhaleprovoice.org) at 1-866-4-EXHALE if you need to talk.


By Jill Angellotti

This article originally appeared in the print version of our February/March 2012 issueSubscribe here.  

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