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Abortion

18-minute read

Key facts

  • An abortion (also known as termination) is the medical process of ending a pregnancy, so it does not result in the birth of a baby.
  • There are many different reasons people may choose to have an abortion.
  • Depending on how many weeks you have been pregnant, the pregnancy can be ended by taking a special type of medicine, or by having a surgical procedure.
  • Abortion is legal in all states and territories in Australia, but the laws on abortion differ from state to state.
  • Counselling can help you decide between your options, and can help you come to terms with your feelings about your choice.

What is an abortion?

An abortion (also known as termination) is the process of ending a pregnancy, so it does not result in the birth of a baby.

Depending on how many weeks you have been pregnant, a pregnancy can be ended by taking a special type of medicine that your doctor, nurse or midwife prescribes or by having a surgical procedure.

An abortion is not the same as a miscarriage, which is where a pregnancy ends without medical intervention (although medical treatment may be needed after a miscarriage).

Why do some people have abortions?

There are many reasons why someone might choose to have an abortion. Deciding to have an abortion is a deeply personal choice and, in many cases, a very difficult decision to make.

For example, the pregnancy may be unplanned and the personal circumstances might make it difficult or impossible to raise a child. These reasons could include:

  • financial considerations
  • being in an abusive relationship
  • it not being the right time to have a baby
  • not wanting to have a baby

Some people may choose abortion after they discover that their baby has a health problem or congenital disorder. Others may decide to end a pregnancy because continuing with the pregnancy may put their own health at risk.

Whatever the reason, it is your choice to continue with a pregnancy.

When can I have an abortion?

There are 2 types of abortion that you could have, based on your stage of pregnancy. The earlier you talk to your healthcare provider about having an abortion, the more choices you will have.

Surgical abortion

The most common type of abortion is a surgical procedure called a 'suction curette'. This involves removing the lining and the contents of the uterus by applying gentle suction to the inside of the uterus with a small plastic tube.

Surgical abortion is usually a safe and straightforward day procedure, most often done in the first trimester (up to week 14 of pregnancy). You will usually need to be at the clinic or hospital for about 4 hours. The procedure itself takes about 15 minutes.

If it is done in the second trimester (from week 14 of pregnancy), a similar process is used, but instead of suction, medical instruments are used to remove the contents of the uterus.

Medical abortion

A low-risk alternative to surgery used for ending pregnancies earlier than week 9 (depending on the clinic) is a medicine called MS-2 Step. It is sometimes called 'the abortion pill'.

MS-2 Step can be prescribed by any healthcare practitioner with appropriate qualifications and training — this may include doctors, nurses and midwives.

All pharmacies can stock this medication. However, depending on where you live, you may need to go to a dedicated clinic or a hospital.

Medical abortion is a 2-stage process.

The first stage involves taking a tablet that blocks the hormone necessary for the pregnancy to continue called Mifepristone.

This is followed 36 to 48 hours later by a second medicine called Misoprostol, that causes the contents to flow out of the uterus.

How is the 'morning after' pill different from an abortion?

You can take emergency contraception, sometimes called the 'morning after pill', up to 5 days after having unprotected sex. Unlike an abortion, which ends a pregnancy, emergency contraception prevents a pregnancy from happening.

There are 2 types of medicine available in Australia to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex:

  • The levonorgestrel pill can be taken up to 72 hours (3 days) after unprotected sex.
  • Ulipristal acetate (UPA) can be taken up to 120 hours (5 days) after unprotected sex.

Both are available over the counter from a pharmacist without a prescription.

You can also talk to your healthcare provider about having a copper intrauterine device (IUD) placed, as a form of both emergency and long-acting contraception. If it is placed within 5 days after having unprotected sex, it can help prevent an unplanned pregnancy.

Learn more about emergency contraception.

What is a 'late term' abortion?

A late term abortion is when a pregnancy is terminated after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Different Australian states and territories have different laws on how late an abortion can be performed. Depending on the laws in your state, and the reason for the late-term abortion, you may need to travel interstate to have a late-term abortion.

If you need a late term abortion for medical reasons, your doctor may be able to seek special approval for the procedure, even if your state doesn't usually allow late term abortions.

Abortion law in Australia varies across states and territories. Abortion is legal in all states and territories under certain circumstances, and must be done by a registered medical professional.

In most states and territories, it is illegal to protest within 150m of a clinic or service that provides abortions.

ACT

Abortions can be performed at up to week 16 of pregnancy. After 16 weeks, you may have to organise an appointment in Sydney.

New South Wales

Abortions can be performed at up to week 22 of pregnancy. After that, 2 doctors must approve the procedure.

Northern Territory

Abortions can be performed at up to week 24 of pregnancy. After 24 weeks, 2 doctors must approve the procedure.

Queensland

Abortions can be performed at up to week 22 of pregnancy. After this, 2 doctors must approve the procedure.

South Australia

Abortions can be performed at up to 22 weeks and 6 days of pregnancy. Abortions performed after this time, must be approved by 2 doctors and only if they agree that:

  • your health or mental wellbeing is at risk, or
  • the procedure is needed to save another foetus (for example, in a multiple pregnancy), or
  • foetus has a serious abnormality

Tasmania

Abortions can be performed at up to week 16 of pregnancy. Between 16 and 20 weeks, 2 doctors must approve the procedure. After 20 weeks an abortion can only be performed for medical reasons, such as if the pregnancy is putting your life in danger.

Victoria

Abortions can be performed at up to week 24 of pregnancy. After 24 weeks, 2 doctors must approve the procedure.

Western Australia

Abortions can be performed before 20 weeks of pregnancy. Abortions after 20 weeks are very restricted.

How much does an abortion cost?

The cost of an abortion will depend on:

  • whether it is a medical or surgical abortion
  • how far you are into your pregnancy
  • whether you are using a public service or a private clinic

Hospitals and GPs may offer bulk billing, or they may be partially covered by Medicare. For a private clinic, the consultation can cost several hundred dollars. The medicine itself is listed on the Pharmaceuticals Benefits Scheme (PBS). This means that the Federal Government pays for part of this medicine. For the latest information on how much this medication may cost you, visit the PBS website.

Surgical abortions cost around the same as a medical abortion, but this cost can vary depending on how many weeks pregnant you are, and if you are a public or private patient.

Apart from the cost of the actual procedure, consider that you may need to travel to get an abortion. Abortion services are not easily to access in rural and remote areas.

Depending on your circumstance and the law in your state or territory, you may need to travel interstate to have an abortion.

Some clinics can offer medical abortion consultations via telehealth video call. Speak to your healthcare provider to find out if this option is available to you.

Can I get counselling before an abortion?

Yes, you can. Counselling is when you talk to a trained health professional in a safe space, both about the procedure and about your thoughts and feelings. It is an important part of the decision making process when you are thinking about having an abortion. You should understand all of your options and make the decision that is right for you.

Most people who have an abortion feel they have made the right decision. But for some, having an abortion can be a very difficult experience. Counselling before and after an abortion can provide you with the support and information you need.

Your doctor or clinic will talk to you about your choices and offer support services, so you can talk to someone.

If you can, talk to family and friends, but you shouldn't allow anyone else to pressure you. You should also make sure you seek advice and support from counselling services that will give you unbiased information and won't try to talk you into making a decision that isn't right for you.

In some cases, your partner or the other parent may also want to have counselling. You don't have to both see the same counsellor.

Counselling before an abortion

Abortion counselling, sometimes called pregnancy support counselling, aims to give you information and help you think through your options. It can help even if you have already made your decision.

A trained counsellor will talk to you about the procedure itself so you can decide things such as what anaesthetic you would like. Counselling can guide you through what to expect afterwards. They can also discuss other pregnancy options and talk you through things to consider, including your career, financial situation, your family or your mental or physical health.

Counselling before an abortion can also be a good time to talk about your thoughts and feelings, to help you decide what to do about your pregnancy.

It's important to remember that the person you speak to won't judge you or try to persuade you. Their role is to give you information and help you work through how you feel.

Counselling before an abortion is usually just one session, and the counsellor will understand that you need to see them urgently.

Counselling after an abortion

After an abortion, most people will have a follow-up appointment so they can talk to a doctor, nurse or other health professional. In this appointment, you can also discuss your physical and emotional recovery, and go over options for contraception.

For some people, the experience of having an abortion will have been quite traumatic. They may experience guilt, shame, grief, depression or anxiety afterwards. If this applies to you, it can be very helpful to talk to a trained professional about how you feel.

Anyone can have counselling after an abortion, even if the abortion was a long time ago. Talk to your doctor or find a counsellor in the list below if you think you may need counselling after an abortion.

Where can I get abortion counselling?

The role of a counsellor is to provide you with unbiased information that will help you make a decision that is right for you. They shouldn't make any judgements or try to tell you what to do. Some organisations may try to encourage you to not to have an abortion, so before you have counselling, it's a good idea to ask first what their position is about abortion.

  • Your doctor or local Family Planning clinic can be a good place to start, when you a looking for abortion counselling. Other places that offer non-biased counselling include:
  • MSI Australia for abortion counselling online, or call 1300 405 568 to make an appointment
  • Children by Choice on 1800 177 725 (nationwide) or if you are in Queensland on (07) 3357 5377
  • 1800 My Options on 1800 696 784 for information about pregnancy options
  • 1800 Respect on 1800 737 732 if you have experienced sexual assault or domestic family violence
  • PANDA on 1300 726 306 for people experiencing anxiety or depression around pregnancy
  • Lifeline on 13 11 14 for crisis support
  • Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 for support if you are experiencing anxiety and depression
  • Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse

How do I pay for abortion counselling?

Some pregnancy support counselling services are subsidised by Medicare. You may be able to get a Medicare rebate for sessions with some doctors, social workers, mental health nurses or psychologists. You are eligible for 3 Medicare funded sessions per pregnancy if you are pregnant or have been pregnant in the last 12 months. You will need a referral from your doctor.

There may be some out-of-pocket costs, so be sure to ask when you book your appointment.

There are also free phone and online counselling services available (see the list below).

What should I expect after having an abortion?

Your healthcare provider will give you information about looking after yourself after an abortion.

Vaginal bleeding

It is normal to experience some vaginal bleeding after a surgical or medical abortion. The amount of bleeding varies from person to person.

Following a medical abortion, you may have up to 6 weeks of bleeding. After a surgical abortion, it usually stops sooner, after about 2 weeks. It is normal for bleeding to stop and start. Some people experience very little bleeding.

If you have continuous, heavy bleeding (more than 2 soaked pads within 2 hours), seek urgent medical attention.

Pain and discomfort

Many people experience mild abdominal pain, similar to period pain. These strategies can help:

  • Take over-the-counter pain-relief medicines, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  • Use a heat pack or hot water bottle.
  • Gently massage your lower abdomen while you sit on the toilet. You may find that this also helps you pass any blood clots.

Some people have tender breasts following an abortion or find that their breasts leak milk.

This is more likely if your pregnancy was more advanced. You can reduce any breast tenderness by:

  • avoiding nipple stimulation
  • wearing a supportive bra
  • using cold packs on your breasts
  • taking over-the-counter pain-relief medicines such as paracetamol and ibuprofen

Time off

Most people find that they can return to their normal activities the next day after an abortion. It's still a good idea to rest when you can, and avoid heavy lifting and/or strenuous exercise for at least a week after the procedure.

What are the possible complications of abortion?

When performed by a doctor in a certified healthcare facility, abortion is a very safe procedure. For most people, abortion carries fewer medical risks than a full term pregnancy.

Abortion does not affect your future fertility. It is also not associated with an increased risk of pregnancy complications such as placenta praevia or ectopic pregnancy.

Infection

The most common complication of abortion is infection.

About 1 in 100 people who have an abortion will experience an infection. Symptoms of infection include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • feeling unwell
  • unpleasant-smelling vaginal discharge

If you think you have an infection, seek urgent medical attention.

Here are some tips for reducing your chance of infection:

  • use sanitary pads instead of tampons
  • do not put anything in your vagina for at least 2 weeks — this includes avoiding vaginal sex and douching
  • avoid baths or swimming — showering as usual is fine

When can I start contraception after an abortion?

After you've had an abortion, your normal menstrual cycle (periods) will return. This means you can become pregnant again. You can talk to your doctor or clinic about the best type of contraception for you and when to start using it.

How do I find an abortion clinic?

You can contact the Family Planning clinic in your state or territory.

Use the online Find a Health service tool to get help finding a service near you.

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 for advice, support and guidance from our maternal child health nurses.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Resources and support

Australia has safe and supportive abortion and family planning clinics that can provide reliable advice.

To find these clinics, and for reliable, unbiased information about abortion in your state or territory, contact:

Your healthcare rights include safe, high-quality medical care, the right to respect, privacy and information about your options. Read more on your healthcare rights.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2023


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