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What is an Abortion Pill?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 17, 2024
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An abortion pill, also known as a medical abortion, is a method of inducing miscarriage and terminating a pregnancy. Generally, though called an abortion pill, the medication is comprised of two pills with different effects. This form of abortion is typically used in early pregnancy, since increased complications are more likely farther along the gestation process.

The concept of a substance that induces abortion is an ancient one, dating back to the earliest records of societies. In some early societies, the production of a child out of wedlock resulted in an instant death sentence for a woman, even in cases of rape or as a result of sexual abuse. At the very least, a woman known to have lost her virginity was often worthless in marriage, making her prospects for the future dim. Many early cultures relied on herbs and potions to induce abortion, though the risk of these methods was often quite high. Not until the late 20th century was a medical drug cocktail created that could reliably induce miscarriage without a high risk to the woman.

The modern form of the abortion pill uses a combination of two drugs, mifepristone and misoprostol. Mifepristone, also known as RU-486, was developed by a French doctor in 1980 and went through lengthy legalization processes in many countries. The drug acts by blocking the production of progesterone, which is vital to the maintenance of a pregnancy. Misoprostol works by inducing uterine contractions and is often used alone to induce labor. When combined with mifepristone as an abortion pill, misoprostol causes uterine contractions that expel the fetus.

The abortion pill is generally only legally available from doctors, and then usually only after a complete pelvic exam has been done to rule out complications. Since the pills are taken a few days apart, the patient may be required to sign an agreement to take both pills before mifepristone is dispensed. Though the abortion pill has a high rate of effectiveness, women may also be required to sign documents agreeing to a surgical abortion if the pill fails.

Though generally considered a safe procedure, there are some side effects and risks associated with the abortion pill. Common side effects include nausea, vomiting, cramping, and heavy bleeding. Some studies suggest that misoprostol may suppress the immune system, leading to a rare chance of serious bacterial infection related to taking the second abortion pill. Women are generally required to come in for a follow up exam shortly after taking misoprostol to ensure no complications have developed.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for WiseGeek. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By bear78 — On Jul 22, 2014

Some women think that the abortion pill is the easy way out. But when it comes to pregnancy, there is no easy way out. Regardless of which method is used, the embryo has to be expelled from the body and that won't happen without contractions, pain, bleeding and other symptoms. Of course, using an abortion pill is not invasive like a surgical procedure, but the process is not exactly easy either.

By candyquilt — On Jul 22, 2014

@burcinc-- As far as I know, abortion pills abort an embryo. So it aborts an already fertilized egg that has made its way to the endometrium and has latched on. These medications usually make the endometrium inhospitable to embryo and cause the body to abort it. So abortion pills end an already established pregnancy.

Emergency contraceptive pills on the other hand, are taken soon after unprotected sex to prevent a pregnancy. So it prevents sperm from fertilizing the egg. Some people claim that these medications can end a fertilized egg as well but that has not been proved scientifically. Emergency contraceptives prevent pregnancy not end it.

By burcinc — On Jul 21, 2014

Are abortion pills and emergency contraceptives the same thing? What is the difference exactly?

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis


With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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