What Is an Aspiration Abortion?

Amanda R. Bell

An aspiration abortion is a minor surgical procedure used to abort a first trimester pregnancy or empty the uterus following a miscarriage. The procedure can be done manually or with a machine, and some jurisdictions require counseling before either or do not allow the procedure at all. Both procedures take less than 20 minutes, with a recovery period of approximately 14 days. The majority of medical professionals consider aspiration abortion relatively safe, although there is a risk of infection, excessive bleeding, and, in some cases, emotional issues.

An aspiration abortion may be performed to terminate a pregnancy.
An aspiration abortion may be performed to terminate a pregnancy.

This procedure, also referred to as a vacuum aspiration, is the most common used to perform an elective abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. In many cases, it can also be done during the beginning of the second trimester, although a dilation and curettage is often necessary. It is also relatively common for the uterus to not completely empty itself following a miscarriage. An aspiration abortion is typically used to empty the uterus and prevent infection or further complications.

Vacuum aspiration is one of the most common methods of abortion.
Vacuum aspiration is one of the most common methods of abortion.

There are two different methods of performing an aspiration abortion: manually or with a machine. In the manual method, a specially-shaped syringe is used to remove the fetus or contents of the uterus. With a machine aspiration abortion, a tube is inserted through the cervix and then attached to a vacuum.

In jurisdictions that allow aspiration abortion, many require that a woman meet with a counselor prior to the procedure if undergoing an elective abortion. In general, the counselor is supposed to make sure that a woman is not obtaining an abortion under duress. Many counselors also explain the entire procedure to the patient, making sure that she is making the choice with all available information. In some parts of the world, this procedure is not available electively, and is only done when there is a threat to the mother’s life or the pregnancy is the result of rape.

Both procedures for an aspiration abortion are extremely similar. A local anesthetic is administered, and a doctor will typically perform an ultrasound to determine the location of the fetus or leftover tissue. A tube is then inserted through the vagina and cervix into the uterus. With a machine aspiration, a tool is used to hold the cervix in place during the procedure. Then, a syringe or machine is attached to the other end of the tube and the uterus is emptied. In some cases, mild anesthesia may be offered, although most women only experience mild to moderate cramping.

The majority of clinics and doctors that provide aspiration abortions require that a patient stay on site for an hour after the procedure. A round of antibiotics is typically prescribed to prevent the occurrence of any infections. In general, women will experience bleeding similar to a menstrual cycle for one to two weeks following the procedure. Most doctors recommend not having sexual intercourse for the first week, and then utilizing condoms for the next week to prevent infection.

While aspiration is considered a minor procedure and relatively safe, there can be complications. There is a small risk of damage to the cervix or vaginal canal, which can result in excessive bleeding. In cases where antibiotics are not taken after the aspiration abortion, there is also a chance of infection. These risks, however, are typically easy to treat, and it is very rare for the procedure to cause complications severe enough to be fatal. Some women may also experience strong emotional responses to the procedure, primarily depression, although, in 2000, a study from the University of California found that the majority of women do not, and those who do typically have a prior history of depression.

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