Medical abortion: An overview of a safe, but opposed, procedure

Abortion access shouldn’t be controversial in the land of the free, but it is directly at the zenith of societal polarization. Beyond just political discourse, the anti-abortion agenda has directly invaded the lives of Americans through the overturning of Roe V. Wade. 

As of March 23, most abortions have been banned in 13 states and are restricted in at least four others. On March 17, Wyoming became the first state to ban abortion pills. While this Wyoming bill was temporarily suspended, it is quite likely the ban will eventually come into full force.

Lila Baltaxe | Senior Graphic Artist

Instead of focusing on the grim reality of this attack on reproductive rights, I want to use this space to discuss the scientific facts about medical abortions and the benefits abortion access affords.

Let’s discuss how medical abortions work. 

Medical abortions can be performed within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy and involve two pills: Mifepristone and Misoprostol. Mifepristone blocks progesterone from binding to its receptors. Progesterone helps grow and prepare the walls of the uterus for the developing fetus and prevents uterine contractions. A drop in progesterone is one of the main triggers of menstruation. Mifepristone blocks progesterone from developing the uterus — ending the pregnancy.

Misoprostol, the second pill, is a synthetic version of prostaglandin E1, a hormone-like substance that triggers uterine and cervical contractions. These contractions induced by Misoprostol allow an individual to expel the pregnancy.  Within a few hours of taking Misoprostol, individuals can expect to experience what is essentially a more severe period, after which the pregnancy is terminated.

Medical abortions are incredibly effective and safe. One large study found that the overall effective rate was 97.7%, or 98.8%, when used in the first 42 days of pregnancy. Severe complications from medical abortions occur in less than 1% of cases. The Food and Drug Administration reported in 2018 that out of the 3.7 million women who have taken abortion pills, there have only been 24 deaths, which cannot be confidently attributed to the medication itself. 

An Oxford University study suggests that aspirin, accessible at any store, causes 3,000 deaths yearly in the UK.

Like all medications, medical abortions have potential side effects. Abortion pill side effects are typically on the milder side in the grand scheme of things. The most common side effects include cramping, bleeding heavier than a period, abdominal pain and dizziness. 

There are other less common side effects that your doctor would explain. It’s also important to note that side effects are possible, not guaranteed. Every medication you have taken likely has a long list of potential side effects, but odds are you have experienced only a fraction, if any.

There are many benefits afforded by abortion access. Multiple studies have shown that access to abortion improves women’s social lives and economic stability. When unprepared women are forced to give birth, their economic and educational advancement is often curtailed, creating financial hardship for them and their children. This is especially relevant to women of color, who are disproportionately impacted by economic instability and make up more than half of abortions. 

Many arguments against abortion are framed for the child’s well-being, but forcing a newborn into a poor financial position isn’t best for them. Access to abortion allows families to have a child when they can provide a stable and safe environment.

Abortion also allows individuals to avoid the many potential risks of pregnancy, which stem from the reality that birth is far from harmless. Scarily enough, the United States ranks at number 55 in maternal mortality — 17.4 deaths for every 100,000 pregnancies, according to a 2018 CDC estimate. 

A University of Colorado Boulder study estimates that giving birth is 33 times riskier than undergoing an abortion. The same women seeking abortions are often those most likely to have severe pregnancy complications. By banning abortions, it is estimated that there will be a 21% increase in maternal deaths per year, disproportionately affecting women of color and poor women. 

Abortion can be life-saving for mothers who develop pulmonary hypertension (50% risk of mortality), ectopic pregnancy (which can result in life-threatening hemorrhages), severe preeclampsia (which can cause strokes, seizures and organ damage) or other dangerous maternal medical conditions. 

Abortion is safe, effective and beneficial. There is more I’d like to say about the necessity of accessible abortion and the absurdity of politicians restricting access. Still, I’ll leave you with a simple sentiment: abortion is healthcare.

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