Women Describe What An Abortion Feels Like

There’s a lot of stigma surrounding abortions. That stigma can make a woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and certain of termination feel alone. That stigma is why some of even the most pro-choice people feel scared or embarrassed to discuss their choice. That stigma is why so many anti-choice people feel emboldened to shame others. That stigma is why it’s so important to talk about a common, legal medical procedure, and why I asked women to describe what an abortion actually feels like.

Talking about abortion is one of the important ways in which we can de-stigmatize this very simple, very common, constitutionally protected, and sometimes even life-saving medical procedure. An estimated 4 in 10 unintended pregnancies end in abortion, so it's vital our society begins to discuss the commonality of abortion on a large scale, as those conversations will undoubtably help people feel less alone.

So, I’ll start. I had an abortion a few years ago. The worst part about the entire experience was waiting for the day of my abortion and being unable to talk to relatives about the procedure. Overall, though, it was incredibly uneventful. My clinic was great, the staff were wonderful, and the procedure itself was relatively quick. I was given enough medication and sedation that I felt nothing and woke to realize it was over before I knew it'd started. I didn’t need extra pain medication for my post-abortion care, my hormones took about a week to level out, and I think I felt blue all of one or two days during that process.

Honestly, the scariest thing about my abortion was all the stigma surrounding it. That’s why I’m speaking out, and that’s why I’m glad others are, too.

Hannah, 29

“I was a little nervous, yes. The staff at the clinic were great though (unlike my general practitioner, who tried to talk me into keeping the pregnancy but that’s a whole other story!). I had a medical abortion, so once I’d been given the pills, I was sent home. It was more painful than I expected (the worst pain I’ve ever experienced), and I imagine it would be awful to go through that alone. I was fortunate enough to have the support of my very lovely partner. Recovery took a few days, although I continued to bleed for about three weeks, which is obviously tiring. I was instructed to take a pregnancy test two weeks after the abortion (in very few cases a medical abortion won’t work), which I did. It was negative. I was 1 percent sad, 99 percent relieved.

"The worst part is definitely the waiting and not knowing when you will have the procedure itself. I don't know quite how it works in the US, but here in the UK, you need to be referred by your general practitioner to a clinic, where you then have to have an initial appointment, before going back for the abortion itself. That was more stressful than the abortion itself! The doctors definitely feel like the gatekeepers.”

Emily, 38

“I paid extra for the versed (anti-anxiety med) to feel calm the first time. Procedure was in clinic. It was very emotional. I don't remember much. Everyone was kind. There were protesters. My mom and boyfriend were with me. I was nauseated and vomited that night.

"The second time was early enough to bring the pills home. There was a lot of cramping. I was nauseated after. My boyfriend was with me. We went to a hotel so my mother wouldn't know. I was grateful for this option. I was also emotional for the second, but that had more to do with guilt; guilt from a second abortion, what that said about me and my ability to properly take precautions. I have no guilt today.”

Anonymous, 30

“I was six weeks along, and the decision for me was easy because I was not in a good situation relationship-wise and I knew for sure that I didn't want anything to permanently tether me to that person. I went to Planned Parenthood in Coral Gables (Florida). I was nervous, but more so I was anxious to get it over with. And I felt guilty about doing it because I knew my family would be horrified at my choice. They still do not know about it.

"The procedure itself was very simple. Just the pills to take. Afterwards I felt like I should have had pain, but up to 24 hours later there was no pain. Then I started feeling guilty about it because I felt as though this was a big deal and I deserved to face some pain because I did it.

"Well, the pain came two days later and I thought I was dying. It was not normal at all. Turns out that the abortion medication, which basically is supposed to cause you to shed the lining, etc. also exacerbated my fibroid pain. I didn't know I had fibroids before. So I went right back to Planned Parenthood and they did a pelvic exam on me and the nurse practitioner felt a lump (at this point we still don't know it fibroids). So she insisted that I get to an emergency room, giving me horror stories about worst-case scenarios like my ovary is 'twisted' and it's dying. I went to the ER and sat there for nine hours until I eventually got seen and they did a diagnostic ultrasound to discover the fibroids. I felt more settled after that whole experience. Like I'd gotten what I deserved. Now I'm just grateful that I did it.”

Anonymous, 34

“It felt like cramps. I did a very early one. They force you to have an ultrasound to try and make you feel guilty and change your mind. I didn't feel anything. It was a clump of cells. Looked nothing like a kid and, either way, I didn't want to ruin my life and a child's life. It hurt like very bad period cramps, which was normal for me.”

Scylla, 46

“I had an abortion in early 1993. I got in as soon as I could (six weeks) and other than the shame and fear (which were already there), it was incredibly easy. What I mostly remember was that I was connected to a machine that made me think I was being vacuumed. It vibrated and pulled and I could feel my muscles contracting. The unexpected thing was how fast I felt better. I hadn't kept any food down for weeks, and I was so very hungry less than an hour later. Getting an IUD a decade later was more difficult."

Marion, 51

“I was 27 years old. I had a medicalized D&C procedure in a private hospital operating room with all the attendant medical personnel: nurses, anesthesiologist, etc. The abortion itself was done by my then-OBGYN, a nice older, male doctor. I had anesthesia and was totally under. I was groggy upon waking up. My mom came to escort me home. I don’t recall how intense the discomfort/pain was. I had cramps and bleeding for a few days. In fact, a few days after the abortion, I thought I felt good enough to go to a friend’s birthday weekend at a bohemian east Long Island motel. By the time I got to Long Island, a three-and-half-hour bus ride, I regretted going. I left the following day because I was cramping and bloated and felt not great.

"I know the abortion was the right choice for me then and I don’t regret it. But as I wrote above, I have thought, ‘What if I kept that pregnancy?’ Not obsessively, but occasionally. I was always adamantly pro-choice but having had to ‘choose’ and being able to choose what was right for me, strengthened my devotion to Roe v. Wade."

Alica, 42

I had a surgical abortion. I was nervous but chose not to take the painkillers they offered me. One of the staff held my hand and talked me through the procedure. It was over so quickly. I was in recovery for a little while, then asked to leave. I have never felt guilty about choosing to have an abortion, it was the best choice for me at that time.

"Ten years later (after I had two kids and a husband), I had a second abortion. This time I tried the pill, It was very unpleasant and I was sick for three days. I wouldn't recommend it over the surgery. After that my husband got a vasectomy so we wouldn't have anymore birth-control fails.”

Frederica, 49

“I had just turned 17. My regular doctor thought I was just under eight weeks, but turns out I was 11. I went to a (different) doctor, in a clinic, but not sure if it what an abortion clinic. (I feel like he was an OB-GYN) my mom had lined up. They were pretty brusk. I had a medical, suction abortion. If I remember correctly, they gave me a valium beforehand and a shot to my cervix. I remember the doctor being surprised that I was so far along. It was very vacuum-y. Uncomfortable, but not painful. I think they gave me four valium for after care, and codeine.

"I got huge breasts after. It was the one thing that really bothered me. I had very small breasts before, and it was like a symbol of that pregnancy. I was a depressed teen, and got no psychiatric help at all."

Danielle, 29

"I walked through the doors of my local Planned Parenthood and was instantly at ease. I knew the decision to terminated my unwanted pregnancy was the right decision for not only myself, but my then-boyfriend. Both of us were living paycheck-to-paycheck, fighting constantly, and incapable of taking care of a child. We simply didn't want to be parents, and knew we couldn't be parents.

"The procedure was quick, relatively painless, and felt like a somewhat-extended pap smear. I held the nurse's hand and stared at the ceiling while the doctor thoughtfully and thoroughly explained what she was doing as she was doing it. I then went home, laid on my couch, watched old episodes of The Office, and napped. The next day I went back to living my life, aware that access to abortion care gave me the opportunity to take control of my body and my future. A few years later, I had a son, moved to New York City for my dream job as a writer and editor, and enjoy a healthy and happy relationship with the love of my life. Abortion did that."