An elective abortion is an abortion that’s done out of choice, not medical necessity. It’s also called a “voluntary abortion.”

But the term “elective abortion” is controversial. There’s no clear-cut distinction between a medically necessary (therapeutic) abortion and an elective abortion.

It’s difficult to tell how common elective abortions are. Because the distinction is blurry, statistics don’t often differentiate between elective and therapeutic abortions.

A therapeutic abortion is an abortion that’s medically necessary. An elective abortion is an abortion that’s done out of a choice to end the pregnancy.

There’s no medical difference between an elective abortion and a therapeutic abortion. These terms are used in law to categorize how abortions are legislated and whether they’re covered by health insurance.

But the procedures themselves are the same. In other words, the only difference between an elective abortion and a therapeutic abortion is why they’re done.

People may choose to have an abortion because:

  • They don’t want to be pregnant or have a child.
  • They aren’t financially or emotionally ready for parenthood.
  • They don’t want to increase their family size.
  • They’re in an unstable or abusive relationship.

People may have a therapeutic abortion because:

The term “elective abortion” is controversial. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) doesn’t recommend using the term “elective abortion.”

It says the term “can be used to differentiate between reasons for abortion care and diminish the value of the abortion care that many patients need. The motivation behind the decision to get an abortion should not be judged as ‘elective’ or ‘not elective’ by an external party.”

The reasons for abortion can be complex and personal. What may be viewed as a choice for some can be considered a necessity for others.

As Katie Watson explains in The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, every abortion can be considered both elective and therapeutic.

Nobody is forced to have a therapeutic abortion. Even if a doctor decides it’d be dangerous for you to proceed with a pregnancy, you can take the risk and choose to remain pregnant.

Likewise, ending a pregnancy that you don’t want can be considered medically necessary because an unwanted pregnancy can affect your well-being.

In fact, there’s controversy over what makes an abortion “medically necessary.” What one medical professional considers necessary may not be what another medical professional considers necessary.

Anyone who wants to have an abortion can have one. But where, when, and how you get one will depend on where you live.

To learn about the rights you have in your state, visit our guide to abortion laws or view the Center for Reproductive Rights’ state-by-state abortion laws map. Some states place more restrictions on “elective” abortions than on “therapeutic” abortions.

Pay attention to each state’s legal restrictions on gestational age (how “far along” your pregnancy is), as this can affect when you can get an abortion. Gestational age is calculated from the first day of your last menstrual period.

If abortion is illegal or difficult to access in your state, you may consider traveling to another state to obtain one.

You can find a clinic via:

If you’re considering self-managing a medication abortion at home, look at telehealth abortion services like Aid Access or carafem.

If you need financial assistance, take a look at this guide from the National Network of Abortion Funds.

There’s relatively little information on when elective abortions are performed, in terms of gestational age because medical professionals don’t always distinguish between elective and therapeutic abortion.

But since most abortions are performed in the first trimester (before 13 weeks of pregnancy), we can gather that most elective abortions are performed in the first trimester.

According to 2020 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 93.1% of abortions took place in the first trimester, 5.8% were done in the second trimester, and 0.9% were done in the third trimester.

There are two different types of abortion: medication abortion and in-clinic (surgical) abortion. Both are effective and safe.

Medication abortion (which is done with pills that you take orally) accounts for 53% of all abortions in the United States. Medication abortion is typically only done in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Also called surgical abortions, in-clinic abortions are done in a clinical setting such as a clinic or hospital. Vacuum aspiration is usually used to end pregnancies up to 16 weeks, while dilation and evacuation is used up to 24 weeks.

Third-trimester abortions — sometimes called “late abortions” or “later term abortions” — are rare, accounting for about 0.9% of abortions performed in 2020. They’re often performed due to an underlying medical risk or fetal anomaly, which may be picked up during a prenatal screening test.

Your abortion recovery process depends on whether you’ve had a medication or in-clinic abortion.

If you’ve had an abortion, you’ll probably experience:

  • Moderate to severe bleeding: After a medication abortion, bleeding lasts an average of 9 days but may last longer. In-clinic abortions typically cause bleeding 3–5 days after the procedure, with light bleeding and spotting continuing for a few weeks.
  • Moderate to severe cramps: You’ll probably experience pain on the day of a medication abortion. The cramps are more severe than regular menstrual cramps and can last several days. An in-clinic abortion may lead to cramps that get stronger 3–5 days after the procedure.

You may also experience:

  • breast or chest pain
  • chills and shivering
  • diarrhea
  • discharge that’s red, purple, brown, or black in color
  • fatigue
  • nausea and vomiting that lasts about 24 hours

You can take care of yourself by:

  • using a heating pad or hot water bottle for cramps
  • using ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to soothe pain
  • massaging your abdomen
  • drinking plenty of fluids, especially if you’re vomiting or have diarrhea
  • drinking peppermint or ginger tea to ease nausea
  • getting rest and avoiding strenuous physical activity until you feel ready

Very few people regret abortions. One study found that 99% of people who had abortions felt that they made the right decision 5 years later.

But it’s natural to feel a range of emotions afterward. Relief, sadness, depression, joy, and confusion are common feelings. Stress and hormonal changes can contribute to these emotions.

It may be helpful to talk with a supportive, nonjudgmental loved one or an abortion-informed mental health professional. You can also get post-abortion counseling from a compassionate, unbiased organization like Exhale and All-Options.

Abortion complications are possible — but they’re rare. About 2% of people who have abortions experience complications.

This percentage includes complications that occur as a result of illegal abortions, which account for a higher number of post-abortion complications.

Abortion-related complications may include:

Call 911 or local emergency services and get medical help immediately if you:

  • have a fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher
  • experience vomiting or diarrhea for longer than 24 hours
  • bleed through two maxi pads per hour for 2 hours in a row, or through one pad per hour for 3 hours in a row
  • pass blood clots larger than the size of a lemon
  • experience severe pain that increases over time and doesn’t go away after you take pain medication
  • have pregnancy-like symptoms more than 2 weeks after your abortion

“Elective abortion” and “therapeutic abortion” are legal terms that describe why an abortion is done. The medical procedure is the same regardless.

Some states place more restrictions on “elective” abortions than on “therapeutic” abortions. Although abortion laws differ from state to state, you may still be able to travel to obtain an abortion.

Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.