When you can have an abortion varies across states, plus there are medical concerns to keep in mind. Here's what you need to know to make an educated decision.

By Lauren Mazzo
Updated February 21, 2020
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Even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled abortions legal back in 1973, the topic—including the question of "how late can you have an abortion?"—is as relevant as ever. There was that whole "rip the baby out of the womb" thing during one of the 2016 presidential debates—not to mention a slew of changes to abortion legislation in the U.S. since. Here's what you need to know about when (and where) it's legal and safe to get an abortion in the U.S.

How Early Can You Have an Abortion?

There are two main types of abortions, medical and surgical/in-clinic. Medical abortions (think: the abortion pill) can be used during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, according to Planned Parenthood.

Surgical abortions can be done during the first or second trimester, and include procedures like aspiration (used up to 16 weeks after your last period) and dilation and evacuation (usually used if it's been 16 weeks or longer since your last period), according to Planned Parenthood. Aspiration involves a gentle suction (either manually or by machine) through a tube that goes through the cervix and empties the uterus. Dilation and evacuation involve entering the uterus through the cervix and removing tissue from the uterine lining with a scoop-like surgical instrument. While these types of abortions are called "surgical" there are no incisions involved and it takes about 10 minutes to do, Debra Stulberg, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Chicago previously told Shape.

How Late Can You Have an Abortion?

You have several options during the first and second trimester, but late-term abortions—those done toward the end of the second trimester and beginning of the third trimester—are illegal in most states. One state, Virginia, currently bans abortions in the third trimester, and 17 states ban it about 20 weeks post-fertilization (or about 22 weeks after the last period, towards the end of the second trimester), according to the Guttmacher Institute. For 20 other states, abortion is considered  "late-term" and illegal if the fetus is "viable", which means it could survive outside the womb. Visit the Guttmacher Insitute's record of state policies to see where your state laws fall. (And because so many states restrict abortion, more and more women are trying to DIY. Not. Okay.)

Most medical communities consider "viable" to be about 24 weeks post-conception, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Currently, states may prohibit abortion after fetal viability; however, exceptions may be made if the woman's physician judges that the pregnancy poses a risk for her mental or physical health. Whether or not a fetus is "viable" and if the procedure is medically necessary (e.g. if the pregnancy is putting the mother's life or health at risk) is determined on an individual basis and by the patient's physician, according to Guttmacher Institute.

Currently, states may prohibit abortion after fetal viability, as long as there are exceptions regarding the woman's life and mental and physical health. Whether or not a fetus is "viable" and if the procedure is medically necessary (e.g. if the pregnancy is putting the mother's life or health at risk) is determined on an individual basis and by the patient's physician, according to Guttmacher Institute.

Know Your Abortion Risks

This all might sound super scary, but there's good news; when done in the first trimester, abortions are a safe medical procedure—the risk of major complications is less than 0.05 percent, according to research from the Guttmacher Institute. To put that into context, the risk of death from childbirth is 11 times greater than the risk of death from an abortion procedure during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. That being said, the earlier the better when it comes to terminating a pregnancy; after 20 weeks, the risk of death from abortion is about the same as childbirth, according to Planned Parenthood.

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