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Last month, the US Supreme Courtending the constitutional right to abortion and sending the power to govern abortion back to the states, some of which have already moved to .
With the national spotlight on abortion, medical terms used in relation to pregnancy, miscarriage and abortion are showing up more frequently in everyday conversations — and only sometimes accurately describing pregnancy care.
Here’s what some of the common pregnancy terms mean.
Pregnancy, abortion and miscarriage
Abortion: The ending of a pregnancy. Most references to abortion are referring to induced abortion, while spontaneous abortion is the medical term for miscarriage.
In 2019, about 93% of induced abortions happened in the first trimester, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Elective abortion: Another term for abortion or induced abortion. Because the word “elective” can be used to differentiate between reasons for abortion and may diminish the value of care patients need, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests just saying “abortion” or “induced abortion,” if necessary.
Embryo: The stage of development that lasts up to nine weeks of pregnancy. (There are nuances within the embryonic stage: a zygote is a single-cell embryo resulting from a fertilized egg, which then develops into a blastocyst before implanting into the uterus.)
Fetus: The unborn offspring of a mammal. In humans, this is the term used for unborn offspring from nine weeks of pregnancy up to birth.
Fetal viability: The stage of development where a fetus is capable of surviving outside the uterus. It’s generally understood to be around 23 or 24 weeks.
Early miscarriage: A pregnancy loss or spontaneous abortion in the first trimester. Although estimates vary and risk can depend on the individual, it is thought to happen in about 1 in 10 known pregnancies. If you include very early miscarriages, the number of miscarriages may be as high as 1 in 4 pregnancies. (See below.)
Chemical pregnancy: A very early miscarriage, before the fifth week of pregnancy, probably before a person is even aware of being pregnant. With a chemical pregnancy, fertilization occurs, an embryo is created and the body produces human chorionic gonadotropin, the hormone that pregnancy tests look for. However, the embryo stops developing and the pregnancy ends.
Ectopic pregnancy: When an embryo implants outside of the uterus — most commonly in a fallopian tube on its journey to the uterus. Ectopic pregnancies can also occur when the embryo implants in an ovary, in the abdomen, in the cervix or even in a C-section scar from an earlier pregnancy. They occur in roughly 1% to 2% of all pregnancies.
Ectopic pregnancies (also referred to as “tubal pregnancies”) can’t result in a birth because embryos and fetuses can’t properly grow outside the main cavity of the uterus, despite a few extremely rare documented cases worldwide. If not treated early by abortion, ectopic pregnancies can cause serious injury or death to the pregnant person.
Septic abortion: A potentially life-threatening infection in the uterus, after an abortion. It’s usually caused by an unsafe abortion when contents remain in the uterus and become infected.
Medicine and medical procedures
Medication abortion: The use of a specific combination of medication to end a pregnancy (see mifepristone and misoprostol, below).
Methotrexate: This is the medication used to treat an ectopic pregnancy when an incision or tubal removal is not necessary, and it works by stopping cell growth. The pregnancy is eventually absorbed into the body.
The pills used for medication abortion aren’t safe for ectopic pregnancies because the location of the pregnancy can make it impossible for the person to pass the pregnancy safely.
Mifepristone and misoprostol: The medications used together to terminate a pregnancy. Mifepristone (Mifeprex) is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as part of a two-part regimen with misoprostol to end a pregnancy up to 10 weeks. Mifepristone temporarily blocks the production of progesterone, the hormone needed to sustain and grow a pregnancy. Misoprostol induces uterine contractions. (Misoprostol has other uses, including miscarriage treatment and the prevention of stomach ulcers.)
As many states move to ban or restrict abortion, the use of these two pills is expected to increase, and legislators are expected to attempt to restrict it. The FDA first approved Mifeprex in 2000, and in 2020 medication abortion made up more than half of all abortions for the first time.
Surgical abortion: A common way to describe an abortion procedure done at a doctor’s office or clinic. Because there’s no surgery involved in an abortion procedure, the term surgical abortion is clinically inaccurate, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or ACOG. Most in-clinic abortions are first-trimester abortions that use vacuum aspiration, a procedure involving gentle suction to empty the uterus.
D&C: A dilation and curettage procedure is when the cervix is dilated to remove the contents of the uterus with a spoon-shaped instrument.
D&Cs are performed following a miscarriage or abortion to remove tissue, but they’re also used to diagnose causes of abnormal bleeding or infertility, like fibroids, endometriosis and uterine cancer.
D&E: A dilation and evacuation is an abortion procedure used in the second trimester of pregnancy. It combines the D&C procedure with other instruments, like forceps, to remove pregnancy tissue.
Some state laws referencing “partial birth abortion” have been interpreted to be a ban on D&E procedures, although partial birth abortion isn’t a medical term and may be meant to target a type of D&E procedure used later in pregnancy.
IVF: In vitro fertilization is a process that combines egg and sperm cells in a laboratory setting to create embryos that can be implanted into the uterus. Many people use IVF to get pregnant when traditional methods don’t work or aren’t available. For example, same-sex couples using donor eggs or sperm, people with fertility issues and those wanting to prevent a genetic problem use IVF.
The future of fertility clinics and IVF came into question after Roe was overturned, because these clinics use embryos that are often discarded (or that never successfully implant into the uterus) and some legislators believe that embryos have personhood after fertilization.
Medically necessary abortion: Under some state laws, physicians may provide abortions only if it is medically necessary. This distinction has caused some frustration in the medical community because the point at which a person’s life is at risk is not always clear.
Under Tennessee’s trigger law, for example, a doctor may provide an abortion only if it’s “necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman or to prevent serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.” With the law written as is and the clock ticking closer to 30 days post-Roe when it’ll go into effect, physicians will need to work within the law and decide what “impairment of a major bodily function” means before they can legally perform an abortion.
Emergency contraception: Commonly known by the brand nameMost emergency contraception medications contain levonorgestrel, a synthetic form of progesterone or progestin that works primarily by delaying ovulation so the egg doesn’t get fertilized.
Ella is also an emergency contraceptive that delays ovulation, but it contains ulipristal acetate and may be a little more effective than brands containing levonorgestrel, especially if you weigh more than 165 pounds. However, Ella requires a prescription.
Emergency contraceptives won’t end an existing pregnancy or cause an abortion and probably won’t work if you’re already ovulating. They may work up to five days after unprotected sex, but they work much better in the first three days.
IUDs as emergency contraception: Getting an IUD inserted after unprotected sex is understood to be the most effective form of emergency contraception and it isn’t affected by weight. You can have the IUD inserted within five days after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.
Copper IUDs have been known for a while for being effective emergency contraception, because the copper creates an inhospitable environment for sperm to swim to the egg and can also prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. But a recent three-year study found that hormone-releasing IUDs like Mirena also work as emergency contraception.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.