People Are Finally Talking About Abortion Aftercare. Here's What to Know.
This article is part of POPSUGAR's project Roe, 50 Years Later, a collection of stories marking what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. This moment comes more than six months after the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, and these stories seek to mark the past, present, and future of abortion access in America.
Jacinta Wood only really understood the importance of abortion aftercare in the days following her own abortion. At 26, she gave birth to her first child. When she got pregnant again a year later, in 2018, she knew it wasn't the right time for her to raise another.
"Going through pregnancy, you need your own set of care and emotion," she says. "I didn't really give myself the attention I needed after the abortion . . . I was fully happy with my choice, but yet I still had the emotional component."
At the time, Wood was working as a massage therapist at a physical-therapy clinic. After the abortion, she remembers, she'd sneak off to the bathroom at work to cry, sometimes for 20 minutes at a time. The woman who worked the front desk became the first person at the clinic she told about her abortion.
"There was a lot of anger, because [my abortion] was done out of not wanting to make my life harder, I'm already struggling and being mad at circumstances of life," Wood remembers.
"Abortion aftercare is the act of doing something that brings you back to your safety."
The physical recovery from an abortion generally happens within just a couple of days. But aftercare is more all-encompassing, and it's an essential part of the process of ending a pregnancy, experts say. It's a time to care for your mental, emotional, and physical health by pausing to recognize whatever surfaces in the days, weeks, and months following the procedure.
"Abortion aftercare is the act of doing something that brings you back to your safety," says Wood, who is now a student midwife and full-spectrum doula in Las Vegas. Her own experience with the aftermath of receiving an abortion has fueled her passion to help others in similar situations.
Seven months after Roe v. Wade was overturned, many people are seeking out support and information if they or someone they know needs an abortion. For some, particularly in places where trigger bans have gone into effect, the experience before, during, and after an abortion may be more difficult and isolating than it was before the highest court's ruling. Kaleigh Mancha, who has been a full-spectrum doula for 13 years, also notes that the court's ruling came at a unique time: the COVID-19 pandemic impacted family planning for many people and has pushed some people to seek out abortions.
"A lot of people's mental health experiences and lack of community support in the pandemic by defect of quarantine really amplified decision-making around whether to continue to grow a family," Mancha says. "For people that I've supported recently, a large part of their concern was 'I had to take a step back' or 'I had to work a lot during the pandemic and now I need a break, I'm burnt out.' For the last three people I supported, that was their primary reason for seeking out an abortion."
Aftercare for yourself or for someone who has had an abortion can vary slightly depending on the kind of abortion received, whether a medication abortion (which involves one or two pills) or a surgical abortion (having a procedure in an office or hospital setting), says Serina Floyd, MD, the medical director of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC, and a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist for the past 20 years.
"Caring for oneself after an abortion is very important and begins with understanding what an individual can expect during the procedure, but especially what to expect afterwards," she says. "Having clear and detailed guidance on what is normal and what is not helps calm fears and reduce anxiety about what someone may be experiencing."
Both Wood and Mancha also emphasize the idea that getting an abortion is an experience: there's a before, during, and after. Many different emotions and physical sensations may come up in each of these stages, and it's important to stay open and listen to yourself to know what you need.
With this in mind, keep reading for some of the standout essentials for proper abortion aftercare.
Find a Support Person
You don't have to go through this experience alone — in fact, experts say you should try not to. It can be difficult both emotionally and mentally to go through an abortion. Wood emphasizes that holidays were tough after her abortion, particularly Mother's Day.
"Have at least one person who can share space with you, check in on you so that they can be with you throughout the process," Mancha says. Ideally, this is someone who can be there with you before, during, and after the abortion, whether that's driving you to a clinic for your appointment or being on standby in your home while a medication abortion is administered. For many, this person can be a trusted family member, a friend, or an abortion doula. Medicaid covers doula services in several states, and California joined that list on Jan. 1.
It's also important to remember that getting an abortion is an incredibly individual experience. You may expect to feel one way before but feel something completely different afterward.
"For some, it can be a matter-of-fact event. For others, they can experience a range of emotions including happiness, sadness, anxiety, guilt, empowerment, grief, or relief, much like they may experience after having a baby," Dr. Floyd says. "Often, these feelings are strongest soon after the abortion, but most people find they do not last long. Having a support system that one can confide in and talk to can be very helpful."
Gather Materials to Have on Standby
Being prepared for the physical recovery of an abortion can also help your state of mind. Here's a shopping list that experts recommend.
- Pain meds: There may be some cramping or other discomfort, so be sure to have an NSAID or acetaminophen on hand. "Sometimes, people don't think about it," Wood says. "They're like, 'I don't take pain meds so I don't really need them.' Get the pain meds; baby yourself!" It's also important to note that if you have taken abortion pills, you may have a low-grade fever, which is normal in the 99-100°F range. Be sure to stay hydrated.
- Sanitary pads: If you've had an abortion by medication, bleeding, vaginal discharge, and cramping are to be expected and will usually start within a few hours of taking misoprostol, which is generally used together with mifepristone to end a pregnancy, Dr. Floyd says. "Bleeding and cramping are the strongest when the pregnancy is being passed, and often bleeding is heavier than a period but will then slow down," she adds. If you are bleeding through two or more sanitary pads in less than an hour for two hours or more, that could be a sign of too much bleeding, and it's a good idea to talk to a doctor. Here are other signs you should talk to a doctor.
- Heating pad: To relax your muscles and soothe abdominal pain, Dr. Floyd advises placing a heating pad or hot-water bottle on your abdomen while you rest. "Warm showers and massage of the stomach or lower back can also help relieve discomfort," she says.
Create a Cozy Space For Yourself in the Weeks Following the Abortion
Comfort is essential in the couple of weeks after getting an abortion. It can be easy to go down the checklist of water, pain meds, and sanitary pads in the days after, but truly taking care of your mental health means finding something that makes you feel safe, Wood says: "If you have a specific movie that's your movie, find the thing and have it ready. If you liked a cartoon growing up, find out a way to watch that cartoon." Have clean sheets nearby, extra pillows to prop you up, or a fuzzy blanket to stay warm under, she adds.
The act of letting yourself rest can be difficult, but it's important both physically and mentally after the abortion. Avoiding strenuous activity in the few days after an abortion can also help keep cramping, bleeding, and pain at bay. Mancha advises asking yourself: "Can you have a low-impact day? Can you stay hydrated? Can you stay nourished? Because it is a physical experience that is really difficult to do while managing what might be your typical daily life."
Learn More About Abortion Aftercare
Many patients will begin to have a normal period again four to six weeks after an abortion, Dr. Floyd says.
Experts generally recommend waiting to have sex until you feel physically recovered from the abortion itself, and if another pregnancy is not desired, experts recommend using contraception right away, too. "Pretty much any method can be started immediately after medication and procedural abortion," Dr. Floyd says, though she notes that it's important to ensure the pregnancy has completely passed before placing an intrauterine device (IUD).
It can feel isolating to go through the termination of a pregnancy, but knowing that so many others have experienced this and help is out there is imperative to keep in mind. Being equipped with information at all stages of the process can help — and can be especially crucial for your mental well-being and processing the abortion. Here are a few more resources to explore:
- There is a podcast episode from Therapy For Black Girls called "Healing After an Abortion," a conversation between host and licensed psychologist Dr. Joy Harden Bradford and Keisha Wells, LPC.
- Wood suggests her clients check out the Plan C Pills Resource Guide for an abortion FAQ and other great resources.
- Dr. Floyd recommends the talklines Exhale and Connect & Breathe for free confidential counseling with experienced counselors.