Pictured: Misoprostol tablets
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like most people who know what's up know the gist of a first trimester abortion procedure. The cervix is minimally dilated, the doctor inserts a small plastic tube through the cervix and into the uterus, the tube is connected to the aspirator, which creates gentle suction to remove the pregnancy tissue, it takes five minutes, all is well, some cramping and bleeding are normal as the uterus return to a non-pregnant state. Everyone get that?
But the second trimester abortion is more shrouded in secrecy, maybe because it's less socially acceptable or because fewer clinics offer it or because it's less common (most abortions take place in the first trimester). I'm not going to get into why women do have second trimester abortions because it doesn't matter. Jezebel offered a pretty comprehensive explanation a few months ago about the ins and outs of the second tri procedure, so I wanted to offer an overview of the process and technicalities. Again, this is based on my own experiences and my clinic's protocols. Your mileage may vary.
A second trimester abortion is known as a D&E, or a dilation and evacuation procedure, and it takes place over the course of two to three days--that's the dilation process. The evacuation part is only about 10 to 15 minutes. There's still no cutting involved--everything is removed through the cervix, and it's still a minimally-invasive and safe procedure. But since the fetus is more developed, the cervix needs to dilate more to accommodate the instruments and the removal.
There are a few options for opening the cervix, including the use of Misoprostol, a medication that softens and opens the cervix or a clinician inserts small, sterile seaweed sticks called laminaria into the cervix. Sometimes, the client takes an anti-anxiety medication beforehand, and some clinicians use local anesthetic on the cervix before inserting dilators. The insertion is quick and the woman can't feel the laminaria once it's in place. It remains snug in the cervix overnight and it absorbs moisture which gently dilates the cervix to the appropriate amount. A dilating cervix causes cramping, but it's manageable, especially with pain medication and heating pads.
If the woman is measuring later in the second trimester, the doctor might also inject Digoxin, a common heart medication, through her abdomen and into the uterus in order to stop the fetal heart. This usually happens on the first day of the procedure, after the laminaria is inserted. Because the cervix is opening overnight, there's a small risk for miscarriage, so this injection is a preventative and humane measure.
The client usually spends the night near the clinic. Clinics are not equipped with overnight facilities, so the client stays in a hotel or with a friend or with someone like Vegan Vagina. And women leave with lengthy instructions and lists of phone numbers in case of emergency. If all goes well, the client returns to the clinic early in the morning for the procedure, itself. It's performed under general anesthesia or with some type of sedation. The doctor removes the laminaria if it was in place and then removes the fetus using suction and instruments similar to those that are used for a first trimester abortion. the process still doesn't cause any problems with fertility, health, etc. (I cannot say that enough.) It's normal to have more cramping and bleeding than after first trimester procedures because the uterus kind of has further to go back to normal, and the woman is more likely to have increased breast tenderness. But it's safe, it's do-able, and most importantly, it's completely necessary for the freedom and well-being of women. And because we, as providers, spend a few days with women going through the D&E process, women and their families who have entrusted us with their freedom and well-being, it's also special for us. Thank you, women.