Since 1988, tens of millions of women have terminated their pregnancies safely and legally with the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol, including over 1.5 million in Europe, over 1 million in the United States, and over 25 million in China. The drugs are now approved in at least 59 countries. Medical abortion accounts for more than 60% of abortions in some European countries, and about 20% in the U.S.
Mifepristone and misoprostol have been on the list of essential medicines of the World Health Organization since 2005. Mifepristone blocks the hormone progesterone needed to maintain the pregnancy, causing the uterine lining to shed. Misoprostol causes contractions resulting in a miscarriage.
Although all drugs have side effects, medical abortion is safer than the use of antibiotics. The risk of fatal anaphylaxis with penicillin is about 1 in 100,000. The overall complication rate of medical abortion, including the most common complication of continued pregnancy, is about 1%.
The advent of medical abortion has also made illegal abortion safer because the drugs are gradually replacing much more dangerous methods such as inserting objects into the uterus, ingesting poisons, or jumping down stairs or off a roof. Many women in developing countries are able to buy the drugs at local pharmacies or online. Although the drugs can sometimes be unsafe when taken incorrectly without medical supervision, a professionalized network has emerged in recent years that offers online medical advice and counseling to women undergoing DIY (“do it yourself”) abortions in countries where abortion is highly restricted. The decrease in the maternal mortality rate from unsafe abortion, from 68,000 in 1995 to 22,000 in 2014 (according to the World Health Organization), may be due at least in part to increased use of safer medical abortion, as well as improved research methods.
Sources / More Information:
Misoprostol (safe usage guide)
World Health Organization, Preventing Unsafe Abortion (2017)