What is a Threatened Abortion?

One thing that often causes confusion when talking about abortion is that the term can be used by doctor to refer to natural miscarriages as well as to pregnancy terminations. Most people are unfamiliar with the medical use of the word abortion, so it can be very confusing to hear terms such as threatened abortion.

Medical Terms for Miscarriages and Abortions

Medicine has a lot of different terms relating to pregnancy, all of which have slightly different meanings. It can be confusing to hear these terms when you don’t understand the differences between them, so it is worth sharing them here so that you know what they mean:

  • Abortion is when a pregnancy ends before the embryo is ready to survive by itself
  • Miscarriage is when the pregnancy is lost during the first 24 weeks, without any intervention to cause the abortion
  • Stillbirth is when the pregnancy is lost after 24 weeks (either in the womb or during birth)
  • Pregnancy termination is when the pregnancy is ended on purpose, either through medication or a surgical procedure. This is what most people mean when they talk about abortion.

Threatened Abortion

Knowing that abortion is sometimes used as a medical term for a miscarriage can help us to understand the term threatened abortion. To the average person, it sounds as if it describes a woman who is threatening to end her pregnancy. However, what this term actually refers to is vaginal bleeding that happens during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.

A small amount of bleeding or spotting is common during the first weeks of pregnancy, but some women will have heavier bleeding or be affected later in the pregnancy. Approximately 20-30% of women will experience bleeding at some point during the first 20 weeks. This is known as a threatened abortion because bleeding is one of the signs of miscarriage.

If you notice bleeding during pregnancy then it is important to talk to your midwife or doctor, or to seek emergency treatment if the bleeding is heavy. In some cases, the bleeding will be a sign of miscarriage, especially during the first trimester. However, approximately 50% of women who experience bleeding in the first 20 weeks will continue to term. This is why bleeding is known as a threatened abortion, because it won’t always end in a miscarriage. The big difference between a threatened abortion and a miscarriage or pregnancy termination is that it won’t end the pregnancy.

Pregnancy Termination

The main difference between pregnancy terminations and miscarriages is that they are intentional and caused by medication or surgery. We still don’t know exactly what causes most miscarriages and threatened abortions. It can sometimes be due to an obvious cause such as an infection or injury, but in other cases we are unable to tell why it happened.

However, the process of having a termination can actually be very similar to a miscarriage. A medical abortion will cause the womb to empty itself, while the procedures used during surgical abortions are also used to stop heavy bleeding or prevent complications after a miscarriage.

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