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Expulsion of a fetus from the uterus before it can survive on its own. Spontaneous abortion at earlier stages of pregnancy is called miscarriage. Induced abortions often occur through intentional medical intervention and are performed to preserve the womans life or health, to prevent the completion of a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, to prevent the birth of a child with serious medical problems, or because the woman does not believe she is in a position to rear a child properly. The drug RU-486, if taken within a few weeks of conception, will trigger a miscarriage. Up to about 19 weeks of pregnancy, injections of saline solutions or hormones may be used to stimulate uterine contractions that will expel the fetus. Surgical removal of the contents of the uterus may be performed in the second trimester or later. Intact dilation and extraction procedures may occur in the third trimester; sometimes critically referred to as partial-birth abortions, they have been very controversial. Other abortion procedures include manual vacuum aspiration (extraction by manual syringe) and dilation and suction curettage (extraction by machine-operated suction), both of which can be performed in early pregnancy. The social acceptability of abortion as a means of population control has varied from time to time and place to place throughout history. It was apparently a common method of family limitation in the Greco-Roman world, but Christian theologians early and vehemently condemned it. It became widely accepted in Europe in the Middle Ages. Severe criminal sanctions to deter abortion became common in the 19th century, but in the 20th century those sanctions were gradually modified in many countries. In the U.S. the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision had the effect of legalizing abortion during the first three months of pregnancy; states were able to implement restrictions on access to abortion after the first trimester, though within constraints set by the courts. Since that decision, there has been a fierce debate between supporters and opponents of a liberalized abortion policy.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on abortion, visit Britannica.com.