What is Aspiration?

Hundreds of times a week patients ask me, or our other patient educators, what clinics mean when clinics advertise the “aspiration procedure”. Currently this is one of the most misunderstood terms in the abortion providers’ world.

The term aspiration for doctors simply refers to any medical procedure where fluid or air is removed from the body cavity using suction.

Based on this definition, almost all abortion procedures performed in the US between 5 and 12 weeks into the pregnancy are considered aspiration procedures. The most common of these procedures, most common referred to in marketing and educational materials as the Surgical Abortion, is an aspiration procedure which uses an electrically powered vacuum machine to produce the suction required to remove the pregnancy tissue from the uterus. Although this sounds cold, clinical and a bit frightening the amount of suction generated is actually very minimal. It is similar to suction used by the dentist to remove extra saliva from a patient’s mouth during a dental exam.

However, recently many abortion providers have begun to offer what they are calling a safer “non surgical aspiration” procedure as a better alternative to the usual surgical option. This is actually a misrepresentation of what the procedure being offered actually is.

What is being offered is actually still a surgical procedure. It does not use curettage, or scraping, but neither does the vacuum aspiration procedure commonly called the surgical abortion. In both cases a thin tube, called a cannula, is passed through the cervix in order to remove the pregnancy tissue. The difference is in how the suction is produced during the procedure.

In the Manual Vacuum Aspiration Procedure (MVP), often advertised as simply the Aspiration procedure, the suction required is generated manually using a syringe – like device. It creates similar of gentle suction as the electrically powered vacuum machine.

The Manual Vacuum Aspiration Procedure was developed in the 1960s as part of the Feminist Women’s’ Health Movement originally for menstrual extraction, a means of removing a woman’s period bleeding all at one time. It was also used as a means of early abortion before abortion became legal in the in 1973.

Because MVP can be performed without general anesthesia and without the need for electricity it has been particularly important in providing abortion access to the developing world. The US provided thousands of MVP kits to countries in African, South American, and East Asia until 1973 when anti abortion lobbyists put a stop to it.

This practice of MVP, clocked under the guise of menstrual regulation, still exists and is supported in Nations where abortion is illegal.

“In Bangladesh, for example, although abortion is illegal the government has long supported a network of menstrual regulation clinics. Some other countries allow menstrual regulation because it presumably takes place without a technical verification of pregnancy,” according to Carol Joffe, an expert in the field.

It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s that the US started to show renewed interest in the Manual Aspiration Procedure as an alternative to electric vacuum aspiration.