EXPLAINER: Pregnancy complications under abortion spotlight

EXPLAINER: Pregnancy complications under abortion spotlight

Serious pregnancy complications are rare in the United States but they still affect thousands of women each year. They can pose a risk to the health and well-being of both the mother and the fetus, or both. Many are more common in Black patients and contribute to their disproportionately high maternal mortality rate.

Severe situations may require patients to discuss abortion with their doctors, however laws passed or proposed after Roe v. Wade was overturned in June by the Supreme Court have restricted that possibility.

At least 19 states with abortion restrictions allow exemptions if the mother develops a condition with severe or life-threatening health consequences, but determining whether either situation exists can be a challenging judgment call. Physicians feel that new limits on abortion are making it more difficult to allow patients suffering from complications to deteriorate.

Here’s a look at some of the most common pregnancy complications that could lead a doctor to recommend an abortion:


A serious high blood pressure condition that can develop suddenly in pregnancy, typically during the second half, is called preeclampsia.

It develops in about 1 in 25 pregnancies. It can cause blurred vision, swelling of the limbs, and headaches.

Patients may also develop kidney disease from high blood pressure. In severe cases, fluid in the lungs, seizures or strokes may occur.

Treatment may include hospitalization, along with medicines to lower blood pressure and promote fetal lung development. If the mother is in imminent danger, an abortion or induce delivery may be recommended.


Membranes in the fluid-filled amniotic sac that surrounds the fetus often rupture or break at the start of childbirth — commonly called water breaking. In at least 3% of pregnancies, the sac ruptures too early, often leading to preterm birth.

The condition increases chances for a uterine infection. Doctors may recommend ending the pregnancy, especially if water breaks before 24 weeks, when infant survival chances are slim.

Doctors could recommend monitoring patients closely and looking out for signs of infection. Recent studies show that the chances of having a healthy birth and avoiding severe complications in pregnancy are very low.


Ectopic pregnancies are when a fertilized egg grows outside the womb, often in a fallopian tube. It happens in about 2% of U.S. pregnancies.

There is no chance for the embryo to survive, but it can cause the tube to burst, leading to dangerous internal bleeding.

Treatment for less severe cases may include medication that stops the embryo from growing, ending the pregnancy. Otherwise surgery is done, sometimes requiring removing the affected tube.

Doctors emphasize that treatment for ectopic pregnancies is not the same as an abortion.

Some opponents to abortions suggest that ectopic pregnancy could be reimplanted within the uterus. Sometimes, they cite two cases reports from decades ago in medical journals. Experts believe that any attempt to reimplant an embryo in the uterus would cause damage and may not lead to a healthy pregnancy.


The placenta is a crucial structure that develops in pregnancy and attaches to the uterine wall, connecting with the umbilical cord to help nourish the fetus.

In about 1 in 100 pregnancies, the placenta separates prematurely from the womb, after about 20 weeks of pregnancy. This can be life-threatening for the foetus, and may cause maternal bleeding.

Inducing childbirth or ending the pregnancy may be recommended.


Follow AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner at @LindseyTanner.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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