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News Navigator: How do abortion pills work, and will Japan approve them?

Mifepristone pills, marked "MF," and misoprostol pills, marked "ML," which have been used widely outside Japan as induced abortion medication, are seen in this photo provided by Tokyo University professor Yutaka Osuga.

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about abortion pills used in medical abortions to terminate unwanted pregnancy via oral medication.

    Question: First of all, what is an induced abortion?

    Answer: It's the artificial stopping of a pregnancy and the removal of a fetus and placenta, administered when a pregnant person cannot give birth for various reasons. About 145,000 were done in Japan in 2020.

    Q: What procedures are available in Japan?

    A: Currently, only surgical abortion is allowed. One is curettage, in which a metal instrument is used to scoop out the contents inside the uterus. The other is suction abortion, in which a tube providing a gentle vacuum is used to empty the uterus. The former has a high risk of complications -- including uterine injury in rare cases -- and many women experience mental shock. Surgery isn't cheap either, and costs around 200,000 yen (roughly $1,750).

    Q: Does the abortion pill cause a burden on the maternal body?

    A: The impact on body and mind cannot be underestimated. By taking the medication, the fetus and placenta that have not yet grown will naturally exit the uterus, but it takes more days than surgery would. Painkillers are also needed for the bleeding and pain.

    Q: Is abortion by medication allowed overseas?

    A: Over 80 countries permit it. In many countries, abortion pills are free or cost just hundreds of yen. Some allow online consultations to take the medication at home. The idea is that abortion is an important medical service for women's health and lives. However, some countries and regions entirely prohibit abortion.

    Q: Will it be available in Japan?

    A: In December 2021, a U.K. pharmaceutical company applied for approval to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The examination procedure takes about a year. If approved, it will be Japan's first abortion pill.

    (Japanese original by Satoko Nakagawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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