The National Catholic Review

In the lecture he gave when he received the Nobel prize for literature in 1970, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn remarked about totalitarian states: Violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood.... Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his method must inexorably choose falsehood as his principle.... [Violence] cannot continue to exist without descending into a fog of lies, clothing them in sweet talk.

His observation applies equally to abortion, and not simply to the act of abortion itself. Others have observed how effectively the words choice and procedure obscure the violent wrenching of limbs from torsos, so we need not rehearse the obvious here. Legalization efforts were supported by brazen lies claiming thousands of deaths from back-alley abortions and a feigned need to abort passels of children conceived through rape and incest. These falsehoods, too, have been refuted elsewhere.

But what about deception related to abortions aftermath? The industry and sympathetic journalists have done their utmost to convince people that abortion has no moral or emotional dimensions. A little pain and its over; you get on with your life, better than before. For example, hoping to launch a pre-emptive strike last April against the U.S. bishops jubilee year post-abortion program in Boston, a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman informed the press that only two to four women call for counseling out of the 1,000 monthly who have abortions at the organizations clinics. When women call for counseling, she added, its mostly over religious or cultural shame. Ouch! A low blow, but hardly original. Frances Kissling, head of a group with the oxymoronic name Catholics for a Free Choice, said in a press release on April 17: If the church...told the truth about church teachings that leave room for women to decide to have abortions in good conscience [note: no citation for this assertion is supplied], and offered non-judgmental spiritual counseling before the abortion decision was made, there would be no need for post-abortion reconciliation.

The reality common to very many women who have had an abortion, a consequence observed over 16 years of post-abortion counseling through the churchs Project Rachel ministry, is that of an interior life scarred by grief, loss, shame, regret, anger, emptiness, sadness, isolation and a sense of worthlessness. Even among women who profess no particular faith, there are many who think they have committed what they believe is the unforgivable sin.

One online survey asked women to describe their feelings about a prior abortion. The responses were as follows: 15 percent felt relief; 80 percent felt guilt; 83 percent felt regret; 79 percent felt loss; 62 percent felt anger; and 70 percent were depressed. While distress may overwhelm a woman soon after abortion, more typically women seek help only after five or seven or more years of living in a private hell where nothing they may have tried lessened their painnot denial, escapism, workaholism, substance abuse or replacement babies. The intensity of these feelings, and the disruption they cause, range from relatively mild to severe and even life-threatening.

Recently, studies that were published in Finland, England and elsewhere, based on unimpeachable records, provided insight into the prevalence of abortions traumatic consequences. Researchers found a far greater risk of mental health problems among women who have had an abortion (including a sevenfold higher risk of death by suicide and fourfold increase in accidental death) compared to women who had given birth.

The August 2000 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry reports on a two-year longitudinal study of post-abortion women. Despite methodological flaws, which no doubt lead to understating the prevalence of post-abortion distress (a 15 percent rate of refusal to participate and a 50 percent drop-out rate at the critical two-year mark), there is much here that is troubling. For example, 1.36 percent of women studied suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If 30 million U.S. women have had an abortion, that would mean at least 408,000 may suffer from PTSD. Twenty percent of the study sample were diagnosed with clinical depression. Extrapolating this rate, at least six million women became clinically depressed following an abortion.

The Response of the Catholic Church

Long before such research was available, the bishops Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities (issued in 1975 and reaffirmed in 1985) urged development of pastoral programs of reconciliation and healing for those involved in abortion. Today, 136 dioceses have post-abortion services, usually called Project Rachel. The basic components are few: a dedicated telephone line to receive calls for information/counseling; a staff trained to answer calls and make referrals; and a network of priests and lay professionals trained in post-abortion counseling. Some dioceses also conduct weekend retreats for women who have had abortions.

Project Rachel is a treasure of the church. It is also, unfortunately, one of its best kept secrets. Advertising is out of the question, given budget constraints. Most who are engaged in this work make do with church bulletin announcements, rare notices in the diocesan press and occasional homilies mentioning abortions aftermath.

Because there are so few public references, many women think their grief is abnormal and that there is nowhere to turn for helpcertainly not to the Catholic Church! From the earliest days of abortion advocacy, its proponents have characterized the church as anti-woman, anti-progress and opposed to any sexual act that did not result nine months later in a birth. The churchs public opposition to abortion no doubt reinforced these misperceptions. Its years of drawing attention to the awesome mystery of fetal development and the undeniable humanity of unborn children have been used as ammunition to accuse both the church and all others who are pro-life of caring only for the rights of the unborn and not for the rights of womenas if these were mutually exclusive. But the interests of the mother and her unborn child are the same. Injure one and both suffer. Pope John Paul II observes in his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae (1995) that, although it often happens that many people bear the responsibility for an abortion, it is usually only the childs mother who bears all the suffering.

To help women across the country to know that post-abortion forgiveness and counseling are available, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee for Pro-Life Activities has undertaken a major public initiative to extend Gods healing and forgiveness to all who grieve over the loss of a child through abortion. This effort at outreach, begun in the current jubilee year and extending into 2001 and beyond, consists of three phases.

Phase One (summer 1999): The N.C.C.B. Secretariat for Priestly Life and Ministry and the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities (202-541-3070) developed materials for priests to help them meet the special challenges of hearing confessions involving abortion and of counseling women suffering because of abortion. Post-Abortion Ministry: A Resource Manual for Priests contains information about abortions emotional, psychological and spiritual aftermath, recommendations for pastoral ministry to those hurting from abortion, suggestions for making the parish a center for hope and healing and a summary of canon law on abortion. An audio-taped review of the written material and a sample prayer card are included. More than 90 diocesan bishops sent these materials to their priests and there are over 10,500 in circulation.

Phase Two was launched with the Respect Life Program in October 1999. The programs poster depicts Jesus reaching out to a repentant woman, with the words Neither do I condemn you. The program flier discusses the churchs mission to heal the broken-hearted...to comfort all who mourn, including especially those whose hearts most urgently yearn for reconciliation and peace after abortion.

When the flier was distributed in parish bulletins nationwide, one Catholic woman sent e-mail to the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing, asking for the number of the nearest Project Rachel office. She wrote in part: Today a small folded piece of paper entitled Neither Do I Condemn You fell out of my church bulletin, and it gave me such joy to know that the church realizes how hard it is to live when you know you have aborted a child. And for me it is especially hard because my husband and I cannot have our own children. You know I bet there are many women out there who would like to come to church but have not forgiven themselves, let alone expect the church to forgive them.... And for most of us, we suffer in silence.

A special prayer card, Prayer for Healing, asks God to forgive [a woman who has had an abortion] her sin, restore her to...grace and still the terror of her heart with a peace beyond all understanding. More than 350,000 of these cards have been distributed. An article in the Respect Life packet focuses on abortions aftermath and the churchs ministry of healing.

Phase Three was launched last February and March in the dioceses of Baltimore, Washington and Arlington. Prior to the kick-off of a major media effort, the local church increased its ability to respond to an expected tenfold increase in calls and referrals. Components included the following:

Four 60-second radio ads in English (two in Spanish) drawn from the words of women who shared their stories with us. They so effectively convey womens experiences that callers readily identified with them. Each ad concludes with the hopeful message that help and healing are available.

A billboard featuring a womans haunted eyes with the legend: Something inside dies after an abortion. This theme emerged from personal testimonies and stories. Women commonly express the feeling that a part of themselves died in the abortion clinic along with their childfor example, their spirit, innocence, belief in themselves as a good person, values, connectedness to family and friends, sense of self-worth, their dreams and plans for the future.

Three transit placards with brief quotations such as I let you convince me there was nothing good about having the baby. Beth and Not one day goes by that I dont think of my baby boy. Cathi.

A poster combining the billboard image with the text of the third placard: It has burned a hole in my soul and changed my life forever. Margo.

A brochure, How to Talk to a Friend Whos Had an Abortion, designed for women who have had an abortion, as well as their families and friends.

A Web site, www.hopeafterabortion.com, offers articles by experts on the psycho-social consequences of abortion. It also describes Project Rachel and lists office locations and phone numbers. It posts womens experiences in their own words, describes the Jubilee outreach, includes consoling prayers and Scripture readings and lists additional resources.

The results of the pilot outreach: Over 1,500 phone calls for counseling or information were made to the three Project Rachel offices in about two months. The number of women and men referred for counseling/reconciliation increased 13-fold. But that tells only part of the story.

We know from reports by priests that during the campaign more women and men than usual contacted them directly for confession or for counseling related to an abortion. Staff of social service agencies and medical professionals called to request training in post-abortion counseling. Young pregnant women called to ask about alternatives to abortion. Callers were from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Many inactive Catholics and persons of other faith communities also called for help, and the great majority of them asked to be referred to priests. Overall, the outreach brought healing to individuals and created positive feelings toward the church within the larger community. Six months after the public program, referrals remain significantly higher than pre-outreach.

How have priests reacted to this outreach? Letters provide feedback from local priests, who express awe at the power of Gods love to transform a wounded soul and restore her to her proper place as a child of God. The writers speak of undergoing a tremendous surge in understanding Gods mercy and love for all his people, as women come back to the church who have not felt welcomed since the day of their abortion. These women are moving witnesses to the priests and to their families and friends: They come broken and leave not just healed but, in many cases, healers.... Although the calls felt overwhelming at times, the number of people reached by the program has been remarkable. Without a doubt, Project Rachel has been one of my most powerful encounters with the grace and power of Jesus Christ in my priesthood.

More than a dozen dioceses and states are now in the planning stages of local outreach programs. One hopes that similar efforts will be undertaken throughout the nation, so that those who suffer alone in silence can come to know that help and healing are possible, if only they discard abortions comforting lies and embrace the truth of their sin and Gods healing love. One woman who found this healing after a retreat wrote:

After 20 years of drug and alcohol abuse and after bitterness and anger with my mother and family, I finally faced the truth from which I had hidden since undergoing the procedure. I destroyed my unborn children. Until I faced the truth of what I had done, I could not understand why I resented other women, especially mothers; why I would not trust men, and why the pursuit of fun could not cancel an abiding sadness in my life. I had faced the lie. I had faced the death of my children and also, in a very real way my own deaththe emptiness was that something in me had died, I regret the actions I took and I miss my children. On the last day of the retreat I knew I had been forgiven by God, by my children and by the church. In a second, I felt the love of God flow in and I was fully restored by him. I was reborn.

Susan E. Wills was for some years a practicing attorney and is currently the assistant director for program development at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for Pro-Life Activities in Washington, D.C.