At that moment, the tiny stranger beamed me a toothless smile and stretched his plump hands toward me. Gently I grasped the little paws in a delicate handshake.
The encounter was a small, seemingly insignificant event. Yet in the old days I would have reacted in a remarkably different way. I certainly wouldn’t have stopped to talk to the baby. Instead, I would have walked quickly away, overcome with grief.
A terrible, raw guilt had festered in me for many years. Ever since the day I had walked into a trendy women’s health clinic and filled out the paperwork for what I believed was a simple medical procedure. At the time I was an ardent feminist as well as an atheist. I had studied ethics in graduate school and was fully versed in all the philosophical arguments for and against this particular procedure. I firmly believed that abortion was morally acceptable if performed in the early stages of a pregnancy. I firmly believed that a woman’s rights took precedence over the rights of the fetus.
None of the philosophical articles I had read ever suggested that the procedure might be any more life-changing than, say, a tooth extraction. Instead, the articles had led me to believe that some tissue would be removed. That would be the end of the storyor so I thought. The articles also failed to mention that I might experience searing pain, so intense that I nearly ripped the hand off the woman who stood by my side, her eyes shining with compassion.
Even though I didn’t believe that what I had done was morally wrong, some instinct told me not to tell people afterwards. So I lived under a crushing weight of secrecy. As the years wore on, I found it puzzling that I never encountered a woman who spoke openly of having an abortion. There seemed to be an invisible veil of shame covering the issue, even among women who apparently saw no moral problems with it.
Gradually I discovered that my heart pulsed to a different beat than my intellect. Every time I saw an infant, my immediate reactions were always the same. How old would my child be now? I would agonize. And What would my child have looked like?
These questions hounded me for years. Still, when I returned to Catholicism about 10 years after the incident, I clung tightly to my intellectual stance on abortion. Despite my own emotional turmoil over my experience, I still believed that a woman should have dominion over her body. Then one day in the library I happened upon a book about Mother Teresa. It didn’t take many pages to convince me that she was an extraordinarily holy woman, but I was perplexed by her vehement rejection of abortion. She’s a virtuous woman, I told myself, but very old-fashioned and seriously out of touch with the realities faced by contemporary women like myself.
One day at Mass the priest read Mother Teresa’s favorite scriptural passage: Whatever you do to the least of these my little ones, you do unto me. A claw of grief clutched my heart. Only with great effort did I manage to stem the tide of tears rising within me. In an agonizing moment of guilt, I finally realized why Mother Teresa was so protective of the unborn, the elderly and the dying. She knew who Christ was referring to when he mentioned the least of these.
I began having flashbacks in which I relived the experience over and over. Each time, I saw myself walking into the clinic. I saw myself climbing up on the table. I felt the crushing pain. I saw the woman standing beside me holding my hand. Wracked with guilt and self-loathing, I wept. How could I have ended my child’s life?
One day, I summoned up all my courage and turned to a priest in the confessional, sobbing as I blurted out the story. He listened quietly and then gently reminded me of Jesus’ words on the cross, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. As the storm of tears continued, the priest explained that I hadn’t realized at the time that I was taking a life. Just as Jesus had forgiven the people who had nailed him to the cross, he would forgive me too. But one question gnawed at me still. Father, I stammered, what happened to that little soul? The priest paused only a moment before replying in a gentle voice, God takes care of the little souls.
A great burden was lifted. God had forgiven me, I realized, as I left the confessional.
In the weeks to come, I repeated the priest’s words mentally over and over: God takes care of the little souls. But the feeling of relief was short-lived, and just a few months later, the flashbacks returned. Maybe God had forgiven me, but I hadn’t forgiven myself.
One day I saw a small notice in our church bulletin about a Catholic group called PATH (Post-Abortion Treatment and Healing). The words seemed to jump off the page at me. When I dialed the phone number, the woman who answered had the kindest voice I’d ever heard. Her name was Mary Anne. When we met, she listened to every detail of my story. Then she assured me that many other women share the same emotional responses of regret and self-recrimination that I was experiencing. She explained that grieving must come before healing, and since I had never really grieved, I never had the chance to heal.
In our meetings over the next few months, Mary Anne allowed me time to grieve. She gave me a workbook written for Christian women who had had an abortion. The book included a series of questions, as well as biblical passages to read, reflect on and discuss. I wept as I reflected and I wept as I discussed my answers with Mary Anne. But there was one question I couldn’t answer: Where was God during the procedure? When I told Mary Anne that I had left that one blank, she looked puzzled but said nothing.
Gradually, I noticed a subtle shift in my emotional landscape. By the time we had finished reading the book, I had made the journey through a dark tunnel of grief and had emerged at a place where I could finally start to forgive myself.
That was five years ago. Just the other day I unearthed the book and read the scrawled responses that I’d written. I pondered anew the one question I hadn’t been able to answer. It still perplexed me.
One night I awoke from a deep sleep and had the answer. I finally realized why I had left the space blank. It was because of my firm conviction that God couldn’t possibly have been there in the clinic with me. The blank space indicated my belief that, just as I’d given up on God, so he had given up on me. But then I remembered Mother Teresa’s favorite passage again. And I remembered her conviction that God disguises himself, appearing in our lives in unexpected ways. In the hungry and the thirsty. In prisoners, in childrenand in strangers.
At that moment, I knew why Mary Anne had looked puzzled when I’d told her about the blank space in the book. I think she suspected where God had been that day.
Even if I couldn’t recognize him, he’d been right there in the clinic with me. But he was concealed within the heart of someone else. And even though I had abandoned him, he had never abandoned me. He was right there in the heart of that woman who had stood faithfully by my side holding my hand.