Hope after the trauma and loss of abortion
October 19, 2021
The poignant “letter” from a Catholic woman in our diocese to her aborted child on the preceding pages raises several questions. Some concern her decision to have an abortion in the first place. For example:
- Why do women choose abortion? According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, 74% percent of women say that having a child would interfere with their education, work or ability to care for dependents; 73% say they could not afford a baby; and 48% say they did not want to be a single mother or were having relationship problems.
- Are many women dissuaded from abortion after seeing an ultrasound of their unborn baby? One recent study indicates that women who had already made a firm decision to abort do not change their minds after seeing an ultrasound. However, it can make a difference for women who are still considering their options.
- Is it important for women to have the support of their partners in choosing life? If women choose abortion primarily for social and economic reasons, it seems a foregone conclusion that the ongoing support of a husband or boyfriend is critical. Yet our secular society tends to downplay the man’s role in the decision to continue or terminate a pregnancy. For example, he has no right to intervene to save his child from being aborted.
Yet the majority of questions raised by the letter have more to do with what happens after the abortion. To answer them, the Catholic Voice turned to Ann Peters Miller, a counselor with the Immaculate Heart of Mary Counseling Center (IHMCC) of Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska in Lincoln and one of the Archdiocese of Omaha’s contact persons for Project Rachel.
Miller received her master’s degree from the University of Nebraska in 1989 and is a Licensed Mental Health Practitioner. She has been in practice and providing services at IHMCC for over 30 years. Her clinical practice includes the assessment and treatment of adults with various concerns, including loss and grief.
According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Project Rachel is a ministry of the Catholic Church in the United States for those who have been affected by abortion. It is a diocesan-based network of specially trained professionals, including priests and counselors, who provide care for those suffering in the aftermath of an abortion.
Miller was trained as a Project Rachel counselor in 1992. IHMCC serves as a call center for the Project Rachel ministry.
Q. Is it common for women to deny or minimize the seriousness of their abortion?
Women who have had an abortion have been through a traumatic and painful event. They are in a state of shock and may not be able to admit to what has happened. Our society and Planned Parenthood negate and dismiss the seriousness of this life-altering event. When people are faced with an unplanned pregnancy, even the most religious people consider abortion as an option because Planned Parenthood strives to convince us that the pregnancy is the problem and abortion is the solution.
Q. How do they overcome the lie that they aborted just a blob of tissue?
The way a woman usually is able to see the truth of her actions is when an event in her life triggers it. In the story you shared, this woman was triggered when she experienced a miscarriage. This woman sees this child at the same developmental stage her previous child was aborted. We often see women who present themselves for therapy for other reasons than for the abortion, but they report having an abortion in their past. We meet them where they are at with love and compassion.
Q. Do women need to process their abortion experience?
If a woman is suffering from symptoms that were caused by her abortion, it would certainly be helpful if she were to find healing from her abortion. We now know asking women to tell the story of their trauma only re-traumatizes them, so we use gentler treatment approaches to facilitate healing. Healing is possible. There are several options for healing to take place. God is the divine healer and wants those affected by abortion to seek his limitless love and forgiveness.
Q. What happens if they find healing from their abortion?
Women who find healing from their abortion are able to be life-giving. They were the “walking wounded.” They are now able to live their life in a way that they are no longer carrying around the burden of this trauma. If they are able to find healing from their abortion, there is a huge enlightenment and awakening. It might be likened to the story of St. Paul, in which he describes how “scales fell from his eyes and he saw the truth.”
Q. What if they don’t?
If women suffering from the effects from their abortion are unable to find healing, then they may continue to live in brokenness. The possibility of continuing the cycle of brokenness is possible as well. If they find themselves in similar circumstances, they may have another abortion. Statistics show that 50% of all abortions are women who have had previous abortions. In addition, we know there are generational effects of abortion in which daughters of mothers who have had abortions are at higher likelihood for having an abortion as well. Bottom line, if we are not healing abortions, we are not preventing them.
Q. Do all women grieve over their lost baby after an abortion?
Abortion is a disenfranchised grief, in that it is not recognized as something to grieve. There is no funeral, no sympathy cards, no comfort from friends and relatives, and no grave to visit. As such, the woman may feel uncomfortable sharing her grief with others. If she does share with others, they may tell her there is no reason to grieve. If she is feeling grief, it is helpful for her to have a ceremony that validates this grief. The Catholic Church has a ceremony available called “The Order for the Naming and Commendation of an Infant Who Died Before Birth.” This liturgical resource aims to assist those suffering from the grief of a child who has died without being baptized.
Q. Is this necessary for healing?
A woman will naturally grieve the loss of her child after she recognizes her need for healing. A trained therapist can assist her through this process.
Q. What are the psychological effects of abortion on women?
There are many psychological effects of abortion including the following: guilt, shame and grief, depression, sexual problems, eating disorders, alcohol or drug addictions, problems bonding with subsequent children, and sleep problems.
Q. On their partners?
The effect of abortion on the partner can vary depending on the decision-making process that preceded the abortion. The father may have not even known about the pregnancy and has no knowledge of the abortion; he may have opposed the abortion; he may have known, but kept his feelings of desiring the pregnancy to himself, feeling he needs to support her decision; he may have been ambivalent; he may have supported her having the abortion; he may have pressured her to have the abortion; or he may have abandoned her and taken no responsibility.
In one particular study, men admitted to feeling overwhelmed and had disturbing thoughts of the abortion. Another study showed that men in general do have more difficulty expressing their feelings of grief and loss. Further, men too experience feelings of despair long after the abortion and have a higher risk of experiencing chronic grief.
Q. What kinds of spiritual wounds do women experience after an abortion?
Most women view their abortion as their first serious perceived sin. They don’t feel welcome at church. If they go to church, they often sit in the back. A woman who has had an abortion may feel she is marked, that everyone can see and know what she has done.
Q. How long does it typically take a woman to seek post-abortion healing?
When I was trained in Project Rachel back in 1992, we would generally see women 7-15 years after their abortion. Currently, we see women much sooner after their abortion. When they come in soon after their abortion, their wounds are much rawer.
Q. What typically leads to this decision?
Usually a person reaches out for help when they have shared with someone else that they are struggling after an abortion. This person then refers them to Project Rachel.
Q. How do you approach helping women who have experienced an abortion?
We commend them for coming in as it takes great courage to seek help for this issue. We are merciful and compassionate and meet the woman where she is at in her journey. Project Rachel has a protocol we take them through, but we also use different gentle techniques to help heal the trauma of abortion.
Q. What about men?
The protocol for men would be very similar, but as mentioned earlier, the issue of what occurred and how they reacted to the pregnancy and the decision of the abortion would certainly be addressed. These areas may include feelings of anger if their partner had an abortion against their desire to keep the pregnancy, or feelings of guilt if they encouraged the abortion.
Q. Does God get angry with those who have had abortions?
God is merciful and compassionate. He knows that the situation these women and men were in was a difficult one. He offers love and peace. In “The Gospel of Life,” Pope John Paul II stated, “The Father of Mercy is ready to give you His forgiveness and His peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”
Q. Does God punish them?
Many women do feel punished by God. There are physical, long-term effects from having an abortion. These are mostly related to childbearing issues, such as miscarriage, stillbirth or infertility. The abortion experience predisposes her to the very things she fears the most. When she experiences one of these things, she attributes them to God punishing her.
Q. How does the Church help women and men who regret their abortion heal?
The Church provides a path for reconciliation. One abortion affects up to 25 people. One in four women has had an abortion before the age of 45. These women and men are sitting in our pews. The Church can do more by offering compassion to those who are suffering from abortion.
Q. Can those who have chosen an abortion seek forgiveness from the church by receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation? How has Pope Francis altered this?
There has been a fair amount of confusion about this question in recent years. When people facilitate or commit the sin of procuring an abortion, they not only commit a serious sin, but they also incur an ecclesiastical penalty of automatic excommunication. Typically, it belongs to the bishop of a diocese to lift this ecclesiastical penalty prior to a penitent receiving sacramental absolution in confession.
For many years in most dioceses in the United States, however, priests had already been granted this faculty as a matter of course when they heard confessions. When a woman or another person who was involved in an abortion came to confession to receive healing and forgiveness, the excommunication would also be lifted then and there. This faculty was not universally granted, though, and some dioceses still required a penitent to seek reconciliation with the Church through the bishop before receiving sacramental absolution.
In 2015, during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis extended this faculty to all priests, meaning that every priest had the capacity to lift that canonical penalty. What is more, following the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis extended this permission indefinitely. Pope Francis noted that it is fitting during this time to make the sacrament of God’s mercy, Reconciliation, even more radically available to the people of God – especially those weighed down by sometimes enormous guilt and shame. This is all to say, now more than ever, the doors of God’s mercy are opened wide to women who suffer from the guilt of the sin of abortion, as well as those who helped to procure them. They have only to contact their parish priests to both be forgiven and reconciled with the Church.
Q. How can women and men involved in abortions come to forgive themselves?
Women and men who have had abortions have not sinned against themselves but rather against God. When God has offered his forgiveness and the person has been reconciled with the Church, the person’s acceptance of God’s forgiveness will free them.
Q. Is it possible for those who regret their abortion, through the grace of God, to be reconciled with their lost child?
Through the mercy of God, our hope is that their child is in heaven. If the child is in heaven, this child desires to have their parents to be with them. The child becomes the catalyst for the healing of the parents.
Read the journal entry to an unborn child here: