Shepherding the Flock After Abortion

Rev. Frank Pavone
Pontifical Council for the Family
Reproduced with permission

Abortion has many victims beyond the child who is destroyed. Were all the abortions to stop tomorrow, the Church's work of healing these other victims will have only begun. Within the last ten years, in fact, there has been a proliferation of special groups and programs dedicated to post–abortion healing, and within the last two years, a notable increase in the numbers of people coming forth to seek such healing.

Post–abortion counseling programs exist in Catholic, Protestant, and purely secular formats; research continues to be done by experts in psychology, medicine, and sociology; testimonies of post–abortion women continue to be gathered by pro–life organizations; post–abortion women continue to organize themselves in special groups; the number of men coming forward to tell of their grief at the abortion of their children is growing; ABC's 20⁄20 recently did a segment on the post–abortion healing movement called Project Rachel; a National Memorial for the Unborn continues to grow in which mothers have plaques placed on walls in honor of their aborted children; over 1200 memorial stones have been set up on Church and cemetery property around the nation; and Mass settings as well as an entire Requiem have been written to express the wounds abortion brings.

The priest needs to be able to respond to the needs of the post–abortion movement. As a help, I have briefly highlighted some characteristics of post–abortion grief, limiting myself in this article to the mothers, and offer some guidance regarding our pastoral response.

How Post–Abortion Grief Works: A Summary

Post–abortion grief, in its varying degrees, essentially arises because of the failed attempt of the mother to distance herself from her own child.

In the process of obtaining an abortion, the mother, under degrees of pressure that will vary greatly, establishes some kind of gap or distance between herself and her child. In some cases it is an outright denial that the child is human; in other cases, it is a denial of responsibility for the child. Sometimes this distancing takes on a spiritual expression as the mother says, “I am giving the child back to God.” The abortion of one's child requires a warping of reality in one way or another.

Then the abortion happens, and sooner or later reality starts to reassert itself. That is what causes both the pain and the healing. The mother must break out of denial and face the fullness of reality that her child died, that she played a role in that death, but that she herself still has value and her life can still go on.

The precise manner in which this process plays itself out in each case will differ. Certain factors in place at the time of the abortion, for example, will cause the likelihood of more intense post-abortion grief: later stage of pregnancy, greater ambivalence about the abortion, greater pressure from others, etc. Some women, furthermore, will begin crying over “my baby who was killed” while they are still in the abortion facility. Others will have a sense of great relief. Studies of women after abortion, however, show that seven to ten years down the road, what was initial relief changes into post–abortion suffering.

Often, an event such as the birth of a subsequent child, or the child of a close relative or friend, or simply exposure to the facts of fetal development, brings about the initial realization of the horror of what has happened.

In one way or another, it becomes clearer to the mother that “my child died,” and that realization naturally causes grief. What complicates that grief in the case of abortion, however, is that many respectable elements of society are telling the same woman that there is no reason for the grief. The message coming from society often is, Abortion is your right; it is no big deal; it is a choice provided for you to solve your problems. Meanwhile, the message she receives from her own heart and psyche is I have lost my child; I have experienced a death in the family. This conflict causes what has been called “impacted grief.” The mother is made to feel silly for feeling sad. Her grief is not acknowledged as valid, and therefore does not find adequate expression and relief. Part of what the Church does in the post–abortion ministry is precisely to give that grief a valid expression.

Some elements of post–abortion grief

The suffering of a post-abortion woman takes place on the levels of identity, emotions, and meaning.

Realizing more and more what has happened, her identity comes into question. Who am I? Am I no longer the caring and loving person I thought I was? If I am, how did I do what I did? The awareness that she has participated in the killing of her own child can cause a tremendous fear of harming subsequent children, resulting in an overcompensation whereby she will become overprotective and overanxious.

In the area of emotions, she asks, Why do I hurt so much? Why does what was supposed to be a solution now cause a trauma of its own?

Questions of meaning also arise, like Who is God? What does He think of me now? What happened to my baby?

Studies of those experiencing post-abortion suffering have noted the similarities of such suffering with the characteristics of “post–traumatic stress disorder,” a set of symptoms following a psychologically distressing event which is outside the range of usual human experience. These symptoms include 1) re–experience of the trauma. Recollections of the abortion can intrude upon the person either in sleep or while awake; one may have the feeling it is happening again, or be greatly distressed at reminders of the event, including anniversaries. 2) Avoidance and numbing. This set of symptoms cause a person to draw back from things which are associated with the trauma. In the case of abortion, this means that one may find it difficult to draw close to others emotionally, or to bond to subsequent children. 3) Increased arousal, such as lack of sleep, increased irritability, or difficulty concentrating.

Opening the road to healing

What do we do as priests to open the road to healing?

We first of all need to let people know that forgiveness and healing are available after abortion. Many regard abortion as an “unforgivable sin.” Our preaching and teaching need to echo and re–echo the message that the doors of the Church are open to anyone who has been involved in abortion, whether once or many times, and that to oppose abortion does not mean to oppose those who have them. Rather, it means to embrace them in love and bring them new hope.

Some priests feel that the presence of women in the congregation who have had abortions is a reason to be silent about it. Just the opposite is true, however, because as we have seen, the first step to healing is to break out of denial. Silence motivated by the best of intentions still does not interpret itself, and the woman suffering from abortion may think we are silent because we do not know her pain, do not care, or have no hope to offer. In truth, however, we speak because we do know, do care, and do offer hope.

Our message holds exactly the right balance for the post–abortion woman. She needs to hear that abortion is evil. She is likely quite angry with those who told her the abortion would be “no big deal.” At the same time, she needs to be rescued from despair.

In extending the offer of forgiveness, we need to keep in mind that many who have had abortions will not want to approach priests in their own parish. Parishes should therefore make known opportunities for reconciliation in other parts of the diocese.

The moment of confession

When a penitent confess this sin, the priest must walk a balance between two possible traps.

First of all, he must inspire her with hope and make it clear that God and the Church now forgive this sin. Following the norms in effect in his diocese, the priest at this moment brings one of the most critical elements to the process of post–abortion healing. He affirms for this woman that God still loves her and accepts her, without in any way minimizing the evil that has occurred.

At the same time, it is important not to make the woman feel that everything can or should go back to the way it was before. It can't, anymore than it can for a woman who has lost a child of age 5 or 20. Her child has died, and she is changed forever. There will always be a pain and a grief there that is very legitimate. Our counsel at this moment is to both assure her of forgiveness and to assure her that it is quite normal to continue to suffer from the abortion. Feelings of horror regarding what has happened do not mean she is not forgiven. But they do mean that there is a wound that needs attention and healing.

Those confessing abortion will be at various stages of awareness of this fact. It is a good idea to gently encourage that the person continue to talk to someone about the abortion. Trained Project Rachel counselors, both clergy and lay, are available through the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing, which has a toll free number, 1-800-5-WE-CARE. Cards with this number might be made available in the back of the parish, or the number can be permanently on the Church bulletin.

Regarding a penance for abortion, it has to both be substantial and have a definite closure. Some priests, for example, ask the penitent to offer a week of special prayers, perhaps the Rosary or special periods of adoration, Scripture reading, or other forms of prayer. In such cases the penitent should be reminded that if she forgets the practice on a given day, this does not affect the forgiveness of her sin. Other priests advise that the penitent have masses offered for the child, by going to “a parish” (carefully not indicating that it should be the parish in which she is confessing) and requesting masses for a “special intention.”

Many post–abortion women may feel inclined to become active in the pro–life movement, especially to help others avoid the mistake that they made. Such a step can be extremely helpful for the woman and for the movement. The individual deserves careful guidance in this area, to assess what form of pro–life work she should engage in. Before speaking about her abortion, she needs to have arrived at a certain level of peace and healing, and needs to be sure that she has told the people close to her about it before she speaks publicly.

Helpful practices

In giving further counsel to women who have aborted their children, it is helpful to recall that this woman needs to re–establish the bond with the aborted child, to re–humanize the one who, through a process of distancing and denial, was de–humanized.

One of the most powerful ways to do so is to have her name the child. Many mothers have a sense of whether their aborted child was male or female. Another healthy practice is that of writing a letter to the child, asking forgiveness, expressing grief and love, and looking forward to eventual reunion in the life to come.

Local memorial stones to the unborn provide a validation to the grief of post–abortion women. Such stones can be given a special place on Church property. Individuals may also commemorate their aborted children by having a plaque in their honor placed in the National Memorial for the Unborn (6230 Vance Rd, Chattanooga, Tennessee 37421, phone 800-505-5565). Fliers are available from the Memorial's office.

It is also important for priests to know that women injured by abortion can sue to recover physical or emotional damages. A growing number of attorneys throughout the country have been trained in abortion malpractice litigation. For more information on this avenue, call Life Dynamics Incorporated, 1-800-401-6494.

What happened to my baby?

This question will also be part of the post–abortion healing process, and we answer it by strengthening the person's hope and trust in the goodness and mercy of God. The goal here is more the strengthening of one's trust and confidence than the crafting of precise conceptual answers. Doctrinally, we know the necessity of baptism, and we also know that God gives all the opportunity to be saved. While the Church has not pronounced on the question of how these truths interact in the case of aborted children, she certainly urges us to hope and trust. This is especially true in the words of Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae 99, where he directly addresses those who have had an abortion:

“I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone's right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.”

I Will Hold You in Heaven

In the National Memorial for the Unborn is a painting of a mother with her child in her arms. It is called I Will Hold You in Heaven, and expresses the hope we offer to every post“abortion mother, father, and other relative. It is necessary to face the reality that the child died. In coming to terms with that reality, we also embrace the fuller reality that death has been conquered. The one who should have been held on earth, and whose absence now causes such pain, will indeed be held one day, when death shall be no more and every tear will be wiped away. May every priest, as a minister of the Gospel of Life, effectively extend this hope to the world.