Hope after abortion

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For decades, the Knights of Columbus has worked tirelessly to build a culture of life. In recent years, this has included working closely with those doing pioneering work to heal the often-silent walking wounded: those who have suffered as a result of abortion. We have helped sustain the work of the post-abortion healing ministry Project Rachel; we have co-sponsored two conferences on the effects of abortion on men, and have examined the effects of abortion on parents at a conference at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome.

In the often shrill debate over abortion, such work is vital: It brings healing to those survivors of abortion that are so often ignored — the parents of the aborted child.

I was in Rome the day Pope Benedict XVI pointed this out last year. He said: “In the often purely ideological debate a sort of conspiracy of silence is created in their regard. Only by assuming an attitude of merciful love is it possible to approach in order to bring help and enable victims to pick themselves up and resume their journey through life.”

It is undeniable that there are multiple victims of every abortion. Certainly there is the child, but then there are the parents, the siblings and the medical staff who are affected, too.


To understand this more clearly, let us recall the vision of Father Karol Wojtyła, the truly pioneering figure in the pro-life movement who later became Pope John Paul II. The young Father Wojtyła’s experience as a pastor led him to a deep understanding of the trauma that takes place after abortion. In his book Love and Responsibility (1960), he discussed a woman’s complex emotional response: “Apart from its physical effects, artificial abortion causes an anxiety neurosis with guilt feelings at its core, and sometimes even a profound psychotic reaction. In this context we may note the significance of statements by women suffering from depression … who sometimes a decade or so after the event remember the terminated pregnancy with regret and feel a belated sense of guilt on this account” (284-5).

These are the people who need healing: the women — and men — whose pain from abortion lingers for years. They aren’t an abstraction either; they are our neighbors, our family members and our fellow parishioners. We find them in every walk of life, in every socioeconomic group and in every ethnic group.

Statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, a division of Planned Parenthood, show that between one-third and 40 percent of U.S. women have had an abortion. Thus, an equivalent number of men have been involved as well, and because of this, we must consider carefully the words we use in this debate.

We must also do what we can to help women recognize the humanity of their unborn children, so that others do not make this tragic mistake. Because the vast majority of women who see ultrasound images of their children decide against abortion, the Knights of Columbus Ultrasound Initiative has helped numerous pregnancy resource centers obtain ultrasound machines over the past year, thereby helping women to choose life.

Pope John Paul II’s understanding of post-abortion trauma found an articulate voice in Evangelium Vitae. Speaking directly to post-abortive women, he said: “[D]o not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope…. 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 with 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” (99).

John Paul II also wrote of the pressures that often drive people to have an abortion, pressures we must understand in dealing with those who have been affected. We also need to consider these pressures for those who are considering or might consider abortion. The pope wrote: “Then there are all kinds of existential and interpersonal difficulties, made worse by the complexity of a society in which individuals, couples and families are often left alone with their problems. There are situations of acute poverty, anxiety or frustration in which the struggle to make ends meet, the presence of unbearable pain, or instances of violence, especially against women, make the choice to defend and promote life so demanding as sometimes to reach the point of heroism” (11).

I was at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles when I began to think about the pain and causes of abortion, and the importance of the Church’s role in forgiveness and healing. There, hanging in the alcove where confessions are heard is a print of Rembrandt’s beautiful painting of the return of the prodigal son. In this painting, we see the loving embrace that the father gives his son upon his return. He does not pass judgment; he simply loves and forgives. In this tender moment, love overcomes the wounds of sin and weakness, and healing begins.

Looking at this painting, I was struck by how differently we might approach the abortion debate if we put front and center in our mind this spirit of forgiveness and healing. How we discuss abortion with someone we don’t know, or in public, might change if we consider that there is a 33 percent chance that they have been involved in an abortion. How we craft our Mass petitions on abortion might be different if we stop to think that as many as one in three parishioners may have had a direct experience with abortion. And how we think about the issue might be different if we started from the standpoint of loving and caring for the survivors, while working to protect those at risk — the unborn and their parents alike.

The pain of these parents is no abstraction; it is real. And it is up to us to be the loving embrace of Christ and his Church to those suffering this pain.


The message that abortion causes pain and is not a good choice for a woman is increasingly understood. Polling makes clear that something is changing in the minds and hearts of Americans. The American people no longer support the regime of Roe v. Wade. That’s not a controversial statement; it is simply true.

Roe v. Wade, which has been interpreted to allow abortion without restriction, throughout pregnancy, is at odds with the view of the overwhelming majority of Americans according to several recent public opinion polls, including a comprehensive poll commissioned by the Knights of Columbus.

Two other polls — one by Pew, the other by Gallup — show far more consensus on the issue than the continued divisive political rhetoric would lead us to believe.

Pew found that only 18 percent favored legalized abortion “in all cases.” Twenty-eight percent said it should be legal in “most cases,” 28 percent said it should be “illegal in most cases” and 16 percent said it should be illegal in all cases. In other words, even when polled with broadly worded questions, 72 percent of Americans are against unrestricted abortion

An even more recent Gallup survey grabbed headlines by finding that a majority of Americans now identify themselves as “pro-life.” Furthermore, it found that while 22 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in any circumstance, most do not. Twenty-three percent believe it should be illegal in every circumstance, and 53 percent believe it should be legal “only under certain circumstances.”

The totals: 75 percent of Americans don’t agree with Roe, while only 22 percent of those polled do.

Neither of these polls, however, gives us the full picture. A poll commissioned by the Knights of Columbus and conducted by the Marist College Institute showed among the key findings that:

• 86 percent of Americans would significantly restrict abortion.

• 60 percent of Americans would limit abortion to cases of rape, incest or to save the life of a mother — or would not allow it at all.

• 79 percent of Americans support conscience exemptions on abortion for health care workers. This includes 64 percent of those who identify themselves as strongly pro-choice.

• 69 percent of Americans think that it is appropriate for religious leaders to speak out on abortion.

• 59 percent say religious leaders have a key role to play in the abortion debate.

• 80 percent of Americans believe that laws can protect both the health of the woman and the life of the unborn. This includes 68 percent of those who identified themselves as strongly “pro-choice.”

Additionally, the data showed that since October 2008 nearly every demographic sub-group had moved toward the pro-life position except for non-practicing Catholics and men under 45 years of age.

The data show that the American people are placing an ever-increasing value on human life. Far from the great divide that most people think exists when it comes to the abortion debate, there is actually a great deal of common ground.

Why has there been this sudden shift in public opinion toward the pro-life position? I believe the work of post-abortion healing programs provides a great part of the answer.

With one-third of Americans directly touched by abortion, it’s safe to say that people know people who have been hurt by abortion.

Two statistics from our most recent polling are also very telling on this issue. First, 53 percent of Americans believe abortion does more harm than good to a woman in the long term. The second statistic, released in September 2009, is that in thinking about abortion, that same number, 53 percent, want to hear from women who have had abortions. Only doctors, at 64 percent, had their opinions more in demand.


So, the tide is turning. We saw this at the conferences focusing on men and abortion in San Francisco and Chicago. Even reporters from hostile publications broke down sobbing when confronted with the stories of abortion’s legacy on parents.

Abortion has been sold to our country with the lie that it was a necessary choice for women. Yet, we know it is always a tragic choice. There are no winners in abortion; there are simply the dead and the wounded. I believe that there is no more effective argument against abortion than this.

Mother Teresa said that Christ comes to us in the distressing disguise of the poor. She also said that it is a terrible poverty that a child must die so that people might live as they wish.

Taken together, I believe that the poorest of the poor are those whose poverty lies in the loss of a child. We should consider them the face of Christ in our lives and help them with a kind word, a listening ear, a healing embrace.

Only love can overcome the tragedy of abortion, and that love must begin with each of us.

You know, we sometimes hear from politicians and others that Roe v. Wade is settled law. Last year, at our annual Convention, which we held in Quebec, I told our members that the Knights of Columbus will never consider Roe v. Wade to be settled law. As with any civil rights issue of the past, if we, the people, don’t consider an issue of this magnitude settled law, then it’s not settled law, and it will continue to be legally contested.

As we work to legally protect the unborn, we must also work to help those living with us, wounded by abortion. I think a good model for us in this work is the homily that Pope Paul VI gave at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. He said this: “The old story of the Samaritan has been the model of the spirituality of the council. A feeling of boundless sympathy has permeated the whole of it. The attention of our council has been absorbed by the discovery of human needs… But we call upon those who term themselves modern humanists, and who have renounced the transcendent value of the highest realities, to give the council credit at least for one quality and to recognize our own new type of humanism: We, too, in fact, we more than any others, honor mankind.”

The ministry of the Catholic Church to those affected by abortion seeks to bring that message of the Good Samaritan to those most in need of it. Post-abortion ministries have modeled and exemplified this healing and forgiveness that is at the core of Catholic theology.

Each of us must work to also be that face of Christ’s healing love. We must work to include recognition of the too often invisible walking wounded among us. We must be sensitive to the fact that so many who hear us speak out on the issue of abortion have been hurt by it themselves. We must seek to heal — not condemn — those who have experienced such pain. In short, we must answer our own call to love, sharing that love with those who need it most.