As the Supreme Court prepared to hear arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, hundreds of post-abortive women shared their stories in amicus briefs. Pro-abortion activists are now recognizing what abortion healing ministries have known for decades: women and men who were part of abortion decisions and procedures benefit from telling their stories. This can be a cathartic and empowering experience, ending their secrecy and isolation and putting them on the road to recovery.
It’s not only telling the stories that is powerful. Hearing such stories can also have a profound impact on those who have not experienced abortion. Savvy pro-abortion advocates have begun to use the power of personal stories to support allegations that Texas abortion restrictions unfairly limit women’s access to an essential and empowering medical procedure.
As co-founders of Rachel’s Vineyard post-abortion recovery programs and the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, respectively, we have each encountered thousands of women and men across the United States and around the world who have experienced abortion loss. Their stories reveal that many women and men are deeply wounded by their experience of abortion.
Positive or Traumatic?
A recent piece in The Washington Post captures these divergent experiences. It begins:
Kate Banfield and Tammy Romo-Alcala have never met. But more than 25 years ago, the two women found themselves in the same position: freshmen in college, pregnant and scared of derailing all they had worked toward.
Both women, on a day each recalls vividly, walked into a Dallas abortion clinic.
It’s what happened when they walked out, and in the weeks and decades that followed, that places them on opposite ends of the most significant abortion case to be heard by the Supreme Court in a quarter of a century.
Banfield, who graduated from college and is now a mother of three, said she has no regrets. “I knew I did what was right for myself,” she said
Romo-Alcala, who dropped out of school and had two children before undergoing a hysterectomy at age 28, said she should have had the baby. “Women need to know your life doesn’t go on being the same,” she said.
Is it possible, as Banfield’s story suggests, that some women have no negative after-effects, physical symptoms, internal conflict, or painful feelings after the procedure? Do some women see their abortions as necessary, positive, and even empowering experiences?
Clearly, Banfield’s abortion did not lead to the debilitating physical and emotional symptoms that Romo-Alcala experienced. She was able to complete college, meet her future husband, and begin a family on the timetable she believed to be best.
But this is only a partial picture of what happens during the decision to have an abortion, the procedure itself, and the aftermath. Even when an abortion appears to have been a positive and empowering experience, it inevitably and intimately impacts women’s bodies and emotions in ways that sharply contradict the narrative of empowerment and liberation.
Is the Female Body Pro-Choice?
The foundation of the pro-abortion movement is the mantra “My body, my choice.” The problem is, this pro-abortion language of personal rights and physical autonomy is clearly at odds with the natural response of the female body to a healthy developing fetus. The female body is not at all ambivalent about the abortion issue. When a woman becomes pregnant, everything in her body is gearing up to welcome the new life she carries. At conception, a complex transformation begins, one that is designed to protect and nurture the developing fetus. A mere eight days after fertilization, the growing embryo produces human chorionic gonadatropin, HCG. HCG is what enables the pregnancy to continue—and what gives a positive result on a pregnancy test. Endocrinologist Joel Brind calls this “baby’s first cry.”
When a woman decides not to carry her child to term, a division takes place in her mind and heart. This is powerfully apparent for women whose abortion decisions are fraught with anxiety, confusion, and pressure or coercion from others. Yet it is also true for those who seem to approach the decision with ease.
Rachel’s Vineyard has held over one thousand weekend healing programs in the last twelve months alone. As women and men who were involved in abortion go through that healing process, they begin to understand that the heart of their wound—and the source of the many painful symptoms that arise after the abortion—actually begin prior to the procedure, in the emotional rejection of that unborn child. All who participate in the death of their unborn child share an experience of emotional disconnection that begins once the possibility of abortion enters the conscious mind.
Consider what Ashley, who had an abortion in her sophomore year of college, has to say:
When I found out I was pregnant, everyone that I shared this with, including the baby’s father, convinced me that abortion was the only right decision. To be honest, it’s also what I wanted to hear. I was scared and just wanted to get things back to how they were before I was pregnant. But looking back on it now, I also realized there was a part of me that wanted to embrace and love that baby, even as scared as I was. I didn’t really see that until I took responsibility for the fact that my boyfriend and I sacrificed our child’s life out of fear. The truth is I aborted her first in my heart before I even had the procedure. That was so painful to finally acknowledge many years later.
The Washington Post reports: “More than anything [Kate Banfield] wanted to be a mother someday but knew she wasn’t ready.” This sentiment reveals a fundamental difference between pro-choice and pro-life perspectives. The pro-abortion side contends that a woman becomes a mother (and her fetus a person) when she is ready to make a rational positive assent to carry and birth the child. But from a purely biological perspective, once conception occurs, the woman is already a mother, and an intimate physiological relationship has begun.
For a woman to consider abortion her best option, she must reject any intuitive sense that she is already a mother to her child. This denial, whether conscious or unconscious, is the beginning of a powerful conflict between the natural love of a parent for her developing child and a pressing need to repress this truth of the human heart, burying any painful feelings and memories of the abortion. The enduring consequences of this internal conflict can contribute to the common symptoms experienced after abortion, such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and sleep disturbance.
Even for women like Banfield, who are able to function quite well and achieve success after their abortion, there can still be emotional and relational fallout. Women and men often do not think there is any causal connection between their past experiences with abortion and their tendencies to over-work, relationship issues, addictions, emotional problems, or anxiety-based parenting. Of course, there can be many other reasons for these symptoms. Still, abortion can be a contributing factor, even for those who still view it as the right choice.
Regardless of one’s position on abortion, the prevalence of these post-abortion symptoms calls attention to the disconnection and loss that is an unavoidable part of this procedure.
The Hero of the Story
With this understanding of the complex and dynamic physical and emotional experience of abortion, we can better understand Banfield’s need to tell her story in a way that makes her seem strong and powerful. Banfield recalls that “she mouthed the rowing phrase ‘power 10’ — used to push rowers to find a new depth of strength — as she walked with a friend, arms linked, past a man shouting in her face and into a clinic that performed the procedure.”
This way of telling the story does not portray Kate as a victim who is controlled by her circumstances or as a villain who sacrifices her child for her own personal gain. No, in this telling, Kate is the hero: a brave and courageous woman who was able, in the midst of a crisis, to remain focused, resolute, and powerful. By sheer force of will, she fights through the storm of hostile pro-lifers to bravely embrace her destiny.
This is the narrative and emotional construct that enables Banfield to proclaim to the Supreme Court, her family, and the world that aborting her child was the right thing to do.
This is also an illustration of the limited way in which pro-abortion advocates allow women to talk about their abortion experience by pro-abortion advocates. For Banfield, understanding her own story in this way keeps her from exploring any grief, pain, or guilt she may feel and any ways that her disenfranchised grief may have hurt her or affected her life.
When we talk to women who have reconciled their abortion loss and attended an abortion recovery program, we hear a much more comprehensive understanding of that abortion experience reflected in their stories. We hear the reasons they had their abortion; the pressure from fathers and family to abort; the fear, anxiety, and perhaps selfishness that may have been part of that decision.
They can honestly share the ways in which they felt unprepared to deal with the responsibilities of being a mom and explain any connections this may have had to their family history. They can acknowledge if their abortion allowed them to go on and pursue educational and career goals. But they can also humbly share that this was not without consequences and tell of the physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual damage that their participation in the child’s death brought into their lives.
It’s Time to Open Up the Story
There are millions of Kate Banfields out there. We have personally worked with thousands of them in our years of post-abortion counseling. Judy and Susan, two post-abortive women, were like Banfield and millions of others: they declared themselves to be pro-choice, with no regrets about their choice. Yet years later, they came to a fuller understanding of their abortion experiences.
I was a successful broadcaster and strongly pro-choice for many years following my abortion in college and in my second abortion a few years later. It was later in my life when I began a process of deepening my faith life that I looked more honestly at my experience. I realized that the prescription sleep medicine and antidepressants, the tendency to work and drink too much at times were connected to my buried grief and loss about my two abortions.
It was after my father died that my twenty-year pro-choice attitude started to soften. I started thinking about the child that I aborted while in graduate school and wondered if my father would meet this child in heaven. Once I went through a healing program I was able to see how my parenting was very much affected by my abortion.
I was what people now call a “helicopter parent.” I was a good mom in many ways, but I was also at times over-involved and over-anxious about my kids. We have all grown up together, and they are doing fine now, but I was diverting some of that buried grief and anxiety about my abortion experience onto my relationship with my living children.
It’s a relief now to be able to acknowledge my daughter that I lost to abortion but also have the healing experience of discovering that I never stopped being a mother of my aborted child. I was able to develop a spiritual relationship with my daughter. I didn’t realize that at the deepest part of my being I was wounded, and now I have a deep sense of peace and gratefulness that I was open to that journey of healing.
Can our culture really only offer one narrative to women? Is the only narrative we allow one that forces women to sacrifice something that is so essential to their identities? Must women choose between embracing motherhood and pursuing their goals?
Abortion is a complex issue, even when the decision appears to be the only clear and rational course of action. We can’t minimize the anxiety and stress of an unplanned pregnancy and the conflicts that pregnant women face. But abortion is not just a choice—it is not a mere decision, based on a list of “pros” and “cons.”
Abortion is fundamentally about relationship, a relationship that is broken by the procedure—and one that desperately needs to be healed.
Kevin Burke, LSW, is the co-founder of Rachel’s Vineyard and has worked in post-abortion ministry for more than two decades. Janet Morana is the executive director of Priests for Life and co-founder of the Silent No More Awareness Campaign.