"Kristen decided to share her secret with someone she trusted, a youth pastor. He told her something that forever changed her life and the life of her baby. 'Abortion is not an option,' he said. 'Two wrongs don’t make a right.' The kind pastor suggested that adoption would be a more loving option. 'His words reminded me that this was a baby we were talking about.'"
Not all Christian pastors would have spoken these words to Kristen, and not all Christian denominations teach their clergy to counsel in this way. I know this, tragically, from personal experience.
In 1987 I became "with child." I was not married and not in a relationship with the father. I had already been seeing a counselor for several months. She was a Presbyterian minister. When I told her I was pregnant, she agreed with everyone else I'd consulted that abortion was the only solution that made sense in my situation. Like everyone else, she said nothing about a baby. There was no acknowledgment that I was already my child's mother and responsible for his welfare, no warning of the great damage that abortion would do to my life, my heart, my mind, or my soul.
I'd joined the Catholic Church as a freshman in college, by myself, by my own choice. The next year I transferred to a Jesuit university. For three years I attended Mass almost daily, took more than the required number of theology classes, and centered my social life around a charismatic prayer group. For a few years after college I remained very involved with my home parish in a variety of ways. Then, in my mid-twenties I got a job at an Episcopal school, where I was employed for four years. Long before the end of the first year of that job I had stopped going to Mass and was attending the Episcopal church every Sunday instead. After the abortion I pretty much gave up on church for more than twenty years. In all the years prior to the abortion and until my return to the Church almost twenty-two years later, I did not, as far as I can remember, ever hear a sermon on abortion--not at an Episcopal liturgy, not at a Lutheran service (from age 9 to 17), not even at a Catholic Mass. I do, however, remember getting the message, loud and clear, from magazines, books, TV, teachers, and friends, that abortion was not only right, it was my right as a woman in the United States of America. Of course the real meaning of the word abortion was kept hidden behind the rhetoric.
There were many reasons that I was willing to accept this distortion of reality. As a child and teen I'd been the target of inappropriate verbal, physical, and sexual behavior on too many occasions to count or even remember. I also perceived my mother as being verbally and physically abused and interpreted her death from cancer at age forty-four, when I was sixteen, as her self-willed means of escape from a miserable situation. As I passed through high school, college, and young adulthood, the answers offered to me by the culture on how to take charge, defend myself against further damage, and avoid such an outcome became increasingly appealing, and when I heard those same answers spoken to me in church and by clergy, including women, they became irresistible.
The story of my life between the abortion and my return to the Catholic Church and to Christ (on Palm Sunday weekend in March 2008 at a Rachel's Vineyard retreat for women who have had abortions) is a long one that I am far, far from processing completely, though I hope I live long enough to write constructively about it. The turning point was when I returned to my Washington DC apartment one rainy spring night in 2006 after a few drinks and answered a phone call from a talkative friend with strong opinions who eventually brought up the subject of abortion. He was vehemently against it. I don't remember exactly what he said but I do remember considering at that moment whether or not to tell him I'd had one. I knew it could be the end of our friendship.
But it wasn't. I sobbed as I told him, and for the first time ever my long-concealed pain was validated. It was this friend who, two years later, told me about Rachel's Vineyard.
A couple of years ago the same friend discovered that not only does his church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), condone abortion in its shrewdly worded official statement on the topic, but its employee health benefits plan pays for pre-born lives to be aborted through the first five months of the mother's pregnancy, without question. (I posted about this previously.) Other Christian denominations have similar statements and policies. How many unborn lives have been snuffed out as a result? And how many women are still suffering in silence?
It's not only shame that silences a woman; just as powerful a muzzle is the fear of having one's sorrow, regret, anger, and guilt made light of and dismissed as unnecessary. For me, this denial was a long but increasingly uncomfortable and insincere refuge. What if my friend had never opened the door for me? My thoughts don't dare go there.
A couple of days ago I opened an e-mail from the Elliott Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to researching and educating people about the impact of abortion not only on women but also on men, families, and society. The e-mail announced a program called the Church Awareness Project, which urges church leaders and members to be silent no more on the topic of abortion. Churches that don't speak of abortion because they consider it merely a lawful, private choice not only fail to protect those who might one day be vulnerable to abortion, but also deny forgiveness and healing to those who are privately carrying the weight (whether they realize it or not) of their devastating secret. Churches that speak of abortion without acknowledging that many women have experienced it as an injustice, not as a choice, drive women deeper into their pain rather than set them free from the captivity where they are both bound and gagged.
For the post-abortive woman, the church should truly be a sanctuary, the way Jesus was a sanctuary for the woman he met at the well in Samaria--not by legitimizing what she did but by compassionately helping her to face it honestly. She should be set free to evangelize, the way the Samaritan woman ran to her fellow townspeople and proclaimed, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?” After they had met and listened to him they said, "We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world." Why did they know this? Because he told them not lies but truth.
The Church season of Lent began this past week. Fasting is a tool commonly used by those who take this season seriously. The Old Testament lesson read at Mass on Friday (Isaiah 58:6-9) lists the kinds of fruit that fasting should produce, including "releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke...and not turning your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed.... Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!" Any church that preaches about setting the oppressed free and claims to do so cannot at the same time ignore the silent post-abortive women in its midst, and certainly must not teach its "own" that abortion is acceptable to God and then expect to hear God say, "Here I am."
Near the end of his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life), Blessed Pope John Paul II directly addresses post-abortive women, including these words: "as a result of your own painful experience, you can become the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life." What I have written here is part of my own response to that invitation, and I have pressed the "publish" button with some, even great, fear and trembling. But for a reason I can't quite pinpoint I have finally become less afraid of being judged and more afraid that by not being open about my own experience I will fail to help, or even hurt, someone. May the Holy Spirit use the words I have written here only for blessing.