Many post-abortive women believe they’ve committed the “unforgiveable sin.” They often believe that they’re completely alone—no one else they know could possibly have done what they did and no one would ever understand what they’ve been through. Both are misconceptions that can block the way to hope and healing after abortion.
Although it may not be easy, healing is possible.
“The hardest part is for women to forgive themselves for having an abortion,” said Vicki Thorn, founder and executive director of Project Rachel, a diocesan-based ministry for post-abortion healing. “They’re convinced that they can’t be forgiven, and they don’t want anybody to know about it. They can’t see themselves as God sees them, and they don’t believe they’re worthy of forgiveness.”
What helped Laura Brown, regional coordinator for Silent No More, to believe in God’s forgiveness after her abortion was considering how God treated David. In spite of murdering Uriah the Hittite after he’d committed adultery with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, God forgave him.
“David committed murder, and still God called him a man after his own heart and made him king,” Brown said. “If he could forgive David, then he could forgive me.”
It was a long journey before Brown was able to say that with confidence.
As a teenager, Brown became involved with an older, married man whose wife was terminally ill. He pressured her for sex, and she gave in. When she got pregnant, he insisted that she abort the child. She was already overcome with shame over the affair itself; getting pregnant compounded her feeling of worthlessness. Abortion seemed like her only recourse.
She went to Planned Parenthood, where she was told abortion was a legal procedure that would remove a “blob of tissue.” Additionally, the nurse told her she had an ectopic pregnancy, even though there had been no physical exam. Brown hesitated, and sensing her hesitation, the nurse prodded her to get the abortion quickly or she would die.
Wary, Brown went to her regular doctor, who merely confirmed her pregnancy and said that he didn’t do abortions. Not knowing what else to do, Brown emptied her life savings from her bank account and went back to the abortion clinic.
Just after the abortion began, Brown panicked. “Stop! I don’t want to do this!” she told the doctor.
“You should have thought of that before,” he said coldly. Those were the only words he spoke to her before, during, or after the suction abortion. Only later did she discover that ectopic pregnancies cannot be terminated by suctioning. The diagnosis had been a fake.
After the abortion, Brown felt relief. That lasted only a few days, until the father of her baby playfully swung her around by the waist and an avalanche of sadness and guilt fell over her. The man’s wife died, they married, and Brown expected the marriage would make things right. She expected to feel joy when she found out she was pregnant again. Instead, the pregnancy plummeted her into regret and shame.
“I became suicidal,” she said. “But I couldn’t kill myself, because that would kill the baby too.”
The depression lasted for two years until, one day, in desperation, Brown went back to church. “I still couldn’t believe in God’s forgiveness,” she said. “I felt like God was waiting there with a lightning bolt for me.” Still, she continued going to church.
By chance, she connected with two other post-abortive women; both of them were further along in their healing process. They wanted to help other women heal, too, so the three of them joined a post-abortion Bible study called Forgiven and Set Free (formerly Women in Ramah).
Meeting other post-abortive women, sharing her own story, and studying what the Bible says about God’s forgiveness eventually helped Brown to heal. Since the early 90s, she’s been giving her testimony, and for the past three years, she has been with Silent No More. After the death of her first husband, Brown married again and gave birth to a second daughter. Now she lives a full, happy life filled with her mission to help other post-abortive women find hope and healing.
“Without God and his mercy, I would probably be dead right now,” she says gratefully.
Road to healing
Marie Fleishner had an abortion at age 18. While at college a year later, she sensed the need to confess her sin, and so she went to confession. The priest told her that her sin was unforgiveable. She was devastated.
“I’ve since been able to forgive that priest because I learned from my spiritual director that priests were once told that certain serious sins can only be forgiven by a bishop,” she said. “He was an older priest and probably wasn’t used to hearing abortion in confession.”
The road to that point was long and arduous for Fleishner. After that traumatic confession, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration approached her as she sat in the community’s chapel, crying over her fate. The gentle sister asked Fleishner to share her grief, but she couldn’t. She believed her sin was too grievous to talk about with anyone.
“Whatever is wrong, give it to Jesus,” the sister said. “Let him take it from you. And if you can’t go to Jesus, go to his Mother, Mary.”
The sister’s loving counsel touched Fleishner’s heart, and the two began talking on a regular basis. Eventually, Fleishner shared her secret with the sister, who suggested that she contact a post-abortion healing ministry. It took some time and courage, but she finally was able to make the step and attended a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat.
At the retreat, she told the priest hearing confessions about the first time she tried to confess her abortion. He apologized to her for the other priest and granted her absolution. Also during the retreat, she was given the chance to grieve and memorialize the baby she’d aborted. What’s more, she was able to ask forgiveness from her child through prayer and letter writing. By the time the retreat ended, Fleishner felt as though she’d been truly forgiven. Today Fleishner is a Silent No More regional coordinator and assists at Rachel’s Vineyard retreats.
“Our God is a powerful, awesome God,” she said. “If we have a contrite heart, there’s nothing Jesus won’t forgive us for. And once you’re forgiven, you’re always forgiven.”
Reconciliation with the Church is an important part of healing for all post-abortive women and men. Many fear they’ll be judged, ridiculed, or turned away as Fleishner was initially.
“As with any sin, if you’re truly sorry and repentant, of course God grants his forgiveness. No doubt about that,” said Fr. Ken Metz, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Fr. Metz was instrumental in founding Project Rachel. He explained that the Church has been open to granting reconciliation to both women and men after abortion, especially since the 1975 Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities was issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Priests have a privileged opportunity to serve others by offering the unconditional and efficacious love of Christ in the sacrament of penance and fostering conversion and healing in women and men who have been involved in the destruction of innocent human life,” the document states. It further charges clergy with the responsibility to understand and minister to post-abortive persons in their pain and help them rebuild their bond with their child, God, their family, and the community.
You are forgiven
For Joanne Jones-Holden, healing and reconciliation came at great cost, but a cost worth paying. “God has blessed me,” she said. “I’ve got my husband back. I’ve got my family back. Life is good.”
It wasn’t good when she found herself pregnant at age 21 and told her boyfriend.
“We were dating seriously and expected to marry,” she said. “When I told him I was pregnant, he asked, ‘Is it mine?’ and when I told him it couldn’t be anyone else’s, he walked out on me.”
Things worsened from there. Within 24 hours, she had an abortion, arranged and paid for by her sister. She remembers little of the abortion itself except that she was told she’d feel a little pinch. There was no aftercare whatsoever. At home, she continued to bleed profusely. Two days later, she became sick and had stay home from work. While in the shower, she suddenly passed a huge clot. It was her baby.
From there her life spiraled into years of drugs, alcohol, and sex—anything to numb the emotional pain. She traveled across the country, doing “bizarre things” and living an illicit lifestyle. She got pregnant again, but she kept the baby girl.
“I think I got pregnant on purpose. I had to prove God loved me, that he would let me try [to have a baby] again,” she said. “That baby saved my sanity.”
Her daughter gave her a reason to hang on, but even with that, Jones-Holden went on feeling depressed. She sensed something was seriously wrong, but didn’t knowing what it was. She met a wonderful man, married him, and had another daughter with him, but because of the depression she divorced him. She still had much to overcome.
One day, she went to church and the pastor spoke about abortion. “I had to hear a sermon on abortion in order to figure out, ‘Wow! Maybe that’s what’s wrong!’”
In spite of her fears, she forced herself to attend a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat, which started the healing process. In time, she remarried the man she’d divorced and got her life—and family—back together. Now she’s not only a regional coordinator for Silent No More, but she works in a number of post-abortion healing ministries. In the meantime, her own healing continues.
“Healing is like peeling an onion,” she said. “You take off one layer at a time. There’s always something new.”
For all women and men in search of hope and healing after abortion, Vicki Thorn advises meditating on God’s promise to Rachel in the Book of Jeremiah: “Cease your cries of weeping, hold back your tears…there is compensation for your labor… there is hope for your future” (Jeremiah 31:15–17).