June 24, 2023 marks the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a case originating in Louisiana that overturned the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. Catholics in the U.S. have long been vocal and fervent forces in the pro-life movement. At the same time, the Church’s stance against abortion doesn’t mean that Catholic women don’t have them. In fact, the Guttmacher Institute’s 2014 Abortion Patient Survey showed that 24% of elective abortions were performed on those who identified as Catholic. As we approached one year after Dobbs, we thought about the pro-life signs that are carried at marches and protests, and we wondered how effective they were for Catholic women who had sought abortions. So, we asked them.
Despite the Church’s Clear Stance on Abortion, Individual Catholics Still Disagree
The Catholic Church believes that human life begins at conception, and it is this belief that informs the Church’s stance against elective abortion. In a fact sheet about respect for unborn life, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) writes, “Each and every human life has inherent dignity, and thus must be treated with the respect due to a human person.”
Despite this teaching, abortion continues to be a polarizing issue among Catholics in the U.S. According to Pew Research, 76% of “Catholics say abortion should be illegal in some cases, but legal in others.” 1 in 10 Catholics believe it should be illegal in all cases, while 13% believe it should be legal in all cases.
We know that abortion is not just an abstract issue to be debated or a subject to be addressed on a protest sign. It is a reality that affects people’s lives, including the lives of Catholic women. In thinking about the Catholic women who have sought abortions, we asked some of them to share their stories with us and to tell us what certain pro-life signs communicated to them.
Of those who contacted us, one story in particular stood out, and we want to highlight this story for the Church to hear. To protect this woman and her story, we use an alias of her choosing.
Let us introduce you to Regina.
Pro-Life Signs Don’t Address the Staggering Reality of Childbearing
Regina is a mother and a practicing Catholic. Not long after having her second baby, she found herself pregnant again. She said, “I remember thinking, ‘I want this baby, even, I love this baby – but I cannot fathom being pregnant right now.’ That was the staggering reality I was facing, and I didn’t know what to do with it.”
Regina had struggled with postpartum anxiety. In describing the time leading up to her abortion, she told us, “Having my body pregnant again, almost against its own will, made me feel like reality was crushing me.”
Her first pregnancy was unexpected and unplanned. She chose motherhood in part because she didn’t yet know the demands that it would ask of her. But this time around, after two pregnancies, she decided to obtain an abortion.
“In this pregnancy, knowing what was ahead of me, the sacrificial love that motherhood demands in every facet – emotional, spiritual, physical, social . . . – [was] astounding and crippling. It made me feel like a caged animal, and I wanted out, no matter what was said to me. This is why I don’t think [pro-life] signage is effective – not just because of the words on the poster, but the fact that people are often shouting things instead of whispering them to the hearts of women.
“Seeing the child as an individual, as my child, was real but fuzzy in the face of debilitating fear, anxiety, [and] depression. We would have had to have gotten a new car, more car seats. I’d have had to quit my job. My marriage threatened to crumble under its weight. Lots was riding on this. Having some genuine understanding of this reality would be helpful in Catholic spaces. And of course, I could have chosen to give birth. If the timing was different, things could have gone differently. In a way, it was more about the timing than the child.”
Regina’s Responses to Pro-Life Signs
We asked Regina to respond to the following pro-life signs and tell us what they said to her, as a practicing Catholic and post-abortive woman.
“Smile! Your mom chose life.”
Regina: “I found this kind of mocking. Obviously, I’m here and yes, my mother chose life and I'm really grateful for that. But that's not really what she's trying to say. It's kind of a subtext where she's saying, ‘Look how selfish you are,’ at least that's how I feel as a post-abortive woman looking at this. It’s mocking the situation that I was in. It's mocking how shameful I feel and I think it’s meant to do that. In part because it's assuming that it's a very simple decision, which it is not.”
Regina went on to say that she felt even more “shameful” because she wasn’t a teenager or a victim of sexual assault, but rather a mother who feared the timing of her pregnancy.
“Excommunicate Pro-Choice Catholics”
Regina: “I think it's one thing to talk about what it says on the sign, but it's another thing to look at the person who's holding the sign. This is not a woman. This sign doesn’t elicit much beyond rage, and then I kind of move forward.”
“Women’s Rights Begin in the Womb,” “Love Them Both,” and “Pro-Woman, Pro-Life”
Regina: “The ones that I found the hardest to grapple with, which actually gave me the most pause and the most difficult time, were ‘Women’s Rights Begin in the Womb,’ ‘Pro-Life, Pro-Woman,’ and ‘Love Them Both.’ Those three called on my feminist roots, because it's got that vulnerability to it and it sorta says, ‘You can have both, everything will be okay if you just do the right thing. If you just trust that your choices are right and choose life, that you as a woman are valued just as much as your baby.’
“I know those things to be true, I do believe those things, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t do things that are wrong in our life. I found those the hardest to look at because yes, they are true. I don't know if that would prevent abortion or not. I actually don't know the answer. Maybe it would, but for me, in my state of fear, seeing that sign probably would have made me turn the other way and not trust that anyone's gonna hear my voice.”
For a Woman Facing Debilitating Fear, Pro-Life Signs Seem Reductive
Regina grew up Catholic. Pro-life signs were not absent in her life. Her parents work in the Church and her friends work in the pro-life movement. She is the mother of two, she is a practicing Catholic, and she told us that she believes that life begins in the womb.
“I know those things. And having made my choice, that was how desperate I was – it's not a natural choice to make. I was equipped with all of those signs in the past, I’ve seen all of them throughout my entire lifetime, but I could not summon one of these images, none of them would have helped me in that moment. That’s how scared I was.”
Regina told us that this debilitating fear is what led to her decision. The signs we showed her didn’t bring her comfort – instead, she found them to be “reductive.”
“The signage is not going to work, no matter how it’s presented, even if the messaging was perfectly crafted. Signage is a very public, loud thing, whereas abortion is a very inward, private matter for many women. So in this case, it’s more of the message versus the medium.
“The medium in my experience has been worn thin over the years with politics. But if we embrace the language of acceptance, complexity and nuance in communities, perhaps we can find better spaces to welcome post-abortive women in the Church. This is a better action for women who . . . would have never been talked out of an abortion, but just need a place to go to be welcomed, accepted, and grieve amongst others.
“It’s not always a choice between ‘right and wrong,’ but more often, a choice between ‘difficult and impossible.’ . . . To be clear, what I did was wrong and I betrayed myself and betrayed my faith. I betrayed my family. Those are things I battle with every single day, but the complexities were new to me, simply because I thought it was a black-and-white issue.
“I didn’t want anyone to reason with me, I knew the ins and outs of the conversation.”
At times, Regina shared her story with tears because she worries that other post-abortive women in the Church are alone in their grief.
Is Abortion Really the Easier Path?
For Regina, grief is not a straightforward path (and she notes that motherhood isn’t, either). She thinks the pro-life movement has branded abortion as the easier path, but it’s a path that Regina says she “will be thinking about for the rest of her life.”
“I just thought [abortion] was going to be an easier way, that that was gonna give my body a break, even if not my mind because I was so mentally, physically exhausted – I could not see forward. That’s temporary, your child will be there to bless you. Even if you choose not to continue the pregnancy, the child is still there. The child is still part of me.”
Given the complexity of a situation like this, she told us that the signs ignore the fact that “mothers are the most sacrificial beings on the planet, there's a lot more that is put on her shoulders than, ‘Okay, we're going to help you with this pro-life campaign’ or these external-facing things that are not addressing the spirit of a woman – of a mother.”
What the Church Needs to Offer to Post-Abortive Women
Regina shared that her abortion could have broken her faith. Instead, she was able to lean into the Sisters for Life and her parish priest for counsel. But, she knows that this is not the case for every Catholic woman.
“I know that my child was with the Lord and so therefore, like, I'm never going to abandon my faith again – but it could have been make or break.“
In her view, the way the Church has treated post-abortive women is incompatible with the Gospel message.
“I know why a lot of women would leave [the Church], because it's just so shameful and they have nowhere to put it. And their community has kind of betrayed them with very simplistic messaging,” Regina said in reference to the signs we showed her.
The Sisters of Life affirmed her beloved-ness and reminded her of the love that is bigger than her grief. Though she feels that the Church and the pro-life movement often turn their backs on post-abortive women – especially when pro-life signs lack empathy and nuance – Regina found solace in Christ’s love.
“To say that I'm beyond repair is a common trope. If you think you’re going to lose God’s love after you do something like that, that is a common fear because you are not supported. They have this mark on their heart forever and there’s no one in the Church to attend to it.”
We know that Regina is not alone. There are countless others who have reached out to us, and we aren’t done sharing their stories. If you want to share your story, too, email us at email@example.com.