If a friend tells you she had an abortion, how would you respond?

As Catholics, we might fall into the trap of assuming that, because Church teaching is opposed to abortion, Catholic women do not have abortions. However, this assumption is incorrect. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 25% of Catholic women have had an abortion. We need to be aware that there are women in our parishes who have had an abortion - and we should be prepared for conversations with them.

Here are six ways you can effectively walk with a friend if she talks to you about her experience with abortion.

1. Support her as she processes her experience.

Every woman has a story. She has a unique experience with particular challenges and circumstances. Listening can be the start of healing because putting an experience into words is powerful. Receiving your friend’s story can help with her healing process. While she shares her story, avoid jumping ahead in your mind to think about your response (“What will I say?”). Give her your full attention.

Part of receiving her story might be to acknowledge the complexity of what happened. The decision to have an abortion might be tangled up with several factors that remain difficult to this day. Even if she says, “I couldn’t have done anything else,” there can still be a lot of emotions - and perhaps conflicted feelings - to unpack. Sit with her in her emotions and allow her to process.

Finally, remember that you can’t “fix” the situation - and that’s okay. Your friend knows that you can’t change what happened. If she wants to tell her story, she knows that all you can do is listen. Neither of you can change the past.

2. Avoid loaded words such as “trauma” or “grief.”

Your friend might shy away from technical, loaded terms like “trauma” or “grief.” She may not identify her many emotions as grief or think of her experience as a form of trauma. Let her put her own words to her emotions.

Similarly, avoid explicitly mentioning “the baby.” Your friend might feel so overwhelmed at the experience that she cannot even think of the baby. She might not be in an emotional state that allows her to reflect on the child that was aborted. Don’t assume that she has thought about this aspect of the experience before. Receive the thoughts she is currently having about her experience without pressuring her to think about the child involved.

3. Recognize that you will have your own emotional reaction.

When your friend tells you that she had an abortion, you might feel a range of different emotions. Allow yourself to feel your own emotions, but don’t project them onto your friend. She may or may not resonate with the emotions that you feel. When your friend tells her story, try not to let your emotions get in the way of supporting her and listening to how she feels.

Your emotional response is valid and needs to be acknowledged. If you feel upset or disappointed, that is a valid reaction. You may need to process your own emotions later, perhaps through journaling or prayer. 

4. Check in with her.

If your friend tells you that she is having a hard time with her abortion, ask her if you can check in with her occasionally. Just because you discussed it with her one time does not mean that she is now completely fine. She might encounter many reminders of her experience and might like to have support. For example, the anniversary date of the abortion might be a hard day. Ask her, “Around this time next year, can I check in with you?”

Make sure she understands that you are here to listen if she needs it, but, if she does not want to talk about it, that is fine, too. Let your friend know that she does not have to suffer alone. You are there for her whenever she needs your support.

5. Don’t pressure her to act on her past experience.

At this point in the conversation, your friend might not want you to recommend any resources for healing. Organizations such as Project Rachel exist to help women process and heal from their abortion, but your friend might not be interested in them. All she may want is your listening ear. Be open to how listening to her can aid in her healing.

Healing is a need in and of itself without the pressure to do anything with that experience. Your friend might want to seek healing for herself without sharing her story with many others. Sometimes, people who are pro-life may want to pressure women to open up about their abortion experience and become involved in advocacy work. However, not every woman will want to do this. Pro-life advocacy is a special calling that not every woman wants to pursue. She might seek this out for herself, or she might only want to talk with you. Allow her to decide.

6. Place your trust in God.

It is a sacred time when we have the opportunity to listen to someone’s story. When your friend decides to confide in you, pray and ask the Holy Spirit to work in that moment and bring healing to her. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your response. God is always present with us and He often helps others through us. You can’t fix everything, but you can trust God to do the work of healing and restoration in your friend’s heart.

Emily Martin

Emily Martin is a doctoral student at Oxford University researching the intersection of literature, theology, and aesthetics in the English Renaissance. She grew up in southern California, where she enjoyed reading at the beach, exercising with her family, and cooking spaghetti.

Don't miss the Weekly Insight.

Delivered to your inbox every Friday, get the best insights we have on trending stories and who to read, watch, and follow.