FemCatholic recently asked for responses to an anonymous survey about women’s experiences with abortion. We wanted to listen to women and learn from them how we can better support women facing unexpected or challenging pregnancies.

Some women talked about their own abortions. Some women (and two men!) shared about the abortion of someone very close to them. Below are the questions we asked and several of the responses we received. The comments were edited only for anonymity, length, and clarity (where needed).

May we listen.

What do you think was needed before the abortion? Please be as specific as possible. What resources or support was available? Would any other resources or specific support have changed the choice that was made?

Several themes emerged among the responses to this question:

1. No one told her it was possible to have the baby, or showed confidence in her ability to be a mom.  

“Being told I was strong enough to be a mom… I had no support.  Not a single person around me told me it would be ok to have the baby. No one showed any confidence in me.

Not a single person around me told me it would be ok to have the baby. No one showed any confidence in me.

“Things in society and culture telling young girls that they COULD raise a baby. Everything pointed/points to choosing abortion because of poverty, being single, being in high school, not being able to give a child a good life, it's too hard, you will be shunned, you won't have help, you'll live off the government forever, no one will want you anymore. It was very widespread that not having a baby at 18 was best for everyone.”

2. She did not know about resources.

“Needed: Practical resources, inspiration, and information. How can I finish my degree and be a parent? Where can I live? Can I continue in dorm housing? Are there other mothers out there with thriving careers who started out with an unplanned pregnancy as a single woman? Mentorship. Real live help, not a website or a call line.

After my abortion, I found out that there was special housing and financial aid at my college for ‘non-traditional’ students that would have been available to me. I also could have completed my degree in a modified way. It makes me sick to think about it. If that information had been readily available, I would have a ten year old today.”

“My sister chose abortion because she could not see how she could get through law school with a baby. She said it was the hardest decision she had ever had to make, and she would not choose abortion again. If only she had had some reasonable way to help her finish law school with her baby! Daycare would have helped. Scholarships for people with crisis pregnancies would have helped. So would friends who actually favored a choice, not this awful ‘choice.’”

Daycare would have helped. Scholarships for people with crisis pregnancies would have helped.

“More education on fetal development. Less lies—they said it was just a blob of tissue and not a human life. An ultrasound that I was allowed to see. Less hate towards someone considering it especially if they don’t know any other options. Less hateful picketing at clinics and now social media.

In my tiny town the only resources available was at the health department with a hateful nurse and junk provided by Planned Parenthood. This is why I now volunteer at crisis pregnancy clinics. I wish I had gotten help for my alcohol problems which I believe strongly contributed to the first abortion.

When you go into the clinic they lie to you about fetal development and then they give you Valium or other conscious sedation while you wait. You are too high to stop it at that point.”

3. Parents were not supportive.

“I had no support. My boyfriend at the time was supporting and paid for the abortion. I believed the lies of the culture that abortion was the most responsible decision for a young woman in college to make. I didn’t want an abortion… I needed family and friends who would forgive my mistakes and accept me for who I was then. I experienced no unconditional love until I met my husband now.”

I needed family and friends who would forgive my mistakes and accept me for who I was then.

“Having parents who would have understood a pregnancy outside of wedlock. The biggest (though not only) reason she got an abortion was that she couldn’t handle telling her parents. I even spoke with their priest because I [the boyfriend] was against the abortion, and when I told him who they were (he didn’t know me), he understood why my girlfriend at the time chose an abortion. He didn’t endorse the choice, but he understood entirely.”

“I did not have any support. I come from a very, very traditional family.  I felt so lonesome, scared. I knew my parents would kick me out of the house, and my partner ran away.  

About changing my choice, if I had someone's support or understanding from my parents, I think I would not have done it.”

4. Chastity/abstinence messaging contributed to feelings of shame, a perceived lack of options, and fear.

“Familial support and a more pastoral response from the Church. My sister felt it was her only option because my mom had always been so vocal about not having sex until marriage and how sinful sex was.  I don’t think any of the chastity talks we attended helped in that regard either since they were mostly fear based tactics. She was terrified of being kicked out of my family, plus she was still in college and felt her abortion was the only way she’d be able to finish school. She didn’t love the baby’s dad and was also afraid my parents would make her marry him. It was so multifaceted but all based in extreme terror. I wish she had known about other pregnancy resource centers besides planned parenthood because they were all too willing to take her in and confirm her fear that her only option was abortion. But more than that, I think we need a cultural shift in how we speak about sex and pregnancy so that women in these positions don’t feel so ostracized and shamed into trying to undo the situation without anyone knowing. The options shouldn’t be to keep it all a secret or feel like a whore. When I asked her about adoption, she said she couldn’t have lived 9 months with that much shame and everyone knowing and thinking poorly of her. We need compassion and understanding to fix this.”

I think we need a cultural shift in how we speak about sex and pregnancy so that women in these positions don’t feel so ostracized and shamed into trying to undo the situation without anyone knowing.

“I’m talking about multiple friends’ abortions here, not just of my generation, but also of my mother’s. We both attended all-girls Catholic schools (both in Brooklyn, NY 30 years apart) so the options were laid out as quietly terminate the pregnancy or be removed from school and essentially ruin your life. There were no available resources at our schools for expectant mothers who did not plan to abort. Nobody spoke about supporting a teenage mother. I don’t know that their choices would have been different, but my mother and I have discussed this extensively and we both definitely felt right along with them at the time that abortion was the only acceptable option offered by our Catholic community.”

5. Circumstances were dire, and she felt she had no other choice.

“I never asked for resources or support because honestly, I don't think anything could have changed my decision given my state of mind at the time. No one could have made me want a relationship with the father, preserved my budding career (walking through a newsroom as a single woman with an unplanned pregnancy), or taken away my shame. At 21 years old, I really and truly was not capable of taking care of myself."

“My best friend fell pregnant when she was 17 following an affair with an older married man who convinced her he was going to leave his wife. I don’t believe that anything would have changed the choice she made, as she was so afraid of the consequences of keeping the baby that far outweighed any other possible choices. She didn’t tell anyone except for me. The man she had been with told her she couldn’t keep the baby and took her to the clinic himself. Maybe having more support at clinics for these circumstances so that young women don’t feel pushed or trapped in a situation. Holding men accountable too and not just making women take actions they later regret or possibly don’t want to take in the first place.

♦♦♦

How are you or the woman close to you doing now? Have you / she sought any healing? What has helped? What still hurts?

The responses to this question fell into two categories: those that spoke of the lasting pain and trauma, and those that focus on healing.  

1. The impact is lasting.

“It has been 20 years. I did go to confession and we worked through some stuff. It still hurts. Clinic was horrible and made fun of me the whole time because I was crying.”

I still think about my child every June (when s/he would have been born). I should get help. I just pray for healing.”

“For 20 years I suffered tremendously both physically and psychologically. I have a tilted cervix, several problems during subsequent pregnancies when I married, PCOS. I had panic attacks. I also have struggled with anxiety and depression.

When I made first confession in February of this year before the Easter vigil when I entered the church, I truly felt forgiven and whole. My priest told me to look up Dorothy Day. He was so loving and so merciful when I didn’t deserve it.

The regret will always be there. Always.”

2. Healing and peace are possible.

“I have done some healing.  I've never really discussed it openly before. I have four beautiful children and I do my best by them and that makes me feel less horrid.”

“I'm pretty good. I feel spiritually and physically healed. Confession and joining the church helped tremendously. What still hurts - I miss my kid. But now I have even more motivation to strive for heaven so I can meet my child!

“She’s doing well now but it took about a year to get over the worst of the hurt. She joined a post-abortive women’s group, named her baby, asked the baby for forgiveness and promised to hug him in heaven. She finally told me about a month after the fact and said that was crucial in her healing because before she had kept the whole thing just to herself and was simply tortured by it. She also promised the baby that she’d live a life that made her abortion worthwhile (debatable terminology but you get what she means), so she stopped the partying and sleeping with guys she didn’t love and focused on school and making a life her baby would be proud of. Now she’s graduating college with a good job and on a good path. I don’t know what still hurts for her, we don’t talk about it much. I think she’s just trying to put it all behind her.”

“Talking to a catholic therapist and a priest many years later (15+ years) later definitely helped. They led me back to the sacraments, which has made all the difference. They tried to get me interested in healing retreats but I was never interested in mourning. My feeling was that the retreat would minimize or completely ignore the situation that led to my decision.”

“I am doing fine now.  I had to find healing on my own and I found it after attending a Rachel vineyard retreat.  What still hurts is knowing the people that pushed me (demanded) into the abortion have never apologized to me for their actions, words, and effectively, their lack of trust in me.”

♦♦♦

Behind every abortion, there is a woman. These quotes are but a small sampling. Today, I prefer to listen to women rather than editorialize, pontificate, or problem-solve. Will you do that with me?

If you are facing an unplanned or crisis pregnancy, a list of various resources is available here.

If you are seeking healing after an abortion, consider looking at Project Rachel.

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Andrea Pfarr

Andrea Pfarr and her husband travel the country and globe -- subject to the needs of the U.S. Air Force -- with their three wild-hearted children and a little brown dog. Andrea delights in well-reasoned arguments, the universality of the Church, introducing their children to tales of epic adventure, and a mug of hot chocolate.

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