Matt Archbold graduated from Saint Joseph’s University in 1995. He is a former journalist who left the newspaper business to raise his five children. He writes for the Creative Minority Report.
The room in the back of the clinic was quiet but Catherine’s mind was screaming. There was a baby in a jar. Arms. Leg. Fingers! There was a baby in a jar! She knew she had to get out of there. Fast. She couldn’t look at it one moment longer.
Catherine Adair had spent the previous year working at Planned Parenthood convincing women that despite what they thought, that wasn’t a baby growing in their womb. It was a…an…it. And it required a “procedure” as she called it back then.
She’d spent the previous year accepting payment for abortions and “counseling” young women in the bright office and working as a medical assistant for first trimester abortions.
But one day in 1997 everything changed. She was asked to clean up the room from a second-trimester abortion. She had never been in that room before, and even though she had “counseled” other women about the procedure, she had no idea what it really entailed.
She’d walked into a similar room once before when she was 19 when she aborted her 11 week old baby, something she promised herself a long time before she wouldn’t think about ever again. And she hadn’t wanted to go back in but she convinced herself that there was nothing wrong with what was going on.
“I walked in and looked on the side table. And there’s a jar. And in this jar are clearly body parts. Two arms two legs. I stared at it. I wasn’t sure if I was making it up. I felt like I was having an out of body experience. I backed up out of the room. I went to the medical assistant and said ‘I can’t do this.’”
“What’s wrong?” asked the medical assistant.
“I…I…I can’t go back in there,” said Catherine.
“You wanna’ talk about it?” asked the other woman.
“No,” replied Catherine. She didn’t want to talk about it because talking about it would almost make it more real. “I couldn’t process it. It was so brutal. It was shocking. Up to that point I hadn’t understood we were talking about real human beings. Arms and legs. Even though I counseled women on abortion I had no idea. In the first trimester maybe you can believe the lie that it’s not a baby but on that particular day I couldn’t believe the
Come on Catherine, she argued with herself. You’re a feminist! A Women’s Studies major for goodness sake (and bought every single word of it). You marched on Washington for women’s rights. You believe pro-lifers like the ones who stand outside with signs are crazy.
For Catherine the truth of what was in that jar conflicted with everything she thought she knew. “In my world back then you were either pro-women and pro abortion or you were crazy,” she said. “I thought there’s something wrong with me. So I had nobody to talk to so I just went back to work.”
Somehow she showed up to work the following day, putting what she’d seen away. Burying it. Ignoring it.
In that, Catherine excelled. She’d had practice. She was a burier. World class. She could ignore things and pretend they never existed. So she sat down and counseled women that what was in their womb wasn’t a life. It wasn’t a baby. And it wasn’t a surgery so much as a “procedure.” She accepted payment and watched them go into the surgical…err…procedure room
After a few times she could almost start believing it all again. When she told women that “the doctor is going to extract the contents of the uterus” she could almost not think “the doctor will have to rip the baby apart with forceps.” Almost. She almost didn’t think of the blood on the floor or the arms and legs.
She showed up to work each day until she could almost believe she hadn’t seen what she’d seen. But then came the nightmares and the sleepless nights. There’s something about nighttime that makes the truth hit harder. Truth is always more visible at 3 a.m.
“Terrible nightmares,” is how she described it. “I’d wake up screaming because I’d seen body parts floating around.”
She said she started feeling angry working at Planned Parenthood. She couldn’t even admit to herself why she was angry but for the first time she noticed what she called hypocrisy in the people around her who claimed to be pro-woman. She couldn’t help but hear the nasty things the workers said about the women who came into the clinic and she couldn’t help but notice that the doctor performing abortions avoided all eye contact with the women.
“Women were treated horribly,” said Catherine. “And it was the most racist place I’ve ever been in my life.”
“When a black woman walks in there’s a perception that she can’t afford the baby right away,” she said. “For black women they really pushed depo-privera, which is a shot every three months.”
She said her manager told her “don’t bother giving them the pill because they never remember to take it.”
Finally, she found herself so unceasingly upset and angry that she reconsidered her life. Not her positions. Instead of confronting the conflict in her heart, she simply retreated from it. All she knew was that she couldn’t work at Planned Parenthood any more. “I decided enough of this,” she said. “I decided to go to grad school.”
She earned her teaching certification, taught at a local school, married her college sweetheart, had children and stayed at home with them. But when it came to her interior life she was still apathetic about God and passionately pro-choice.
“I never expressed these negative feelings,” she said. “I didn’t know any pro-life people. I didn’t know who to talk to.”
But Catherine’s husband was Catholic and he wanted the children baptized and he wanted to take them to Mass. Catherine wasn’t so sure. She didn’t exactly fight it but she was more than comfortable church shopping. Religion was fine for the kids but it’s best not to get muddled down in the nitty gritty of it all, she thought.
She’d been baptized a Catholic but her family hadn’t practiced the faith much. What she knew of the Catholic Church she wasn’t crazy about. “I was very resistant to the idea of going back to the Catholic Church,” she said. “I was willing to be anything but Catholic.”
But when they met a charismatic priest Fr. Emerito Ortiz they decided to attend St. Francis of Assisi parish. But it wasn’t really being Catholic, Catherine convinced herself. She told herself she just liked the priest and attended there. For the children, she told herself.
Soon she noticed she liked statues. And incense. She followed along with the Mass and began to see its beauty. “I think I started there feeling like I wasn’t sure if my heart was in it - you know, still thinking about the church in terms of how the secular world defines it,” she said. “But I really loved the mass and I love the tradition - the more statues and incense the happier I am.”
But still she knew that underneath the smells and bells there was that obsession with abortion and contraception and she wanted no part of that.
When she heard that a CCD teacher left in the middle of the year she volunteered to fill in. After all, she’d been a teacher. In order to teach the children she began studying the faith. And that’s where she said everything changed.
She learned about the devotions, the saints, and the teachings of the Church. And she found the Mass more meaningful in light of all she read. She was dangerously close to returning to the Church. “Jesus really let me feel His presence in the Mass and I knew that I was where He wanted me to be,” she said.
And then surprising herself, she felt this indescribable need to go to confession. “I wanted what other people had,” she said. “I really wanted to go to confession. I wanted all this off my heart.”
But she was terrified. She convinced herself that nobody else in the entire world had ever done what she’d done. She told herself that no priest could ever be ready for such a terrible confession as she would have. Catherine walked into the Church ten Saturdays in a row and scurried away.
It was Lent in 2009 when she finally entered the confessional and for the first time in years she spoke of things she hadn’t allowed herself to think about for so long. She told Fr. Ortiz about aborting her own child at nineteen.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I was happy. It seemed like such a miracle. A baby. Neither one of us was in a place to have a baby. We hadn’t finished college. He was working as a roofer making 6 bucks an hour. But I thought we could make it work.
I told my mother and she immediately said ‘O.K. abortion is legal now. You have a choice.’ All of a sudden I was like, ‘I can’t have this baby. We can’t support it. My parents won’t help us.’”
She said looking back she thinks her mother thought she was doing the right thing. “She was a feminist and thought she was helping me,” she said. Her mother took her to a local doctor who made an appointment at a local clinic for her.
Instead of the miracle she first thought the baby was, she began seeing it as an 11 week old problem; something that the grownups like her doctor and her mother would handle. “I was feeling like a child,” she said. “The appointment was made, I was there, and suddenly I was in the room.”
She said she never felt like she had a choice.
Catherine, under general anesthesia didn’t remember the procedure. But she remembered coming out of the…”procedure” room and bursting into tears. “I felt so alone,” she said. “So empty.”
She told Fr. Ortiz that by the time she got back to the car she told herself that it was over. She told herself that she wasn’t going to think about it again. Ever again.
That is, until she told Fr. Ortiz.
“At first he didn’t get what I was saying,” she said. “And then he said ‘Oh.”
And then silence. Catherine braced for the scolding she knew was coming. “But he was so kind,” she said. “So nonjudgmental.”
She walked out of the confessional and knelt down in a pew and prayed the fifth luminous mystery of the Eucharist at Fr. Ortiz’s request. And she hasn’t stopped saying the rosary since. She prays the rosary every day and soon found herself longing for the Eucharist.
“I received on Easter. I still have chills when I think about it,” she said. “It opened my heart. All these years I was so afraid but what a gift. The church gives us so many gifts. I felt like I was born again. He has continued to grace me and bless me in so many ways.”
One day just last year during Mass, it all hit her out of the blue. She remembered what she’d seen in that surgical room. All that she had buried came out. She remembered it all and contrasted it with the Church’s beautiful stance of the sacredness of life, all life. “I started to slowly understand the church’s teaching on abortion. I always thought before it was a bit of an obsession,” she said. “It was so gentle, so beautiful. God lifted the veil. It’s a baby. They’re babies.”
She cried throughout the entire Mass and after. “I was crying for all the babies,” she said.
“I’d started to intellectually get it. But He put it in my heart. These babies are being killed. God had taught me little by little. He brought me in so gently,”
It was shortly after that when Catherine began speaking about her own experiences. “It was the first time I could speak about it without having a breakdown,” she said.
Since then, she’s spoken out about her abortion and her work at Planned Parenthood. Catherine said her conversion has been tough for some people in her life to accept.
“I’ve gotten one of two reactions. One from Christians –pure and total support, and love, and just so caring. In my personal life it’s been mixed. I understand this is challenging for people. Some of my very good friends cut me out of their lives. One friend basically said “I can’t have you in my life anymore.”
“My biggest challenge is my family. My parents and sisters all liberal pro-choice people who are really struggling with this,” she said. “My mom didn’t know my abortion had caused me difficulty. I believe at some point we’ll have a conversation. I think the fact that I’m a practicing Catholic is even worse than me being pro-life.”
Last year Catherine and Father Ortiz started the “Respect Life Ministry” in Fitchburg Massachusetts where she speaks about the value of each human life of every age. She’s spoken as part of Cornerstone Action of New Hampshire and the Susan B. Anthony List.
“Few testimonies are as effective at exposing the lies of the abortion industry than those given by former abortion industry employees themselves, said SBA-List President Marjorie Dannenfelser. “Coming forward this year, Catherine’s brave testimony has been and will continue to be pivotal in the fight to expose and defund Planned Parenthood. The poise with which she explains her pro-life conversion, her compassion for unborn children and their mothers is all part of her incredible witness to love and mercy. Catherine has become one of our key allies in overcoming the myth that Planned Parenthood is a friend to women, and we look forward to continuing to work with her.”
This past year, Catherine has been at the forefront of the pro-life movement. As part of her speaking out, Catherine wrote in the Washington Examiner:
“Planned Parenthood’s mission is to pressure as many women into having an abortion as it can. Those in charge know that can’t be accomplished if they refer to the child as a ‘baby.’
Then women would know what was really growing inside them: a little person with a beating heart, functioning nervous system, tiny hands and feet. The child is entirely disregarded. There is no counseling, no care, no waiting and no discussion. Once a pregnancy is confirmed, it is off to termination. Planned Parenthood takes specific advantage of women who are too young or misinformed to know better than to trust them with their well-being. Those who know the truth have a duty to speak out.”
After a conversion a decade in the making, that’s what Catherine is intent on doing. She knows you can never really make up for lost time or lost lives, but she knows you have to try.