KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Melissa Ohden is more than just one in a million. She’s one survivor out of 55 million-and-counting abortions performed in the United States since 1973. Armed with a personal story of faith, healing and forgiveness, Melissa has a mission: to give a face to abortion’s intended victims, its terrible cost on families, and to create networks of support for survivors.
Scheduled to die by a saline abortion in 1977 at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Sioux City, Iowa, Melissa miraculously survived her 19-year-old mother’s abortion. At 31-weeks gestation, Melissa was born, weighing 3 lbs, and saved by nurses who first thought she was dead.
Adopted thereafter by a loving Christian family, Melissa never knew her own history as an abortion survivor until an angry sister revealed the secret, forcing her adoptive parents to explain the circumstances of her birth when she was just a young teenager.
Melissa, 35, with her husband, Ryan, and young daughter Olivia, has a ministry to raise awareness about abortion’s intergenerational effects that tear apart families and communities. In March, she joined Catholics on the state Capitol to protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s intention to submit legislation that would vastly expand late-term abortion in New York state.
Melissa Ohden spoke about her ministry as a survivor, God’s healing power of forgiveness and the journey that has led her to join the Catholic Church.
Can you talk about your ministry as a survivor of late-term abortion?
I came forward publicly as a survivor in 2007. Since that time, the focus of my work has been to put a face to abortion and also talk about how abortion affects all of us. I’ve met so many dads since then who were told that abortion doesn’t affect men and to stay out of it. But the truth is that it affects men; it affects all of us. It affects grandparents, siblings, our families and, ultimately, our entire nation. That’s what the majority of my work has been until 2012, when I began to transition more into a new piece to our ministry that addresses abortion survivors specifically.
Can you tell us about the Abortion Survivors Network?
There are more abortion survivors out there than people think. Certainly, I spent years thinking that I must have been the only one. But there are many survivors out there still secretly thinking the same thing.
So I started the Abortion Survivors Network back in 2011. I’m still working through that, and I hear from more people on a weekly basis. I have met with more than 100 abortion survivors so far. The majority have survived late-term abortion. I help them find formal support, healing ministries — we’re actually looking at starting our own healing ministry for survivors — and raising up other people to be involved.
This ministry has roots in your experience of discovering your past as an abortion survivor. When did you find out — and find the strength to come forward?
I found out I was a survivor when I was 14. I was blessed with an amazing adoptive family. They actually wanted to protect me from knowing that I was an abortion survivor, but God always brings the truth to light.
It took me years of my life to come to a place of healing and to feel strong enough to come forward. I always knew that the day would come. You look at 55 million aborted children — and for even one of them to have been saved, or 100 or whatever that actual number of survivors is, you know that God has a plan for your life.
So I knew it was important for me to serve him, knowing that this is what my life was intended for. After I found my biological family and obtained my medical records in 2007, I really felt that I was at a time in my life to come forward.
What was the reaction of your biological family like?
When I found my biological family, I was not able to make contact with my birth mother. I never actually found her. I found my maternal grandparents. I also found my biological father and discovered we were actually living in the very same city.
What happened then?
My biological father never responded to a letter I sent him, and my grandparents simply acknowledged that I had contacted them. They admitted to the abortion taking place with me. That really was the last time that I heard from them. They commented simply that they were thankful I was alive, healthy and doing well.
They really didn’t talk much about me coming forward. But it’s very important to me that if they and my birth mother hear me speak or read something about me that they understand that I’m doing this to make good out of something that was meant for evil. I’m only trying to make this world a better place.
What are the struggles faced by an abortion survivor? What’s that like?
All of us survivors have had very different experiences. Hearing their stories has added a richness to my own life. But even though we’re very different, we have always faced similar struggles.
With survivors, it is shame, anger and working through the grief cycle, because those we believe should have loved and protected us instead made decisions that should have resulted in our lives ending. Survivors have to work through that entire process of grief.
Sometimes the survivor’s shame is induced by the biological family. I know a number of survivors raised by their mothers or both parents. There is an intense amount of shame, not only for survivors, but also for their entire biological family. My own birth family still struggles with the shame, the guilt and the suffering of living with that decision.
Ultimately, most survivors like me have reached a spot where they have found forgiveness and healing. They have forgiven their families, and I think people are surprised by that.
What I see in survivors raised by their birth families is that there is not always that mutual forgiveness. The survivor has forgiven, but I, sadly, know a number of families where the parents have not offered that forgiveness in return. The guilt is so strong.
What do you mean by parents needed to show “forgiveness in return”?
For instance, a number of survivors I know have talked with their birth parents at their deathbeds. The survivor told them, “I love you; I forgave you long ago for that decision that was made to end my life.” Even then, some of these biological parents have only turned to them and said, “If only the abortion would have succeeded.”
It is so, so painful for me to walk through that with them. But I think that just points to the fact that parents struggle with themselves.
How did you yourself come to experience that healing and forgiveness in your own life?
God’s grace alone. I did feel anger towards my birth family when I found out. I was 14 years old. Feelings are very raw at that age anyway.
I didn’t understand how they could make that decision about my life. So I felt anger that night when I first found out, but I knew in my heart that I have nothing to be angry about. I have an amazing family, and I am perfectly healthy today, even though the prognosis for my life was very poor when I survived. I know God has an amazing plan for my life.
You know, so many people think they are going to live out their lives untouched by abortion. Or they think that abortion is something that doesn’t affect their lives, but it affects all of us. It hits very close to home. It is very personal.
What has forgiveness meant for you?
God’s grace truly transformed me. We live in a world where forgiveness is so very hard for people. For me, it’s much easier because I know what Jesus Christ did for me. I know I’ll never forget that — and that his forgiveness wasn’t just for me.
So it’s been an easy process, but I have to do it over and over again.
Where are you on your faith journey? Are you Catholic?
Yes, I'm in the process of converting to the Catholic faith. I was raised in a Protestant home, and will be received into the Church next Easter vigil. It’s been a process for me, but I am so thankful to have been led to the Church. The joke growing up was that I have the heart of a Catholic and the mouth of a Protestant. We have quite a wonderful parish here in Kansas City that we are very grateful for.
How did that journey begin for you?
It’s been a long process. As I got more involved in the pro-life movement, I was surrounded by amazing people of the faith. Just the richness of what they understood really led me to learning more about the Catholic Church.
Back in 2011, I experienced a miscarriage, and, through that, I knew I was being led towards the Church. My eyes were being opened to the people who were being placed in my life. I knew that it wasn’t a coincidence, so I started praying and said, “Lord, if you’re leading me to the Church, I need you to be clear to me, because I’m not completely there yet.” The joke was that I was 70% there, and that last 30% was tough. Purgatory and Eucharist? That was the hill I had to climb.
When was the moment you decided?
As I said this prayer, driving back from somewhere, and in the middle of losing my child, I turned on the radio and heard Patrick Madrid. And I said, “Lord, that’s not big enough. I listen to Patrick; he’s on the radio all the time. Lord, you’re going to have to go bigger.”
So I went home and started cleaning out a drawer, when I found two Miraculous Medals and the Diary of St. Faustina — just things that people had given me over the years. At a time when I’m experiencing such suffering on a whole new level by losing my child, I discover those Miraculous Medals. That was a real gift to me that led me to make the decision to enter the Church.
How has faith in Christ shaped your life overall?
Faith is the cornerstone of my life. I wouldn’t be who I am and couldn’t do what I do without Jesus himself. It’s so funny, because people tell me, “You’re so courageous.” But I am not. There is no human explanation for how I have found the strength to come forward and how I can battle the things that I do. We know how strong the pro-abortion forces and this world’s culture of death are.
So my strength comes from God’s grace alone. I have hope every single day, and there is no medical reason why anyone like me survived. So it’s always been hope from the very beginning.
Would you mind sharing about your family? You have a little daughter named Olivia who is the miracle in your life now.
She is a miracle. The first time I came forward publicly in 2007 I was just a few days pregnant with her. Even though I was healthy, the doctors didn’t know if I would be able to conceive a child or even carry a child to term.
She was born at the same hospital where I was supposed to die in my birth mother’s abortion.
Why did you choose St. Luke’s Medical Center?
We had a couple of choices, but that was the best hospital. We also knew it was where my mother had sought her abortion.
We had a couple of birthing classes there, and we were waiting to see if I could emotionally and spiritually handle it.
We waited for almost two hours at first (for the class). I was viewing it as a sign that it wasn’t meant to be. I was ready to leave when, all of a sudden, a nurse showed up and said the hospital had forgotten to schedule someone to teach the class. They had just gone down the roster of nurses until they found someone to come in.
She said, “Don’t worry; I’ll make it up to you. I’ve worked here since the mid-1970s.” Well, I survived my abortion back in 1977. I thought, “This just can’t be. But if it is true, then she has to know who I am.” So I introduced myself, and when I did, the tears began to fall down her face. She said, “I know who you are; you look just like your grandmother.”
This nurse had known my maternal grandmother. She had worked with her, actually, knew my maternal grandmother’s family, and was working at the hospital when I survived. So there are no coincidences in this world.
As much as I appreciated how that experience was for me, that was an act of redemption for that nurse. Because they had saved my life more than 35 years ago, another life was now coming into the world because of their efforts.
What role does your husband Ryan play in your ministry?
My husband is an amazing support. This is where I tell people that this is not my ministry; this is our ministry. Our family makes sacrifices of time, finances and even anonymity. We lead a public life as a family. My husband has to see me go through a lot of difficult things, but he is always by my side.
You spoke recently in Albany, N.Y., to protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to expand late-term abortion in New York state. What was that like for you?
We sent out a press release to Gov. Cuomo in advance of my visit, letting him know that I would be interested in speaking with him. Not surprisingly, we didn’t hear back from him. We did have some good opportunities with the press to share my story and highlight the anticipated expansion of abortion through the Reproductive Health Act.
I wanted to highlight the voices of the unborn and also the voices of the women of New York who could be in grave danger from this expansion in New York.
First of all, I’m speaking for the unborn children of New York who don’t have a voice or an opportunity to say how this expansion would affect them.
Also, I’m speaking up for women like my birth mom. The RHA has the potential to expand late-term abortion from solely hospital settings to any kind of clinic. We’ve seen even in New York the passing of a young woman from late-term abortion.
I’m thankful for the medical care that my birth mother received in a hospital setting 35 years ago. I can only imagine that, had it been anywhere else, not only would I have lost my life, but something could have happened as a complication to my mother’s life.
Thank you so much for this interview, Melissa. As a final note, what do you hope your ministry can accomplish?
I think the most important thing that can happen in our world right now is that people need to find healing. We’ve had 40 years of legalized abortion. We’ve lost 55 million children to abortion. I have to ask how many hundreds of millions of lives have been forever changed.
In my work, I see families and communities that have not been able to heal. Many don’t even broach the subject of abortion.
So, for me, the key is raising awareness and having the conversation about how abortion affects all of us. I hope that, in turn, people can start finding healing and have that conversation about it themselves. I truly believe that is what it is going to take to make a significant impact in our world.
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.