A woman reportedly told her nine-year-old son about an abortion she had had years before he was born. He responded, “I knew, Mom, that there was something wrong. I always have nightmares about knives and my mother killing me. I have an imaginary brother who wants to kill me. If you had not aborted the other, would you have aborted me?” (Abortion Stories)

This is a story repeated more times than most people realize, and represents a societal and pastoral problem whose proportions are greater today than at any previous time in history: the phenomenon of tens of millions of abortion survivors.

It is clear that abortion's primary victim is the child who is killed. It has also become increasingly clear that to kill the child is to harm the mother and father as well. What is not always so well known, however, is that abortion makes its impact felt on those who have had a sibling aborted, and that this impact is felt in surprising and astonishing ways, which also have wider implications for the whole of society.

I have come to learn about this mostly through my personal association with Dr. Philip G. Ney. ... For the purposes of this article, I have drawn heavily on two of his works, Abortion Stories (1998) and How to Talk with Your Children About Your Abortion: A Practical Guide for Parents (1998).

Ten Types of Abortion Survivors

Those who find out that a sibling has been aborted are actually among ten types of “abortion survivors.”

Statistical survivors. These are people who survived in countries or cities where there is a statistically high probability that they would have been aborted. They come to know that the odds were definitely stacked against them. In some parts of Eastern Europe, the chances of being aborted are as high as 80%.

Wanted survivors. These are people whose parents carefully deliberated about whether or not to abort them. They may have calculated, consulted, and discussed the possibility. Interestingly, there is growing evidence that unborn children are affected by the hormonal changes that result from major conflicts in the mind of the mother. (In one case study a person who had tried to commit suicide on the same day every year discovered that the day was the date his mother had once set an appointment to abort him.)

Sibling survivors. These are people born into families where one or more of their siblings were aborted.

Threatened survivors. These are children whose parents have used abortion as a threat, even if they never considered it during the pregnancy, “You wretched, ungrateful child, I should have aborted you!”

Disabled survivors.These are people who, because of developmental defects or other circumstances, would usually be aborted. In fact, they often wonder whether their parents would have aborted them had they known about the defects.

Chance survivors. These are children who would have been aborted if the mother had been able to obtain the abortion. The abortion was prevented by a lack of money, time, permission, availability, etc.

Ambivalent survivors. These are children of parents who could not make up their minds about the abortion and delayed until it was too late. They are often caught up in their parents' continuing ambivalence, and can wonder whether they can still be terminated.

Twin survivors. These are people whose twin was aborted. Twins communicate, touch, and even caress each other in the womb. The loss of the twin by abortion is deeply felt and often causes the survivor to be suicidal.

Attempted murder survivors. These are people who survived an actual abortion attempt. Besides the physical harm that is often done, they suffer intense psychological struggles, nightmares, confused identities and a fear of doctors.

Murdered survivors. These are children who survived an abortion for just a short period of time, and were subsequently killed by the abortion staff or left to die.

Regarding sibling survivors, the first question that likely comes to mind is, How do they know in the first place that a sibling was aborted? As the quote at the beginning of the article reveals, they often know by a strong and mysterious intuition, or the sensation of the presence of a “missing” or imaginary person.

Case histories and research evidence indicate that if a mother has had an abortion, this fact will be communicated in one way or another to the surviving siblings. Dr. Ney simply states, “You cannot not communicate.”

Many dynamics are at work here. Abortion is often discussed in our society, so children easily wonder whether there was one in their own family. Their curiosity may lead them to indirectly probe the matter with their parents, or they may overhear conversations about it. Objectively, moreover, the abortion does cause various symptoms of distress within the family, and this can lead children to conclude that the unspoken cause of the distress is an abortion. Parents may at times blurt it out to the child in a moment of anger.

Yes, Survivors Should Be Told

Dr. Ney is clear that women who have had abortions should tell their surviving children about it. The reasons, simply summed up, are that the price of not honestly communicating about it is higher than that of revealing it. The truth will set you free is true not only on a spiritual level, but also on the level of natural psychology. The destructive dynamics of a past abortion will be felt in the family, unavoidably. It is better that children come to know the reasons for these dynamics, rather than have to live with pseudo-secrets and with a fantasy that may be far more horrifying than the reality. Good advice regarding the timing and manner of telling children about an abortion, and how to deal with the possible responses, is found in Dr. Ney's book How to Talk with Your Children About Your Abortion.

The Wounds of Sibling Survivors

To know how to help the sibling survivor, one must understand some of the psychological dynamics at work. Dr. Ney points out that research reveals several patterns:

Survivor guilt. “Why am I alive, and not my brother or sister? I feel guilty. I don't deserve to be alive. I can't enjoy life when I know that my parents might have killed me. They arranged for the death of my brothers or sisters, who were probably better than me.”

Existential anxiety. “I want to live but I fear I am doomed. Something awful is going to happen to me I don't know how or when.” This suffering springs from the awareness that one is alive because one was “wanted.” What, then, if I am no longer wanted? Can I still be killed? This fear can lead to an exaggerated effort to stay wanted, and such an effort can make one weary and, at a certain point, completely rebellious in an effort to reject the need to constantly strive to be wanted. This can account for the mindless vandalism of many adolescents.

Anxious attachment. “I'm not sure how my parents feel about me, so I have to stay close to them, but the closer I get the worse I feel.” From the parent's perspective as well, abortion interferes with their ability to bond with subsequent children or to respond tenderly to their helpless cries.

Pseudo-secret collusion. “I desperately need to know what happened to my unborn brother or sister, but am afraid to ask. It may be too terrible to know and asking may ruin my relationship with my parents.”

Distrust. “I can't believe that my parents, who would kill one of their children, can really love me.”

Self-doubt. Having destroyed a child by abortion, parents develop deep fears of how they or others might hurt subsequent children. They can become over-protective. Constantly warning children to be careful can then decrease the child's confidence, making decision-making extremely difficult for the child.

Ontological guilt. “I know I am talented and have lots of opportunities. I could have a good future, but I can't seem to get my act into gear.” Survivors feel a deep uncertainty about the future, or their own prospects of survival, and so may find it hard to make good plans. They keep quitting and starting again, and may rationalize their failures.

Dislike of children. Because they are unsure of their own existence and identity, survivors feel threatened by children, and may either avoid having them, or put them in day-care at a very early age.

How Do We Respond Pastorally?

Abortion survivors are all around us, and responding to them pastorally will be an ever greater aspect of our ministry in the months and years ahead. ...

Healing the wounds of abortion is a family matter, and needs to be facilitated within the family. Helping parents to identify the way abortion harms their family and their interpersonal relations, and then counseling them regarding how to speak with their children, are aspects of our role.

Prevention, of course, is essential; and the road to alleviating the problem of so many who suffer the effects of being abortion survivors is to have fewer abortions. ... According to Dr. Ney, one of the best means to facilitate the healing process is to involve families in which there are abortion survivors in projects aimed at preventing the same problems that they experienced.

Dr. Ney points out that group psychotherapy is effective in assisting the survivor of abortion. Family therapy should follow. In the absence of intensive psychotherapy, which is the ideal, counseling is very valuable, especially when directed at the existential guilt.

In this regard, it is necessary to point out the distinction between being wanted and being welcomed. Being wanted is not necessarily a consolation. It gives the wrong message, namely, that my life or death depends on the fact that someone wants or doesn't want me, that I have no intrinsic right to be.

Welcome, on the other hand, is the response to someone who has an intrinsic value, a value that is recognized and acknowledged to be independent of the circumstances in which one comes to be. When one is welcomed, he or she is not subject to the plans, desires, or expectations of others.

Dr. Ney emphasizes the key role of spiritual renewal and the Church community in assisting the abortion survivor. Our clear and consistent teaching on the intrinsic value of every human life speaks directly to the needs of the abortion survivor. In the words of Evangelium Vitae: “Life is always a good. ... Why is life a good? ... The life which God gives man ... is a manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory. ... Man has been given a sublime dignity based on the intimate bond which unites him to his Creator: In man there shines forth a reflection of God himself” (34).

In the words of Dr. Ney: Abortion survivors must be able to see that parental love is real. When they see it in people, they then can understand that God, as our Father, can be loving toward them. They need to understand that they are welcome in God's family. and that when they have God's Spirit within them he gives purpose, joy and meaning to their lives. Salvation through Jesus Christ is both the cause and effect in the healing process.

This article is excerpted with permission. It first appeared in the January-February issue of Sacerdos, a Rome-based magazine for priests. Sacerdos can be contacted at informations@mail.sacerdos.org. Father Frank Pavone of New York is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and is the international director of Priests for Life.