MILWAUKEE — When Vicki Thorn founded Project Rachel 25 years ago, she was the first “expert” in a field that didn’t exist: post-abortion ministry.
Now, 25 years later, the organization she founded has helped thousands of women and men suffering from the pain of Post-Abortion Syndrome, and she has brought hope and healing to those as far away as China, Europe and New Zealand.
Thorn received her degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota, but wasn’t adequately trained in how to deal with someone suffering from the trauma of abortion.
“I had a friend who, in 1967, had been whisked off for a safe but illegal abortion,” said Thorn.
In the years that followed, her friend suffered from abuse, chemical dependency, and more.
“She told me, ‘I can live with adoption, but I can’t live with abortion,’” said Thorn. “That stayed with me.”
Determined to prevent others from traveling a similar path, Thorn began working as a Birthright volunteer in Milwaukee. In 1977, she was offered a position as the respect life director in the diocese.
“Every time the respect life leaders would meet, we would discuss the U.S. bishops’ pastoral plan for post-abortion ministry and ask, ‘How would we do this?’” said Thorn. “I figured that the Church was the perfect place to do it.”
It took seven years, but on Sept. 18, 1984, Thorn gathered a therapist, priest-psychologist, and some post-abortive women to hold the first training for 60 priests and Catholic Charities. Out of that effort, Project Rachel was born.
The organization’s name refers to Jeremiah 31:15-17, where Rachel is mourning for her children.
Father Ralph Gross was among the priests at that first training workshop.
“Project Rachel has done a wonderful job educating priests over the years to be able to be more sensitive and more understanding of the circumstances, and to have a better insight into the crisis of abortion and the aftermath,” said Father Gross, pastor of St. Bruno Church in Dousman, Wis.
Today, there are 160 diocesan post-abortion ministries. Project Rachel receives somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 telephone calls and e-mails each month.
Dealing with the aftermath of an abortion is not a one-time occurrence, noted Thorn.
“Abortion is a life-changing event, and that changes as life goes on,” said Thorn. “It changes when a woman has children, when her friends become parents, when she discovers she is infertile, and when she becomes a grandparent. The women we see have many years of grief.”
Post-abortive women struggle with a variety of challenges.
“They may be numb or emotionally charged,” said Thorn. “They may have struggled with chemical dependency, promiscuous behavior, depression or suicidal thoughts.”
“The woman who has had an abortion is experiencing the normal grief of a mother who has lost a child in a traumatic and unnatural fashion,” said Thorn. She is stuck in her grief, she said, “and no one acknowledges it.”
Thorn says that during her years in post-abortion ministry, she has witnessed a shift. Today, women are quicker to seek help dealing with their grief.
“It used to be that the woman who was struggling with this, we wouldn’t see until five to 10 years after the abortion,” said Thorn. “This shifted around the year 2000. We began to see many women immediately afterwards.”
Thorn believes the advent of the Internet, with easier access to information about the negative effects of abortion, contributed to that shift.
Men: The Silent Victims
In 2007, Thorn extended her work to men. With the support of the Knights of Columbus and the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Thorn organized a conference focused on post-abortion healing for men. That was followed by a conference in Chicago.
“In the early days of the pro-life movement, we agreed that it was a women’s issue and cut the men out,” said Thorn. “We shouldn’t have done that. The culture has told men that they can’t say anything, yet the woman is longing for support.”
“The suffering that men carry is so profound,” said Father Mariusz Koch, a Franciscan Friar of Renewal who has worked with men in post-abortion ministry. “Some men share the guilt of their action — that they forced someone. Some share their anger — that they tried to stop it but couldn’t. Some share their shame. Some of them drove the girl there and talk about looking in her eyes and knowing it wasn’t the right thing and are haunted by that.”
Yet, said Thorn, men’s post-abortion ministry must look different than women’s.
“We’ve put men into women’s models,” said Thorn. “It’s likely that a men’s model will be more of a one-to-one ministry.”
Church leaders laud the work of Project Rachel.
“In an often shrill debate over abortion, the work of Project Rachel is vital,” said Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, at a celebratory gathering on the 25th anniversary of Project Rachel in Milwaukee. “It brings healing to those survivors of abortion that are so often ignored: the parents of the aborted child.”
What does the future hold for Project Rachel?
With two conferences focused on men under its belt, the organization is looking to another conference, possibly on the East Coast in the fall of 2010. In addition, a book on Project Rachel is being released by the Vatican’s publishing house in November, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is currently revising a manual for priests, originally released in 2000, focused on the priest’s part in post-abortion ministry.
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.