National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Helping Women Grieve After Abortion

BY Rich Rinaldi

July 4-10, 1999 Issue | Posted 7/4/99 at 2:00 PM

 

Many people are not aware of the psychological and emotional damage that is caused after a woman has had an abortion. Theresa Burke spends her time helping women come to terms with their abortions.

Burke, a psychiatrist and founder of Rachel's Vineyard, a Bridgeport, Pa.-based ministry that helps women with post-abortion trauma, recently spoke to Rich Rinaldi of Register Radio News.

Rich Rinaldi: Rachel's Vineyard has helped thousands of women with post-abortion trauma. Could you tell us a little about the retreats they organize?

Dr. Theresa Burke: It's a very beautiful, very intense weekend retreat and we also include men on those retreats and sometimes even grandparents of aborted children. But it's a very beautiful weekend, an opportunity to look back on the abortion decision and to, I guess, take stock of how it may have impacted them — something a lot of women may never have done. They have undergone this loss and have a lot of feelings about it which they bury and repress. They don't really deal with it. That can cause a lot of problems. The weekend retreat is really an opportunity to not only reconcile the abortion with themselves, but also with God and with the child. This happens through a very intense weekend. A lot of pain comes up … and they have an opportunity to tell their story and deal with their anger their loss.

You mention about reconciling with the child. Could you tell us about that?

The Holy Father, in The Gospel of Life, talks about the children being alive in the Lord and he said nothing is definitely lost which means that each child that was aborted has a soul that is very much alive with the Lord and this is the hope we give to women on the weekend. We help to establish a spiritual relationship with their aborted child or children. In order to do this, they first have to acknowledge the life they have lost.

This is part of the denial which keeps a lot of women from even grieving, that they lost something.

A lot of women do realize that, but it's later. Maybe when they are pregnant with a wanted child, they might remember their abortion and say, “My God, I would have had another baby.” All kinds of memories come back about their abortion and this can be a very painful time. So the weekend helps them address all these issues, realize the impact the abortion has had and, certainly, to own that child, to reclaim that child in love which is something important for any mother to do — to reconnect with the baby, name the baby, give honor and dignity to the baby and to realize that this child is alive with Christ. We also, since we believe in eternal life, offer the promise that you will meet that child in heaven. This is a very beautiful, very healing concept for a lot of women that feel it's all over.

You mentioned about the deep depression of mothers who have aborted their children, and suicide attempts. It sounds like there is real anguish there.

Well, abortion is really a trauma, and what happens when we are traumatized by anything — or we lose anything and don't deal with our feelings and process the event — it can come back to haunt you in other ways. Some women don't even connect the emotional difficulties that they have with their loss. They might have depression. A lot of women might have anniversary reactions around the time of their abortion; they might develop eating disorders or try to numb their feelings in their memories with alcohol or substance abuse. A lot of women feel enormous guilt and shame over this act. They find lots of ways to punish themselves. If they are not inflicting abuse on themselves with this self-destructive behavior, they will become involved with relationships that will be unhealthy. …

We see a lot of sabotage behavior from women because the bottom line is that they don't feel worthy, they feel they don't deserve anything good in life. They know they took the life of their child. These are the kind of thoughts that go through a lot of women's heads. They feel a lot of guilt like, “God is going to punish me.” And these in particular are seen around women who are pregnant with one sick child, “The baby is going to be deformed,” or there are fears of that. … That's very common. … And there might be people that they are really angry at. There might be a parent that forced the abortion, a boyfriend; it might be a husband. There are a lot of toxic relationships sometimes. As a result of that, women have difficulty trusting and at times, being intimate. The act of sex can be a painful reminder of the trauma. …

Abortion providers are not warning these women about the consequences of having an abortion, talking to them or counseling them.

Therapy is such a denial of post-traumatic stress disorder, post-abortion trauma, even guilt after abortion. They say that you and I now are causing the guilt because we are the ones making this an issue. I can tell you for certain with my experience — and I run these retreats all over the country training other groups on how to do it — I've heard probably thousands of women and men in deep grief and deep despair. They have never been warned of this. There is a denial in the industry that it's even a reality. They say that post-abortion trauma doesn't even exist.

Rich Rinaldi is director of Register Radio News