Project Rachel Founder Vicki Thorn Changed the Course of the Pro-Life Movement With a Message of Mercy
Thorn, who died suddenly Easter Wednesday, left an indelible mark on the Church and the pro-life movement with her tireless insistence on providing God’s compassion for post-abortive mothers and fathers.
MILWAUKEE — As more and more women came seeking her out to pour out their grief after abortion, Vicki Thorn turned to the Lord in prayer, asking for guidance. Opening her Bible, the bereavement counselor read the passage that appeared before her from Jeremiah 31:15: “Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
But it was the next verses that inspired Thorn to found Project Rachel in 1984: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears … There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.”
At her funeral on April 30, at St. Catherine’s Catholic Church in Milwaukee, pro-life advocates will bid farewell in this life to Victoria M. Thorn. In the course of nearly four decades, the Catholic wife and mother of six had transformed the pro-life movement with Project Rachel’s message of compassion for post-abortive mothers and inspired both her own and the next generation of pro-life leaders.
Thorn, 72, passed away without warning April 20, Easter Wednesday, from a massive heart attack. The suddenness of her death stunned Catholic pro-life leaders who remembered Thorn as a woman who embodied the heart of the pro-life movement itself and had so much more yet to give.
“She really exemplified the compassion and true lack of judgment that the vast majority of pro-lifers have for women who have had abortions, or men who coerced abortions,” said Mary Hallan FioRito, a Catholic legal expert in abortion law and policy. FioRito became good friends with Thorn in 1993, when FioRito became the Chicago Archdiocese’s pro-life director. She explained Thorn recognized the coercive social and financial pressures experienced by women and girls who aborted their unborn children and the need to accompany them to a place of healing and reconciliation.
Thorn, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, played a pivotal role in shaping the direction of the pro-life movement with Project Rachel ministries, a diocesan-based network of specially trained clergy, counselors and laity who provide care for women (and later men) in need of healing from abortion.
Thorn began the ministry out of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Respect Life Office in 1984, and from there Project Rachel spread over the next few decades to nearly every U.S. Catholic diocese.
She carried out her pro-life ministry with the support of her husband, William, and the firm conviction that God would provide for the work he set before her.
“She lived by God’s providence,” FioRito said, without worrying about the future, but instead focusing on today: “My job is what God has put in front of me every day.”
Thorn’s own relationship with Jesus Christ was deeply steeped in reading her Bible, and FioRito said she routinely consulted the Lord in prayer before making decisions.
In this way, Thorn’s discipleship led her to found the Project Rachel ministry, especially after discovering that many priests were desperate for guidance regarding how to help post-abortive women.
“Vicki was personally, keenly interested in and aware of the need to do something with regard to providing some way to repair the damage done in the souls and lives of people who have had abortions,” Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society of Human Life, told the Register.
Turner, a longtime friend of Thorn, said she met her at the 1987 Healing Visions Conference organized by the National Youth Pro-life Coalition, where they both gave presentations and which featured “the great lights of the early pro-life movement.”
“She was a very dynamic lady,” Turner said. “She knew what was needed.”
Turner, a Catholic who had experienced abortion herself, became one the members of Thorn’s Project Rachel teams that would make presentations in the dioceses. These presentations involved a canon lawyer, a psychologist, a post-abortive mother to give her testimony freely and safely about the impact of abortion, an OB-GYN doctor, and a pastoral-care expert who was not a priest in that diocese.
Turner told the Register that, by the mid-1990s, she had made 40 Project Rachel presentations. She shared with participants how, when she returned to the Church for healing after abortion, she told the priest in the confessional, “I want to be back at the Communion table, within the Communion of Saints, because there my child is.”
Turner said that Thorn was a sweet mother and sweet grandmother with a will of iron — a modern-day “Catherine of Siena” who championed a message of God’s mercy for post-abortive women and men.
Thorn’s efforts, Turner said, led many priests to rediscover the reason they became priests. Project Rachel moved the U.S. bishops to give priests faculties to absolve women who had abortions and lift any potential state of excommunication associated with abortion.
By the time Pope Francis had made this permission universal at the end of the Year of Mercy in 2016, the U.S. bishops had already made this the norm, thanks to Project Rachel, which today operates under the aegis of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Inspiring Pro-Life Leaders
Kathleen Buckley Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told the Register that Thorn decisively changed the pro-life movement’s national narrative and inspired pro-life leaders like her with Project Rachel’s message of compassion.
As a young Gen X pro-life advocate, Domingo felt uncomfortable with some of the harsh rhetoric or lack of empathy toward women who had abortions espoused by some pro-life leaders at that time. But Thorn’s witness of compassion gave Domingo “the tools to have empathy in a way that I never would have had otherwise without her work.” Today, she said, the millennial generation and following youth cannot imagine the movement any other way.
“She completely changed the dialogue,” Domingo said. “She taught us so much about how to understand people who are in really desperate circumstances, how to understand the choice that women make for abortion, how to understand where they're coming from, what happens when they make that choice, how to really help them heal, and why that’s so critical.”
While Thorn is most well-known for the Project Rachel post-abortion ministry, she had turned her focus later in life toward how the pro-life movement could help women and girls steer away from the path that ended in abortion, particularly through teaching what she called the “biology of the theology of the body.” In addition, in 2013, she presented a talk, “A Christian Vision of Sexuality,” at a conference marking the 25th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieris Dignitatem.
Jamie Rathjen, a FertilityCare practitioner and national board chairwoman of the Guiding Star pro-life health centers, encountered this part of Thorn’s mission when she spoke at the 2014 “Going Natural” pro-life conference organized in Dubuque, Iowa.
Rathjen resonated with Thorn’s presentations on the ill effects of hormonal contraception on women’s bodies, choice of mate and the environment. Furthermore, Thorn demonstrated the importance of providing authentic sex education rooted in God’s design and plan for human beings.
“She was somebody who really encouraged me,” Rathjen said. “She had ways of communicating realities about our nature.”
Thorn became a mentor to Rathjen, who established the Cedar Valley Guiding Star health center in Waterloo, Iowa. Thorn’s influence can be seen in Guiding Star’s sexual-education classes called “Intro to Womanhood” and “Intro to Manhood,” which Rathjen said are now providing two generations, parent and child, with the truth and dignity of their bodies in God’s plan that they never received in school.
“We’re really addressing the cultural root [of abortion],” she said, adding that this is part of their plan to transform communities. “Men and women don’t understand the dignity of their own bodies. We’re literally talking a lot about the things that Vicki talked about.”
Doubling Down on Compassion
The landscape of abortion in the 21st century is changing. FioRito said that Roe v. Wade’s likely fall will alter the legal landscape of abortion in the U.S. But she said the changes will likely accelerate a shift to medical abortion, where the majority of abortions will become self-administered RU-486 abortion pills at home.
The trauma of these abortions is going to be greater, FioRito said, as women and girls who abort will see the aborted remains of their child before disposing them.
These realities will challenge the pro-life movement. However, FioRito believed Vicki Thorn would call the pro-life movement to “double down on that compassion” and “meet these women with the extravagant mercy of God.”
“She’d want us to double down on the compassion.”
This story was updated after posting.