Click here for the presentation version given at the World Congress of Families V in Amsterdam, August 2009
"When a man steals to satisfy hunger, we may safely conclude that there is something wrong in society. So when a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is an evidence that either by education or circumstances she has been greatly wronged." These are the words of one of the founders of the women’s movement, Mattie Brinkerhoff (The Revolution 3(9): 138-9 September 2, 1869). Together with others who were at the forefront of modern feminism, she opposed abortion and did not see a so-called “right to abortion” as any part of the authentic advancement of women. Alice Paul, the author of the original Equal Rights Amendment in the United States in 1923, opposed the later trend linking it with abortion. A colleague recalls her expressing the opinion that "abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women."
The idea that abortion somehow benefits women will be counted in history as the greatest hoax that was ever perpetrated against women.
On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court legalized abortion throughout pregnancy. The text of that Roe vs. Wade decision states the following: “Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it.” (Roe at 153).
Thirty-four years later, on April 18, 2007, when the same Court upheld the first ban on abortion since Roe vs. Wade, namely the federal ban on partial-birth abortion, the following words appeared in the Court’s Gonzales vs. Carhart decision:
“It seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained….Severe depression and loss of esteem can follow…In a decision so fraught with emotional consequence some doctors may prefer not to disclose precise details of the means that will be used, confining themselves to the required statement of risks the procedure entails. From one standpoint this ought not to be surprising. Any number of patients facing imminent surgical procedures would prefer not to hear all details, lest the usual anxiety preceding invasive medical procedures become the more intense. This is likely the case with the abortion procedures here in issue…It is, however, precisely this lack of information concerning the way in which the fetus will be killed that is of legitimate concern to the State…The State has an interest in ensuring so grave a choice is well informed. It is self-evident that a mother who comes to regret her choice to abort must struggle with grief more anguished and sorrow more profound when she learns, only after the event, what she once did not know: that she allowed a doctor to pierce the skull and vacuum the fast-developing brain of her unborn child, a child assuming the human form.”
On the one hand, we see the court invoking the harm that can come to women from childbirth as a justification for legalizing child-killing. Three and a half decades later we see the court invoking the harm that can come to women from child-killing as a justification for beginning to ban it.
Feminism, at its best, listens to the voices of women. It listens with new ears, not pre-judging what it will hear, nor trying to make it fit into any mold. True feminism is attuned to what women are saying about what helps them and what hurts them. It is ready to hear them, even when their message presents new challenges to the rest of us. It listens courageously.
It’s time for a new feminism, ready to hear the message that women around the globe are raising with greater frequency and intensity than ever. That message is, I regret my abortion. Whether in private or in public, women are expressing the shared experience that abortion represents a dead end, an empty promise, a failed experiment, a false hope. For countless women, not only did abortion not solve their problems, but it only created new ones, of a physical, emotional, and spiritual nature.
Both in the public arena and in the abortion clinics, women are not told of the many harmful physical and psychological effects of abortion. There are, for example, fifteen psychological risk factors that need to be investigated before this procedure, but they usually aren't.
Among the many aftereffects of the procedure, women who have abortions are twice as likely to have a miscarriage if they get pregnant again. One of the reasons for this is "cervical incompetence". During an abortion the cervical muscle is hastily stretched open, and hence can be rendered too weak to stay closed for another pregnancy.
Another complication is ectopic pregnancy, a life-threatening situation in which, due to scar tissue in the womb from the scraping of the abortion, a fertilized ovum is blocked from entering the uterus and so begins growing in the fallopian tube and eventually ruptures it. Since abortion was legalized, ectopic pregnancies have risen 300%.
Many other physical complications can arise, including sterility, stillbirths, bleeding and infections, shock and coma, perforated uterus, peritonitis, loss of body organs, insomnia, loss of appetite, nervousness, decreased work capacity, seizures and tremors, and gastro-intestinal disturbances.
As the book Lime 5 documents, the complications and deaths of women from abortions are under-reported, and recorded under different causes than abortion.
Psychological effects are also very real. Women suffer from PAS (Post-Abortion Syndrome). They experience "impacted grief"; that is, grief which festers within then like pus because they and others deny that a real death has occurred. Because of this denial, mourning cannot properly occur, yet the pain of loss is still there. Many have flashbacks to the abortion experience, nightmares about the baby, and even pain on the anniversary of the due date.
They experience intense and lasting guilt, loss of confidence and self-esteem, mourning and withdrawal, hostility and rage, despair and helplessness, inability to forgive oneself, loss of sexual interest and a desire to end the relationship with one’s partner, hatred for persons connected with abortion, thwarted maternal instincts and inability to bond with subsequent children, suicidal impulses, and a preoccupation with death.
Some women testify that they still suffer from abortions that occurred 50 or 60 years ago! Nobody concerned about women can responsibly dismiss these facts.
Perhaps most fundamental, however, among the kinds of damage that abortion does to women is the powerful statement it makes about their very nature and role in society. The abortion mentality looks on pregnancy as a disease. It does not take women seriously in their unique privilege and power of bearing new life! As Rosemary Bottcher, a Feminist for Life, has written, "Abortion reduces women to the status of sex machines which can be 'repaired' if necessary. Abortion helps ease his (the man's) anxiety about sex and relieves him of the last vestige of responsibility. At last sex is really free!" Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a founder of the women’s rights movement, put it this way: "When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit." (Letter to Julia Ward Howe, October 16, 1871, recorded in Howe's diary at Harvard University Library).
Dr. Phillip Ney, a Canadian psychiatrist who has done massive research into the impact of abortion on women, families, and society, holds that there is nothing more damaging to the family than abortion. He points out in his groundbreaking work, Deeply Damaged, that an abortion distorts the mother’s ability – and indeed the ability of the human species – to respond properly to the helpless cry of its own young. Having met that helpless cry with the violence of abortion, we are less able to respond to that cry the next time, not only in regard to the unborn child, but to other members of the human family.
This is the point that Mother Teresa of Calcutta made in her speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC on February 3, 1994 when she said,
“The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus gave even His life to love us. So, the mother who is thinking of abortion, should be helped to love, that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts. By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems. And, by abortion, the father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. That father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So abortion just leads to more abortion. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”
This is also the point that Pope John Paul II makes in his encyclical The Gospel of Life when he writes in paragraph 99,
“In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a "new feminism" which rejects the temptation of imitating models of "male domination", in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.
Making my own the words of the concluding message of the Second Vatican Council, I address to women this urgent appeal: "Reconcile people with life". You are called to bear witness to the meaning of genuine love, of that gift of self and of that acceptance of others which are present in a special way in the relationship of husband and wife, but which ought also to be at the heart of every other interpersonal relationship. The experience of motherhood makes you acutely aware of the other person and, at the same time, confers on you a particular task: "Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as it develops in the woman's womb ... This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings not only towards her own child, but every human being, which profoundly marks the woman's personality". A mother welcomes and carries in herself another human being, enabling it to grow inside her, giving it room, respecting it in its otherness. Women first learn and then teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health. This is the fundamental contribution which the Church and humanity expect from women. And it is the indispensable prerequisite for an authentic cultural change.”
Women, therefore, are at the forefront both of bearing the damage of the culture of death and forging the way to a new Culture of Life. While there are many life issues – indeed, any issue worthy of consideration is worthy precisely because it impacts human life – it is abortion which stands at the center of the conflict between these two cultures and worldviews. No human relationship is more basic than that between a mother and her own child, and it is only when we can maintain peace and harmony in that relationship that we can learn how to maintain peace and harmony between ethnic groups, economic sectors of society, and nations.
Women will lead the way more effectively the more they can be healed from the negative impact abortion has had upon them. This involves both a psychological and spiritual healing, facilitated by the support of others in their communities and the expert help of those who understand their wounds. This is at the basis of the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, a joint project of Priests for Life and Anglicans for Life, by which the large numbers of women who are saying I regret my abortion are organizing themselves to speak that message more loudly and effectively. The Campaign’s goal is first of all to extend the opportunity for healing to all who have lost a child to abortion. The Campaign likewise aims to raise awareness of the harm abortion does to women, and to provide, to those who are ready to do so, the opportunity to share publicly their testimony of pain and of healing.
These testimonies are shared in Churches, on television and radio programs, on the internet, and at public gatherings all around the world. At the annual March for Life in Washington DC, women and men who have lost children to abortion lead the way at the front of that march, holding signs that say I Regret My Abortion and I Regret Lost Fatherhood. At the conclusion of the march, they stand outside the Supreme Court and share their testimonies one by one in the presence of the marchers and the media.
Others, who regret their abortion but do not feel called to speak publicly, are nevertheless letting themselves be counted by registering anonymously with the Campaign. This can be done online at IRegretMyAbortion.com.
In my own life, I have experienced this kind of journey, because I have lost children through the earliest and most hidden form of abortion, that which comes about through abortifacients. I had embraced everything that the feminist movement promoted as being liberating and empowering for women. In reality, I had not been liberated; everyday I felt more trapped in a bad marriage, and conflicted between my desire to avoid further pregnancies by using birth control, and my fear of their possible side-effects. I therefore underwent tubal ligation. When I returned to the practice of my faith, however, I began to learn more about the fact that birth control drugs can kill newly fertilized human lives, and began to mourn the fact that, after years of using such drugs, I had indeed lost children as a result.
The journey of healing and reconciliation I have undergone has been marked by the loving intervention of the Church, the support of others who have experienced similar loss, the power of healing ministries like Rachel’s Vineyard, a ministry of Priests for Life, and the encouragement of the pro-life movement which more and more embodies the call to women to lead the way in building the Culture of Life.
I his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II wrote, "Therefore, in firmly rejecting 'pro choice' it is necessary to become courageously 'pro woman,' promoting a choice that is truly in favor of women…The only honest stance…is that of radical solidarity with the woman" (p.206-207).
This is a task for everyone, women and men alike. The basis of our solidarity with women, as well as with unborn children, is our common humanity, not our gender.
To be pro-life is to be pro-woman. We do not say, "Love the baby and forget about the mother." Rather, we say, "Why can't we love them both?" We can and we must. To harm one is to harm the other; to love and serve one is to love and serve the other. The destinies of mother and child are inextricably bound to one another.
Pro-woman" is not simply a project, strategy, or package for the pro-life message. Rather, it is that message. Whenever someone speaks up for the equal dignity of the unborn child, that person is advancing the status of women. Whenever someone reveals the horror of abortion, that person is counteracting the exploitation of women, so many of whom are deceived into thinking that abortion is no horror at all. Whenever the pro-life message is advanced, women are ennobled. For that we will continue to work, and in that we rejoice!