Abortion always ends a life. For some women who have undergone the procedure, it can begin a lifetime of shame, regret and unresolved pain. This is especially true for women (and men) of faith.
On Jan. 11, about 40 people gathered at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral’s Lunney Center in Anchorage to learn how to reach out to those wounded by abortion and its aftermath. Project Rachel, a ministry of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, sponsored the daylong workshop, which featured presentations by those who volunteer for this vital work, and professionals in the fields of medicine and psychology.
Attendees included several priests and deacons of the archdiocese, deacons’ wives, youth ministers, laity and others who work in post abortion counseling in other churches and ministries.
Deacon Kurt Adler, of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, welcomed attendees and identified three objectives for the workshop. The first aim was to call as many people as possible, both women and men, to facilitate healing. Secondly, he spoke of the need to develop a more diversified team of volunteers from all parishes in the archdiocese across Alaska. Thirdly, the goal was to help attendees recognize body language and the symptoms of someone suffering from post abortion, such as drug abuse, depression and criminal activity.
“All of us gathered here are the first responders, coming to the aid of our brothers and sisters,” Deacon Adler said. He described the work of Project Rachel as one of “the means by which God will end or mitigate this catastrophe.”
Carol Szopa, co-director of Project Rachel who holds a master’s in nursing, explained that abortion is a medical term. She showed a short film that illustrated the variety of ways in which an unborn baby’s life might end through abortion — via hormonal, chemical and mechanical means, known collectively as “therapeutic abortion.”
“Abortion is a heavy word, burdened with sadness and regret,” stated Pam Albrecht, founder and co-director of Project Rachel, an archdiocesan subsidiary of the national organization begun by Vicki Thorn in the diocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Locally, the group has existed for 18 years and has served over 35 women, a handful of men, and a few grandparents. The seemingly small numbers belie its work.
Grief, not guilt, is the source for unrelenting symptoms that lead post-abortive women to seek the organization’s services, according to Albrecht. The program takes women as they come and guides them through a free and completely confidential nine-week journey. Instruction in grief and the healing process, forgiveness of self and others, image and self-worth and other topics, culminates in the sacrament of reconciliation and healing, Mass or a prayer service. Persons of other faiths are welcomed and encouraged as the program can be modified to suit individual needs and spiritual preferences.
Jane Erkmann, who holds a master’s in counseling psychology, offered an in-depth analysis of the psychological effects of abortion. Mild to profound grief, depression and suicidal thoughts and actions, poor self-esteem, guilt, and shame can lead to substance abuse, and difficulty concentrating or sleeping. There can be negative experiences with flashbacks of the abortion, trouble bonding with future children and an inability to trust others, leading to relationship and marital problems.
Perhaps the most disconcerting for Erkmann and those who work with post-abortive women is the sense suffering women have that they cannot be forgiven — even if they intellectually accept the forgiveness of a loving, merciful God, they struggle to forgive themselves.
The role of the priest in this on-going work of forgiveness is crucial, Erkmann said, adding, “A lot of people serially confess.”
She wondered, how many sermons encourage women to seek spiritual counsel following an abortion.
“Reconciliation with God should be our first priority,” she added.
To aid priests in helping women through the spiritual ramifications of an abortion, two videos were shown. The priest’s role in Project Rachel by Monsignor Joseph Ranieri, of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., encouraged confessors “to listen, to be open and to be patient. These people need to talk about what happened, often more than once,” he emphasized.
Father Michael Shields, pastor of the Church of Nativity in Russia, whose mission there is supported by the Anchorage Archdiocese, was featured in the second video, “The Absolution of Holly.” In the video and speaking afterwards, Father Shields acknowledged the naïve advice he gave to a young woman who sought his counsel in the confessional.
“I gave her good advice, but was not willing to stand with her,” he noted.
Father Shields emphasized that each person’s pain is unique and the priest must have a heart to go deep into the guilt, anger and grief she experiences.
“No sin is outside of the mercy of God,” he said. “Faith is a gift that God gives to everyone who has the courage to take this step.”
Healing from abortion, by every measure, takes time, but the confidential testimonies of women helped by Project Rachel reflect real progress.
“If it weren’t for Project Rachel, I would still be crying,” said one. Another stated, “I actually feel lighter, my shoulders do not feel so low. My secret is part of who I am.”
Fear should not dissuade someone from seeking counsel and reconciliation with Christ and his church, said Father Pat Traverse, a canon lawyer who serves as head of the tribunal for both the Anchorage Archdiocese and the Juneau Diocese.
“The Holy Father extended the priest’s ability to forgive the sin of abortion,” he said at the workshop.
Following the conference, Erkmann tried to articulate the essence of Project Rachel.
Of women who have sought the counsel of the ministry she said, “When they come out from under their depression, they finally make connections to their child, pray to their child. Once they come to forgive themselves, they have a personal relationship with someone in heaven. They never forget.”