Yesterday marked the fortieth anniversary of the nationwide legalization of abortion. This Friday, hundreds of thousands of Americans will gather on the Washington Mall to advocate for the rights of children in the womb at the fortieth annual March for Life. In the intervening four decades, there has been much heated debate on the issue. Proponents of access to abortion often frame the matter in terms of women’s rights or women’s health, but one crucial consideration is often lost in the discussion—what happens to a woman after she has had an abortion?
I found this out firsthand earlier this winter when I helped to lead a retreat for women who suffer from the effects of abortion, one of many post-abortion healing services that the Church provides. Several attendants at this day-long Entering Canaan retreat were participating in this ministry for the first time, while some others were involved for over a year. As they entered, I could tell that many of them were nervous or reluctant to come; I could see the fear and sorrow on their faces.
This only intensified as they shared their stories with the group, and the darkness that had enveloped their lives became apparent. Years, even decades, after their abortions, the guilt of their deeds towered over them; the grief of a lost child still tormented them, even though most of the women had since married and had other children. As they struggled emotionally and mentally, they wrestled with deep spiritual questions as well.
Reflecting on this, I thought: if only more people knew of the destructive power that abortion has on those who participate in it, our national attitude towards this horrific practice would change in favor of life. Far from empowering women, the loss of a child’s life through abortion severely injures the life and overall health of the mother as well. The post-abortive condition fits Victor Hugo’s description of the distressed and despairing, given in his explanation of the title of his epic novel, Les Misérables:
…There is a point where the unfortunate and the infamous unite and are confounded in a single word, a fatal word, the miserable; whose fault is this? And then should not the charity be all the more profound, in proportion as the fall is great? (Vol. III, Book VIII, Ch. V)
Unfortunate because they felt as if they had no choice but to go through with the deed (perhaps for fear of ending up like the tragic character Fantine in the book), and infamous because of their great fall from grace, these women stand in dire need of spiritual assistance. God, in His boundless love, wishes to raise them out of the depths of their misery and bring them back to Him, through the ministry of His Church and the charity of those who act as God’s instruments of grace. For no sin, no matter how grave or deleterious, is greater than God’s infinite mercy.
At the end of the retreat, as Mass was about to finish, the women memorialized their children lost to abortion: some simply by naming them, others by writing to them. Each mother presented a rose to an image of the Divine Mercy for each on of her lost children—lost to this world, but watching over them from the next—entrusting them to Jesus Christ. As I witnessed their acts of love for those whom they could never hold in their arms, and whose voices they could never hear, I could see that they were significantly healed through this experience of repentance. While the pain cannot subside completely in a day, these women left knowing, more certainly than any dream, that God is forgiving. For as it is written,
In the tender compassion of our God,
The dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
And to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:78-79)
Image: Salvador Dali, The Madonna and the Mystical Rose