“Abortion is a carefully marketed product,” says Jo Balsamo. Women buy the lie that it will help them. Then they’re shocked because it’s so horrible.”
Balsamo sees this again and again in her work for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. As a program director for Project Rachel, the Church’s post-abortion healing ministry, she encounters women every day who have been scarred by abortion. Some have endured years of suffering, wondering what’s wrong with them. Some, shackled by guilt and shame, believe they have committed an “unforgivable sin” that can never be set right.
Project Rachel exists to proclaim a different message, a message of compassion and hope. It’s the good news that “none of us are beyond God’s mercy” and that “God wants us to be in heaven with him,” says Balsamo. Once people who have been wounded by abortion come to believe in this mercy, then the process of reconciliation and healing can begin. And, she points out, there’s no limit to what can happen as they embrace the peace and freedom God offers them: some of those who have experienced post-abortion healing are “the holiest women I know!”
How Project Rachel Came to Be. “I had a friend in high school who had an abortion,” recounts Project Rachel founder, Vicki Thorn. It was her friend’s second pregnancy; the first time around, she had the baby and gave the child up for adoption. Over the years, the two young women talked and talked about the experience. “I could see that having the abortion had done her no favors,” says Thorn, although she didn’t understand all her friend’s struggles. “She said to me, ‘I can live with the adoption. I can’t live with the abortion.’”
Years later, as Respect Life director for the Diocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Thorn found herself responsible for a broad spectrum of life issues. Not surprisingly, the one that resonated with her was post-abortion healing. “I realized that, as a Church, we have everything we need to provide care for women who are hurting because of an abortion.”
No such ministry existed at the time, however, so in 1984 Project Rachel was born, created from scratch by Thorn herself. She named it after the Old Testament matriarch Rachel, who is portrayed in Scripture as mourning brokenhearted for her children “who are no more”—comforted only when God offers hope for her future (Jeremiah 31:15-17).
Through Project Rachel—now active in some 160 dioceses in the United States and in dozens of foreign countries—women whose children are “no more” in the aftermath of abortion have access to gentle, compassionate opportunities for healing. Many of these women have kept their grief tightly locked within. Having been assured that their lives will get back to normal or that an abortion is “no big deal,” they strive to move on. Project Rachel enables them to grieve in a healthy way—a first step along the path of healing.
“Part of Me Died, Too.” Consider the experience of Andrea, who was raised in a faithful Catholic family. Pregnant at eighteen, crushed that her boyfriend did not want “our child,” she saw abortion as her only alternative. “I was scared to death and couldn’t tell my parents, because I’d so disappointed them. So I went to the local Planned Parenthood clinic. I was scheduled for an abortion within a few days. I believed them—they made it sound so easy—even though I knew in my heart it was wrong.” About the abortion itself, Andrea says only, “Anybody who says you don’t feel anything is mistaken. A huge part of me died along with my child at that moment.”
Project Rachel is designed to help women like Andrea. Under its general guidance, a network of caregivers is trained to work together as a team within the diocese. The team operates under the leadership of the bishop and includes priests, deacons, and religious sisters, as well as lay staff members and volunteers. With kindness and compassion, they reach out—to Catholics and non-Catholics alike—with spiritual support and a wide range of practical helps and resources. And not only to the mothers but also the fathers, grandparents, and siblings of an aborted child. They suffer, too, and need to be set free.
For Catholics, the Sacrament of Reconciliation plays a crucial role. And because abortion can leave a hole so deep that it seems nothing can fill the emptiness, the team helps those who are grieving to develop a personal relationship with Christ, who alone is able to fill all things.
Long Journey to Freedom. Andrea eventually found that fullness and forgiveness in Jesus. But first, her life spiraled downward. Alcohol. Drugs. Two more abortions. Occasionally, she felt “little twinges from God.” She ignored them. “I looked at my life and thought, ‘God could never forgive me. Look how horrible I am.’”
And then one day, feeling truly desperate, Andrea went into a church, sat before the tabernacle, and asked God for help. His answer came within “a couple of minutes,” in the person of a priest who heard her confession on the spot and talked long and compassionately. It was her first step toward realizing that she “had value in God’s eyes and in the Church.”
Years later—after Andrea had returned to the Church, married, and had children—a Project Rachel friend urged her to attend a special healing retreat for people wounded by abortion. “There were things I was sweeping under the rug,” Andrea admits, “issues I didn’t want to confront, things that needed closure. I still felt unforgiven, still had guilt hanging around.”
The retreat—sponsored by another ministry, Rachel’s Vineyard—put the final touch on Andrea’s healing. From the moment she arrived, she says, “I could feel God’s presence. Nobody condemned me, and I felt love.” In that atmosphere, “I was able to grieve the loss of my children. I left knowing no sin is too great for God’s mercy to reach and that I am forgiven. I left all that baggage behind me.”
The Truth Will Set You Free. In the United States alone, it is estimated that 3,000 women undergo an abortion every day. Worldwide, the number is more like 137,000. Chances are, we all know someone who has been touched by an abortion. “There is so much hopelessness and brokenness,” says Vicki Thorn. “But healing is possible!”
Abby, who also found healing through a Project Rachel team, summed up her journey like this: Their help “allowed me the opportunity to experience God’s love and forgiveness—something I had decided I was not worthy of.” She will always regret her decision to have an abortion, Abby says. “It has become a part of who I am.” But by the grace of God, “it no longer defines who I am.”
Talking about the issues with someone who helps women address their pain and unresolved grief and can point them to Jesus—“that makes all the difference,” says Thorn. “These women will tell me, ‘Abortion is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.’ But in going through the healing process, they also tell me, ‘I met God.’ They’ve truly been set free!” Through the compassionate work of Project Rachel and other outreaches in the Church, those who once bought a lie can be healed and freed by the truth.
Ann Bottenhorn is a regular contributor to The Word Among Us.
Do you know someone who is struggling in the aftermath of an abortion? These outreaches and resources can help.
Project Rachel Ministries features a network of priests and lay people trained to provide one-on-one counseling and spiritual care, referrals to health professionals, and other types of assistance.
Rachel’s Vineyard specializes in weekend retreats “to renew, rebuild, and redeem hearts broken by abortion.” Established in the late 1980s by Theresa Burke, and now an outreach of Priests for Life, Rachel’s Vineyard holds hundreds of retreats every year throughout the US and around the world. They are hosted by church-based ministries, counseling outreach programs, Project Rachel offices, Respect Life groups, and crisis pregnancy centers and are offered “in both Catholic and interdenominational settings.”
The weekend retreats provide a “supportive, confidential, and non-judgmental environment” where participants have the opportunity to experience reconciliation with God, themselves, and their aborted child.
The National Office for Post Abortion Reconciliation and Healing maintains a toll-free referral line for anyone in the United States seeking help. It also publishes a support services directory and produces, maintains, and sells audio, video, and print materials.
After Abortion: God Offers Forgiveness, Healing, and Hope is a free booklet by Angela Burrin that offers seven Scripturally-based reflections to prompt personal, healing, heart-to-heart conversations with God. It’s available for download in English and Spanish.