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Finding Just the Right Words

Dec 30, 2002 | 12-December 2002 NRL News

By Olivia L. Gans, Director

American Victims of Abortion

Over the last few years I’ve been asked a question that has become all too common an inquiry for pro-life people everywhere. It can be addressed to us by a complete stranger or by a close friend or family member.

Sometimes this question comes to us out of the blue in a public setting such as at a county fair booth or a local lecture event, or even at a church supper! But whether it comes from a total stranger or a close acquaintance, this deeply honest question can silence even the most generous, the most articulate pro-lifers if they are not prepared.

What do you say to someone who tells you she has had an abortion?

At first I was sure that after all these years most pro-life people would feel as if they could handle a moment like that with compassion and clarity. After all, more and more women have shared their experiences of abortions. Information about post-abortion syndrome (PAS) can readily be found in pro-life books, and, in fact, PAS programs exist throughout the Movement.

But the exact opposite may be closer to the truth. The issue is so sensitive that many pro-lifers avoid coming to grips with it for fear of saying the wrong thing, of deeply hurting a woman who is already in enormous pain.

Let’s go back to basics and, together, try to determine the most effective, compassionate way to respond when a woman suddenly tells you she’s had an abortion.

First, where do many pro-lifers find themselves first confronted by a woman admitting to an abortion? At a Crisis Pregnancy Center (CPC), where they deal with it daily. Many CPCs now offer PAS counseling help too.

Most of those good souls have had training in order to give the wonderful help that they do, so I will focus on the rest of the pro-life community. Not infrequently, there is the potential for confrontation, not because we seek it, but because of the deep pain and hurt the woman is experiencing.

Let’s start with the situation of a friend or family member who confides in you. Often she knows you as someone who is openly pro-life. She may not be sure that you will respond well to the news, again not because of you or your behavior but because of her own feelings. She may even be afraid that when you hear her story you’ll reject her. The gentleness and care with which you respond to her announcement can make all the difference.

Believe me I do understand that learning of a dear one’s tragedy is often a profoundly unsettling experience. Yet with more than 43 million unborn lives taken by abortion, how can any pro-lifer today be shocked to learn that abortion has touched his or her life?

A major part of our task is preparation. Part of being prepared is to read at least one of the numerous books now available on PAS and how to help start a woman on a road to healing. There are now groups that offer support in almost every city in the country.

Having taken that step, rather than living in blessed ignorance, you’ve now read up on abortion and its tragic aftermath. You may also want to pray for guidance and strength. You are now ready to help if/when you learn the truth. At that crucial moment, when someone you truly care about tells you she’s aborted, we must remember above all else how fragile is the heart before us.

So, what do you do? First you listen! It is at moments like this that real wisdom is found in silence.

As I have often said, you can’t answer the question properly if you don’t hear the question. For many women who have been involved with an abortion, very often the deepest need they have is simply to be heard, even if what is being heard is a great deal of pent-up anger.

Listening can prove rather difficult when you know that you have information about abortion that you are anxious to share. You know lots of facts about what abortion does to the unborn baby and the mother of that baby. You know a bit about post-abortion syndrome. You want to tell this woman she should know that abortion is always bad for both mother and child.

As important as all that information is, hold off!

At such a moment, a simple, “How difficult that must have been for you” can be a good way to start. Then just be quiet for a moment.

Perhaps the acknowledgement of an abortion comes at you when you are in mid-sentence or in the midst of some intense pro-life subject. At that pivotal moment a voice of empathy and compassion can lead the way. A gentle comment along the lines of “I am so sorry. Can I be of any help?” may help push open a long-locked door just a bit.

Your job at such a serious moment as this is not to try to “solve” all her problems, but rather to create a safe place for her to begin her journey of healing. After all you may be the very first person she has ever spoken to about that terrible event. The more available you can make yourself emotionally, the more that woman will see the real compassion of the pro-life movement for both mother and child.

I am not suggesting that you never share the facts about post-abortion syndrome or medical dangers that come with every abortion, but not right then, unless she asks about such things.

It is appropriate to share with her that you understand that many women who’ve had an abortion do eventually come to have questions or feelings about the memory of that time. You can assure her that it is normal to find it very hard to talk about this with anyone else. Introducing that idea may act as a kind of permission slip for some women to open up a little bit more. It can feel so good not to be alone.

Remember that many women (and men) who tell you about their story–knowing that you are their pro-life friend–may simply be testing you. Will you become angry with her or judge her?

She may find it hard to believe that a pro-life person could love the broken person in front of him or her and still hate the tragedy that made her that way. In many cases the hurting woman who confronts you with the truth of her past is already the hardest judge on earth. Most of her defensiveness is only a mask that hides deep pain.

That brings us to the truly difficult situation of uninvited, unwelcomed confrontations in a public setting. There are many pro-lifers, just doing their part at a pro-life booth or church meeting or school or health fair, who suddenly find themselves facing an angry young woman who is announcing that she’s had an abortion. Why then?

Maybe she’s been disturbed by the sight of the fetal models or videos of life in the womb, or maybe just the name of your group has set her off. Maybe a comment you made about how abortion can have serious long-term medical consequences upset her. Whatever the immediate cause, this is the test. How quickly can you open that big old pro-life heart of yours?

As you already know, there is no “enemy” in front of you, only another victim. See her as the young mother who because of her own fragility and risky behavior found herself prey to abortion providers who saw only a dollar sign over her head, not the life inside her.

Gather yourself and your wits and say “thank you” for her honesty. Yes, thank you! Tell her that you are sorry that she has been down that road but that you are grateful that she was willing to tell you what she truly feels about her experiences.

She is a human being too, and what she thinks does matter a great deal. You need to make it very clear you care about this woman before you. To you she is not just a figure in a national debate but a hurting human being who is reaching out for help.

Be aware that one of the most significant features of PAS is the need to deny and rationalize what’s been done to our children and to ourselves. The sight of your posters or models may shatter long-held but shaky defenses in her heart.

A word of caution: Never allow yourself to be drawn into an argument. You will not win this one! PAS is so strong a drive that many women simply cannot hear the wisdom you would share. It may just be too soon for real change, but you can plant seeds.

Calmly tell your angry “opponent” that you are deeply sorry that she felt that her only option was to have an abortion. Focus only on the woman at such a moment. She is an inward-looking, hurting person right now. Concentrate on her.

Is it OK to gently ask questions? Yes. Ask her how long ago it all happened. Ask her if she had been on her own at the time, or did she feel overwhelmed or pressured by anybody? How has she been doing since then?

Don’t pry but find out who she is. And be sure you listen carefully to the answers.

Let your discussion become a person-to-person moment. Help her to understand that you see her as a human being, not an abstraction. After all, this whole issue is about saving each individual. For these few moments you are helping to save one of those lost lives. Remember each abortion destroys not one, but two lives.

Then remind her that there are many women with similar experiences. Tell her that you know that many women are filled with remorse and stress following their abortion and that their needs must be recognized too. Offer her PAS information or a phone number she can use if she ever wants to.

Tell her that you hope that she never comes to suffer any of the difficulties that some women do, but that if she does she can always come to your group to find help. Perhaps the most important thing to always say is, “I’m sorry. How can I help?”

If you do no more than break a few stereotypes about pro-lifers you will have opened an important door. She may not go through it for a while longer yet, but you’ve unlocked it.

How? By opening your heart and hearing her cry for help!