When Jackie sent an email to her church asking about its post-abortion recovery group, she used an alias and created a new account to hide her identity. Even now, 11 years after her abortion, and after sharing her story to dozens of other women, Jackie asked me not to use her real name. She still hasn’t told her daughter or many people at church that she’s had an abortion. “It’s just such a shameful secret,” she said.
Abortion is difficult for almost any post-abortive woman to discuss. Pro-choice activists attribute this reluctance to a pervasive stigma that stems from society’s “shame-based message that abortion is wrong.” They try to remove this shame by defending abortion, saying unborn babies are not persons or convincing women that abortion actually did them, or society, a favor.
However, in the church, we face the challenge of upholding the sanctity of life, while simultaneously ministering to women who feel overwhelming shame about their abortions. Our response is not to deny the sin and death inherent in abortion. Instead, we point women to the healing found in a community centered around the One who redeems us from all sin.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, one in every five women who gets an abortion identifies as a born-again, evangelical, charismatic, or fundamentalist Christian. Given that more than a million women abort each year in the US, this means a staggering 200,000 Bible-believing Christians annually. And according to Christian ministries working with this population, a vast majority of them will never reveal their secret.
In interviews with about a dozen post-abortive Christian women, I heard each say they deeply regret their abortions and experienced profound emotional and spiritual trauma as a result. Without a place to confess and seek recovery, women who’ve had abortions remain shackled by fear, grief, and guilt.
“These women have no idea how this is affecting every facet of their lives – their relationships with their husbands, their children,” said Kathy Rutledge, who leads a study called Surrendering the Secret at a non-denominational church in Kentucky. Rutledge said her shame kept her from volunteering at church and made her fear God’s punishment for her choice in the past. “I was… convinced that God was going to take my children from me,” she said.
Jackie, who after years of silence finally sought healing in a recovery group, likens women’s silence about their abortions to a splinter in their flesh. “Until you get it out,” she said, “the healing really can’t begin. It just continues to fester.”
Certainly, the church has grown in its ability to minister to these women. In the past 20 years, abortion recovery groups have multiplied in churches nationwide. Surrendering the Secret has trained about 2,500 leaders in churches and crisis pregnancy centers. Another leading recovery ministry, Rachel’s Vineyard, hosts about 1,000 retreats annually in 48 states and 57 other countries. Yet, these statistics pale in comparison to the number of post-abortive women in the church (not to mention the men who carry regret over their wives’ or girlfriends’ abortions).
Leaders in post-abortion recovery ministry say the church remains reluctant to fully face the impact of abortion within their own congregations. Rutledge said she once gave her testimony to a group of women at a megachurch in the South and by the end, several women were “practically bawling.” Yet, when Rutledge asked about doing a follow-up, the group’s leader said, “None of my women have had an abortion… and even if they did, they don’t need to be speaking about it.”
Nancy Kruezer, who serves as Chicago Regional Coordinator for Silent No More, said some pastors express fears that if they address abortion, it will “open the floodgates,” and they will be overwhelmed by wounded people. Others object because they say the topic is too political—or that discussing abortion might actually make it more acceptable.
But, Kruezer, said these fears are unfounded and that women desperately need to talk about their abortions. As a result of her abortion 22 years ago, Kruezer said she suffered overwhelming fear, anxiety, and nightmares. These problems persisted for about 15 years until Kruezer finally confessed her abortion to her small group. “They prayed for me,” Kruezer said, and “through them, I experienced God’s mercy.”
Kruezer also confessed her abortion to her pastor. “And, it was in confession,” Kruezer said, “that I came to understand that Jesus had truly come for me—not for the perfect or the righteous, but he had come for me, the sinner, the wounded.”
Stories like hers, when shared publically in the church, can lead fellow Christian women to admit their abortions and seek healing for the first time. Also, those who are considering abortion hear a stark warning—that abortion doesn’t solve our problems, but devastates those who participate.
“Silence is a powerful weapon of the enemy,” Kruezer said. “It’s in silence that the truth remains hidden and that lies flourish… lies that justify the killing of unborn children, lies that say abortion doesn’t hurt people.”
Jackie vividly remembers when Catherine Walker, a woman who runs an abortion recovery ministry called Life After Decision, shared her testimony in front of Jackie’s church. Walker told the congregation that she had had three abortions before becoming a believer and one after coming to Christ. Her fourth abortion happened when she was a brand-new believer, unmarried and uncertain if she was ready to have a baby.
“I was just so shocked,” Jackie recalls. “I never would have guessed that somebody else that could just look like a church-goer... somebody I would pass in the hallways, also had (an abortion). It was freeing.”
Jackie’s abortion had occurred nine years earlier, when she was in a prodigal season of her life. Though she had grown up in the church, she was reeling from a divorce and had begun engaging in casual sex. “I just got into this very devastated, dark place,” she recalled. “I can hardly even believe that I ever was that person—scared to death. I grew up in a family (where) nobody had a child out of wedlock... I just couldn’t imagine telling them about being pregnant.”
About a year after her abortion, Jackie returned to the Lord, but kept silent about her abortion for years. After hearing Walker’s, though, she got the courage to join a recovery group. “For whatever reason,” Jackie said, “part of the healing is just telling everything and feeling safe to do that.”
Our churches need to regularly communicate that they are safe places for women like Jackie. While we cannot whitewash the sin of abortion, we also can’t ignore those who at one time have had abortions and are suffering. We must let them know that Jesus’ blood covers all sin, including theirs.
Julie Roys hosts a national talk show on the Moody Radio Network called Up For Debate. She also writes for various Christian periodicals, blogs at www.julieroys.com, and speaks on life issues, gender and sexuality, motherhood, and the intersection of faith and politics. Julie and her husband live in the Chicago suburbs and have three children.