The link between abuse and abortion

When Elizabeth moved with her family to Miami at age 12, her uncle sexually molested her for three years. He volunteered to pick her up from school and watch her while her parents ran errands. When she later told her parents, whom she described as a traditional Cuban couple, they did nothing. Instead of sending her to therapy, they had allowed Elizabeth, whose name has been changed here, to struggle with the pain by herself, making her feel responsible for the molestation.

"When someone abuses you, they want to make you complicit with it," she said. "The adult knows exactly what they are doing when they take a child's innocence."

Elizabeth was an 18-year-old college freshman when she had an abortion. She had already begun dating another young man when she discovered she was pregnant by her ex. Her new boyfriend - who would later become her husband - accompanied her to the clinic. Soon after the abortion, Elizabeth dropped out of college.

When Elizabeth became pregnant as a married woman, she sensed something was wrong. She constantly argued with her husband, drank heavily and, instead of feeling excited about motherhood, felt angry and anxious. So she went to her priest for guidance. After telling him about her past history and present concerns, he suggested she call Project Rachel.

In the Diocese of Arlington, Project Rachel is a post-abortion healing ministry that holds confidential retreats in two forms: the Rachel's Vineyard model, which lasts a full weekend (and will be held in the Arlington Diocese Nov. 13-15), and the Entering Canaan model, which lasts one day.

Elizabeth signed up for Rachel's Vineyard in Arlington.

"Project Rachel was this turning point. I realized that I wasn't alone and that I could fully confront what I had done," she said. "This was my baby, my child, not an abortion."

Even though Elizabeth no longer felt that she was hiding the "terrible secret" of her abortion, she said she still failed to feel whole.

"It took settling things about the abortion to realize that sexual abuse had tainted me," she said. "(Because of the abuse), I didn't see the value of myself or others. That's why I had an abortion. I didn't see the value of my baby."

After Project Rachel helped her make the connection between abuse and abortion, Elizabeth registered for Grief to Grace. The five-to-seven day Catholic retreat ministers to survivors of sexual abuse, including those abused by clergy.

Nelly Valero is a therapist who assists Project Rachel in the Archdiocese of Washington and at the national level. She said that when she first began working in her field, she was shocked by how many women who had had abortions were abused as children or were coerced into having an abortion by their partner.

"The person who grew up in a violent family tends to connect with a violent partner," she said.

According to a 2014 study published in the Public Library of Science's research journal, PLOS Medicine, 25 percent of women who have abortions have experienced intimate partner violence at some point in their lifetime. The same study found that women in violent relationships are three times more likely to hide an abortion from their partner than women in non-violent relationships.

"These women might ask, 'If I cannot protect myself (from my partner), how can I protect a child?'" she said. "If they're in an abusive relationship, chances are it's not going to get better after abortion."

Valero said that after abortion, future pregnancies, even planned ones, can trigger anxiety because of the "devastating consequences of abortion." She said that men also suffer with the knowledge that they lost a child, even if they were violent or sexually abusive toward the mother during her pregnancy.

"Imagine what a man can win, too, when he acknowledges that he has an anger problem," she said. "If he gets guidance, if he gets in touch with his wounds, he can better his relationships and his commitment to family. He can better his understanding of himself."

She urges both men and women to seek help in cases of domestic violence and abortion, whether they are the abusers or the abused, the mother or the father.

"Ask for help, reach out, don't feel alone," she said. "Go to a pastor. Go to a doctor. Go to a therapist."

"There's this Christian notion about things being in the light," Elizabeth said. "Evil things cannot exist in the light."

Find out more

To get post-abortion help, call 1-888-456-HOPE or go to hopeafterabortion.com. Learn more about Grief to Grace retreats at grieftograce.org. Send inquiries about Arlington's next Rachel's Vineyard weekend, which takes place Nov. 13-15, to info@helpafterabortion.org.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015