Saturday, January 16, 2010

One in 20 Million: A Response to Archbishop Donald Wuerl on Abortion

As one of the estimated 20 million women who have had abortions since the procedure was legalized in this country in 1973, I would like to respond to Archbishop Donald Wuerl's article "Dealing with the Pain of an Abortion" published in this week's Catholic Standard first by saying that I am grateful to the Archbishop for showing concern for women like me. All too often it seems like the Church only cares about the aborted fetus, not the woman who chose to abort it.

About ten years ago, I chose to abort a child that was developing within me. The child was about 2 months in gestation. It was a typical, extremely painful but not particularly eventful first trimester abortion with no complications except a slightly longer recovery period due to my age. It was a free choice but by the time I made it, in my mind there was no other viable option. It was free in a legal sense, less so psychologically.

I chose to abort my baby. I repeat these words because now it is popular to use victim language to describe women who have had abortions. You speak of "anguish" and "grief", "trauma", the need for "healing". Others talk about the woman as a "victim of abortion" or an "abortion survivor". Such language may make others feel more sympathetic towards women who have chosen to abort, but it is not helpful to us. It diminishes the woman's moral culpability and her free will -- parts of her identity as a mature adult Christian and essential to the reconciliation process. If I am a "victim", then I do not own my sin. If I am not responsible (e.g. my social condition "forced" me into an abortion), why should I have to seek divine forgiveness?

I am not a victim. I am a mature Catholic woman who, when it mattered most, was not strong enough to live according to her faith and convictions in the face of pressure from others to take the "easy" way out. As a result, an innocent life -- my unborn child -- was lost.

What bothers me about your article, Your Excellency, is that it is disingenuous (and inaccurate) with respect to our Church's teaching on abortion. You say that women who have had abortions "mistakenly believe that they have committed an unforgivable sin and have become forever separated from their relationship with God." Your article implies that all they need to do is go to confession and do penance. This is doctrinally inaccurate and simplistic.

Women who believe they are completely and irredeemably separated from the Church by abortion come to that conclusion because they read in the Catechism that as a result of their abortion they have been excommunicated latae setentiae or "automatically" (CEC 2272/CIC 1398) and they know that excommunication (a word that appears nowhere in your article) not only means that they don't get to take communion but that they are barred from all of the sacraments of the Church. The little disclaimer at the end of CEC 2272 that "the Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy" provides little comfort, overshadowed as it is by the enormity of the sanction that precedes it. According to Canon Law, excommunication may be lifted only by the Pope or a bishop or someone designated by a bishop. And, given the strident anti-abortion rhetoric that comes from most prelates in this country, can you truly blame women for concluding that they have no way out?

As an aside, it should be noted that not every person who has an abortion is excommunicated. The Code of Canon Law provides for a number of circumstances such as age, acting under extreme fear, diminished mental capacity, ignorance of Church teachings, etc. which limit the individual's moral culpability (CIC 1323).

If the Church really wants to welcome back women who have committed the sin of abortion, an important step would be to change Canon Law so that abortion is no longer treated differently from most other forms of killing. Does it really make sense that if I have an abortion I am excommunicated while if I commit infanticide after the child has been delivered from my womb, I am only guilty of committing a grave or mortal sin? The only other form of murder that is punished by automatic excommunication is the murder of a pope (CIC 1370).

The reality is that abortion is so ubiquitous that most bishops have delegated the power to lift excommunication for first abortions to the priests who work under them. Once the excommunication is lifted, we are in the same place as any other murderer and reconciliation with the Church is achieved through the Sacrament of Penance, as you correctly point out.

Yet the hostile environment that prevails in the institutional Church towards anyone involved in abortion makes many women reluctant to tell their secret and seek reconciliation. We fear being despized and ostracized. Until this article, I have shared my secret with only a few people. I waited five years after the abortion before I finally met a priest I could trust not to add to my spiritual pain. He was a visiting priest from another country, not a diocesan. I could not trust any of the priests I knew locally and, although I have shared my secret with a couple of them since then, I have regretted it because I often feel that my sin is still being held against me. God forgives us; the Church, unfortunately, does not always do so.

If we want to welcome post-abortion women back into the Church, we need to be more careful about how we talk about abortion. I remember one priest who taught at the Apostolado Hispano saying that women who have abortions don't really believe that the fetus is a human being. Nothing could be further from the truth and such remarks are not helpful. They rub salt into the wounds of post-abortion women rather than invite them to reconciliation.

We also need to remove the policies and attitudes that push women to seek abortions. Some examples:

  • The single women who teach in Catholic schools under morals clauses and who, when faced with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, are forced to choose between their baby and their job. In doing a basic Web search, one can find any number of examples of women who have been fired from Catholic institutions for becoming unwed mothers. Do Catholic institutions under your jurisdiction have such provisions, Your Excellency?
  • An immigrant friend who had an abortion because she was convinced (and, I think, rightly so) that the upright Catholic diplomatic corps family for whom she worked as a babysitter would dismiss her and send her back home to a life of destitution if they found out she was expecting.
  • A college friend who aborted so that her extremely conservative Catholic parents would not find out that she had had premarital sex. Are we helping our Catholic families learn how to share their faith with their children in a way that encourages them to communicate and be supported even when they have strayed? Our attitudes can help or hinder women from making the right choice.
In the end, I was "sentenced" to life, literally and figuratively. I tend to think in legal terms, so I was expecting a penance such as 300 hours of community service in a crisis pregnancy center. Instead, I was told to spend the rest of my life seeking ways to give life. It was the perfect penance. A year later, I added a dimension to it, one that the priest deliberately said he would not impose: I chose chastity -- the only way to be 100% sure I would never recreate the conditions that led to the abortion in the first place.

Freely choosing chastity was my first step to personal freedom. This response is the second step. Having written these words, I am free from this secret. If anyone wants to look down on me, ostracize me, or suggest that I am not fit to serve in the Church because of one cowardly act, so be it. This one among 20 million women will look you in the eye and say: "You're right. Ten years ago, I made a choice that was terribly, terribly wrong. I want to move beyond that. Can you?"


  1. Thanks for sharing these intimate thoughts. Your courage and witness is very valuable for many others.

  2. I am not allowed to reveal my identity because what I'm going to say, does not fit at all with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
    Indeed the fetus and even before that, from his morulae state, can be considered a human being, at least in potential state. The question to ponder is when does the soul enter or joins the body?
    An abortion can be considered as the denial of a human body to a soul that is ready and willing to incarnate, so abortion is the killing of the vehicle for this soul and the denial of a future personality to develop utilizing this body, which in the future after birth, would have grown into a child and adult.
    But abortion does no kill the soul –which is the real immortal God spark essence of the human persona- and does not prevent the soul (I can’t use “it” here) from coming again into the material roam, by joining in the future with another human body in gestation.
    So, abortion to me, is not a practice that should be encouraged and society and religious institutions should strive to put all kinds of programs available to council and to facilitate the birth and care of unwanted children, for whatever reasons, and although I do not think that abortion should be practice as birth control method at all, will be very far from me, to judge or to condemn any women that I know or don’t know, that had an abortion.
    Women should not be criminalized for having abortions, only in particular cases, in which a woman lives a careless sexual life and uses abortion as a some sort of belayed birth control program, should we implement some type of mandatory counseling.
    Be at peace…Nature and the Spiritual Laws, will find a balance for what you did and will (or perhaps already have) present to you opportunities in your life, to make up for what your action. Have no doubt.
    You don’t have a debt to pay, but you have some balance to restore, and as long as you accept His Will when the time comes, all will be well.

    "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

  3. Thanks to both of you for your supportive comments. I agree with you about the need to create a society where there are no unwanted children.

    One of my favorite films is "El Crimen del Padre Amaro", though not necessarily for the reasons some might think. One of my favorite scenes is when P. Amaro goes to serve excommunication papers on P. Natalio, the "liberation theology" priest accused of helping the guerrilla. As an aside, P. Amaro asks him obliquely about abortion (he is planning on procuring one for his pregnant girlfriend). P. Natalio basically answers: "We don't have that problem here." I've often wondered what he meant by that. It could be: "I have stayed true to my vow of celibacy so I don't have that problem." I'm pretty sure it doesn't mean that there are no unplanned pregnancies in the poor peasant community in which Natalio lives and works, but I like to think that it means that there is solidarity so that every baby, planned or unplanned, is welcomed and cared for.

  4. As previous commentators, I add my simpathy to your courage. It's tremendously pretentious on my side to say what is wrong and what's not. I personally think I'll do whatever is in my hand to avoid that my wife, my daugther or any other women had an abortion, but I will support her and love her equally whatever her decission. Certainly, I don't think that any woman should be subject to criminal law for taking this decission.

    And from the moral point of view, let me share what I think was behind the words of P. Natalio. When I saw the film I interpreted that P. Natalio's Gospel had very little written about moral precets, but a lot on equality, freedom, justice and liberation.