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Why listening is key for the future of pro-life movement

Sheila Calhoun, right, director of Birthright of Owensboro, Ky., and Laura Payne, a volunteer, stand outside the western Kentucky pregnancy resource center Aug. 11, 2022. (OSV News photo/Elizabeth Wong Barnstead, Western Kentucky Catholic)

By Grattan Brown

Abortion for any reason at any time has become radically normalized. One need look no further than abortion groups’ distribution of abortifacients at pop star Olivia Rodrigo’s concerts to see how much it pervades our culture. As a father of three daughters within the average ages of Rodrigo’s fans, my heart breaks for all women who have been sold the false promises of abortion. Thankfully, the distribution of these drugs has since stopped after widespread media backlash. Nevertheless, scenarios like this show that the lies of abortion are constantly bombarding vulnerable women and girls.

Abortion tells women that if they want to reach their dreams; are too young, weak or poor; or do not want children at this time, it’s okay to end their child’s life. It is sold as a failsafe, burdenless solution to an unexpected pregnancy.

The truth is abortion hurts women. I have studied ethics for the majority of my adult life and, for me, it has always been clear that a human life begins at conception and abortion unjustly kills a human being. As I have become a father and helped raise my daughters, I have seen the way an abortion-shaped culture can impact society.

This realization led me, a year ago, to start listening to a podcast that lets women tell their abortion stories. While I do not agree with the pro-choice goals of the show, I respect the women who tell their stories with such detail and honesty. It was the first time that I heard women’s expressions of grief and loss, descriptions of the uncomfortable silence inside abortion clinics and honesty about difficulties along the road to recovery after abortion.

Their stories highlight the humanity of the women who have had abortions and offer valuable lessons for those of us who hope to reach women with real alternatives to abortion. Here is what stood out to me.

First, becoming pregnant unexpectedly and having an abortion changes a woman for the rest of her life. Becoming pregnant is often a pivot from girlhood toward womanhood. For younger women, having an abortion is one of the first hard and adult decisions she ever had to make. She seeks people to talk to and often learns who her real friends are, and aren’t. The abortion experience is a surprising blast of reality for many of the women, a feeling that often stays with them for the rest of their lives.

Second, the experience inside the abortion clinic is often painful, sad and lonely, and one they never want to repeat. Many women speak about a strange silence in the waiting room, where the women all know why they are there and do not make eye contact or speak to each other. Sometimes the clinic staff even instruct them not to have conversations, which becomes especially difficult when one woman becomes upset and another wants to comfort her. They are disappointed when their partner, if he accompanies her, has to stay in the waiting room when she goes back for the abortion.

Third, most women who get abortions recognize that they have ended the life of a child, and many feel that they have lost something of themselves too. They know an embryo is not a blob of cells but a human being. They feel embarrassed that they let themselves get pregnant. They feel the pressure that our society places on women to abort when the circumstances are not right, and then they feel the guilt of having aborted. It can take years to process the grief. The women write about the experience, mark anniversaries of due dates as birthdays, bury the remains, and visit burial places. Other women repress their grief, only to have it return years later.

Finally, having an abortion often makes a woman reexamine her assumptions about fundamental human questions regarding suffering, love, fertility, loss, death, grief, shame and failure. Many of the women say they regret the circumstances that led them to become pregnant and confront that choice. Some say the experience “showed me I needed to grow up and get my act together.” Women arrive at a more mature vision of permanent loving relationships, recognize the problems of the men they had been involved with, change relationship habits and end up married with children. Sometimes there’s a need to take stock of her own talents and aspirations and embark on a long-term project in life, work, or both.

Pro-lifers and pro-choicers both can miss the full experience of unexpected pregnancy and abortion and fail to see that post-abortive women are so much more than their singular decision to have an abortion.

The stories I’ve heard make it ever more clear in my mind that abortion offers a woman pain, trauma and loneliness when what she really needs is support and love. Listening to women allows us to offer them hope, love and realistic alternatives to abortion through the plentiful pregnancy resource centers and maternity homes across the United States. These centers help women and children by partnering with community resources to address needs for safe and affordable housing, quality and affordable daycare, recovery programs and other material and emotional support.

Women should never feel alone, and that became personal to me when my wife and I had my three daughters. Human dignity ought to be honored and loved at all stages of life, whether someone is unborn, unexpectedly pregnant, port-abortive or living with grief and trauma. Women deserve better than abortion.

Grattan Brown is a Catholic theologian, medical ethicist, and founder of the Pro-Life Professional Insight project.

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