MADISON -- More than 30 million women in the United States have had one or more abortions in the years since its legalization.
A retreat will be held March 16 to 18 in the Diocese of Madison, co-hosted by the Office of Justice and Pastoral Outreach. For more information, contact Mary Mead at 608-221-9593 or Emily Way at 608-821-3086.
But what happens to these women beyond the statistics?
Many women - and many of the men affected as well - have found that abortion is not as cut-and-dry a solution as it might seem at the time. Many are affected by what some call "post-abortion trauma," battling depression, anger, and feelings of regret and worthlessness.
For more than a decade, Rachel's Vineyard (RV) has offered a chance for these women and men who have been hurt by abortion to find healing.
In weekend retreats, participants use living Scripture, combining meditation, Scripture readings, facilitated exercises, and group discussions to find compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance.
Trudy, a nurse and volunteer for RV, said that the most effective part of the weekend is that it's centered on the Scriptures.
"It's all based on the mercy of God," she said. "It truly shows women who are in deep regret that God's forgiveness is there for them, and his mercy.
"It's a beautiful thing to see the Holy Spirit transform their lives," Trudy said. "Watching women who can't even make eye contact with you on that Friday night when they walk through the door . . . and on Sunday having them hold their heads up . . . they feel the overwhelming forgiveness. You can see it in their whole persons and hear it in their voices."
As Catholics, we need to reach out to women in crisis pregnancies, she said. "We need to help them make good decisions and not compound one bad decision on another."
About 10 years ago, while in college, Melissa got pregnant. At the time, the father of her baby lived in another state and was not willing to support her and a baby.
Not wanting to drop out of college - or even tell her parents - she had an abortion.
Immediately after the abortion, she recalled, "I felt relieved that the pregnancy crisis was over."
But over the next eight years, Melissa said, she became a very angry and impatient person. She also became very promiscuous - "After the abortion, I didn't feel like I deserved better," she said.
Two years ago, though, Melissa saw an advertisement for RV in her church bulletin (she had just started to go back to church since her abortion) and decided to attend.
"My first thought was that it was exactly what I need to do," she said. "After so long of being away from the church, and stumbling through life - at least, spiritually - I needed to get my life under control, my anger under control."
She was nervous at first, she said, worried that she would see people who knew her. But, she said, she was definitely ready for the next step.
Several things stick out in her memory about the retreat: the living Scriptures, which helped to emphasize the message of sin and Christ's forgiveness, and the bereavement dolls, a physical symbol of the child that she had lost.
"For me, that was really important," she said. "It made me realize that my child was a person and he was a part of me. And by having something to hold on to, it really helped me to begin to grieve.
"The loss of my child - it had never really gotten through to me that I had aborted a child," she said. "I needed to forgive myself and accept God's forgiveness."
The RV retreat was the first step on her road to recovery - and it was a huge one, she said.
"I realized I wasn't alone," she said. "Every woman's story was a little or a lot different than your own, but there are common threads that every woman can identify with. . . . It was good to know I wasn't alone."
She said that having the other women there meant they were able to help each other to heal.
"The legacy of my abortion for me is the regret that I feel every day, knowing that I killed my child," she said. "I view my healing process as ongoing. It will continue until the day I die.
"But the hope for healing for me and for a lot of other women is through Jesus Christ," she said. "God's the ultimate healer."
Jane and Frederic
When Jane was 15 years old, she had her first abortion. She was given very little counseling - 10 minutes, she recalls - and had the choice, for the most part, made for her by the counselor and the father of the baby.
Even during the abortion, Jane already regretted the decision. Afterward, she went on a path of self-destruction, she said. She turned to drugs, alcohol, and other dangerous behavior. And at 19 she was pregnant again. She - and the man who would later become her husband - chose another abortion.
"The abortions have affected every aspect of my life," she said. "You can bury the memories deep down in the most hidden places and at times look functional, but the pain and shame surface in many ways."
Frederic, who was 21 at the time, said that he had been naïve, in shock and denial, and looking for an easy way out. "What I didn't realize was that by my silence and refusal to discuss any other options, I had instead chosen something I would think about and regret for each day of the rest of my life. There is nothing easy about that."
The event that spurred Jane and Frederic to find healing was Jane's miscarriage. The couple had several children already but wanted more, and when she lost her baby, all of the grief Jane had kept bottled inside came out. Her depression deepened, she said, to the point that she couldn't take care of her children or leave the house, despite medication and counseling.
Frederic contacted the Diocesan Office of Family Ministry, who referred him to a priest who had been part of the RV team. His guidance for both of them gave them the courage to attend the retreat.
"Initially I went to the weekend purely to make sure she stayed through the weekend and to provide support," Frederic said. "What I didn't realize was how much I had been in denial, how affected I had been by the abortions and the healing I would receive from the weekend for myself."
"Attending an RV retreat was my chance to heal, and it gave me my life back," Jane said. "Really, it gave me a much better life back because now I know forgiveness and love.
"It's hard to seek help because you feel so ashamed of having had an abortion; you don't want anyone to know," she said. "Plus, the pain becomes so much a part of you it feels like it is impossible to be healed and you just try to live with it. But God can heal you. He is loving and forgiving. You have to reach out for help."
"For the guys, stop and be honest with yourselves," Frederic said. "Realize that you do need healing as well. Stop punishing yourself. Seek help. Realize that you are not alone. Talk to your parish priest, if you feel comfortable with that."
There are many resources to help heal, he said. "The RV weekend is a must. Go as a couple if you can; if not, go alone."
You have nothing to lose and everything to gain, he said.