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.
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?"