The Pain of an Abortion: It Can Take Years, Sometimes Decades! Stephanie Kitching

As a psychotherapist ministering at Catholic Social Services, I heard many different types of distressing or joyful stories over the years; stories of achievements, losses, addictions, relationships. You name it, I probably heard it. Of course, everything said in therapy remains entirely confidential, so details may not be shared.

One bunch of stories I heard were from women who had said ‘yes’ to abortion many years previously.

I do not remember any woman coming to therapy for this reason. Often, the presenting issue was depression, or loss, or relationship difficulties. Gradually, as trust grew in my relationship with the woman, she would begin to open up more freely until at last she could tell me she had had a pregnancy termination when she was younger. Then the tears would flow. I felt for her. I stayed with her emotionally and compassionately, for it was obvious to me that this was a cause of deep pain in her life and, in the words of Pope Francis, “Who am I to judge?”

I understand that not all women react in this way, but there are numerous women for whom, years later, that sense of sadness becomes too much to bear. Anniversaries, such as the expected date of a live birth, become calendar dates for her, dates that prompt her to recall that her child would be turning 10, 20 or 30 that day. Questions buzz in her mind, even though she felt certain at the time and had taken time to think through her options.

There are many reasons why a termination is considered, and many of them appear valid. As Catholics, we believe all life is sacred from its conception, but what I heard as a counsellor were accounts of how societal and personal pressure often came into play when a woman found herself with an unplanned pregnancy.

Frequently, too, she found herself with no one to turn to. If she wanted to explore her options, she was afraid of being condemned by those of us who believe in the value of life.

Just as I have worked with people who have had abortions, so too have I worked with people considering whether to have one. It is a delicate dance, for it takes into account two lives. I could only offer support as a decision was reached and then again in its aftermath, whatever the decision was. In my experience, when a woman feels pressured into an abortion against her natural inclinations or beliefs, the downstream effects are long-lasting and may even be severe.

Listening to women who regretted their decision has helped me understand the difficulty of an unplanned pregnancy. Yet, I continue to believe abortion is not the best answer. It is an answer, but not the best answer. The best outcome is a supportive community response that helps the woman during her nine months of carrying this child, followed by assistance after birth.

So, when these women courageously opened up about having ended the life of a child in their womb, what could I do? First of all, I listened. For many, this was the first time they had admitted it out loud to a person who was not around at the time of the event. I was someone recognised as a ‘Church’ person who could well condemn them, but whom they hoped would hear them. That I always tried to do. I prayed for them, although not aloud, unless they requested it, which some did.

In my prayers, I always asked our loving God to hold them and their child with loving care. After some time, when the emotion had calmed, sometimes weeks later, I would ask if they wanted to say goodbye to their child, to let the spirit of that child fly free and, if they believed in God, to know that their child was safe with God. I never received a negative reply.

We would then design a small service of thanksgiving and remembrance. We would go through their memories and find words, sometimes in poetry or another’s writing, sometimes in art or photography. I would put together a small brochure if that was what was asked for, and we would choose a place to reflect on the event using the brochure or the memories. Occasionally, this was in the therapy room, at other times outdoors. Some women chose to plant a tree or flower to show life was still present. It was a healing time.

I often wished I had been present when the earlier decision was being made so I could have offered pastoral support, both emotional and practical. Maybe then I would not have found myself face to face with their suffering years later.

One question I was always left with, but never explored unless the woman broached it first, was “Where was the father of the unborn? What did he think or feel about what happened?” This still sits with me.

Stephanie Kitching (rsm) ministered as a trained psychotherapist for 12 years, mainly in Wellington. She is currently the Congregation Archivist for Nga Whaea Atawhai o Aotearoa – Sisters of Mercy NZ.