Serving those touched by abortion

By Chris Jeske | Contributor
Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Vicki Thorn, founder of Project Rachel and the executive director of the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation & Healing, addresses participants during "Reclaiming Fatherhood," a national conference to focus on the effects of abortion in Oak Brook on Sept 8, 2008. (Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)

For decades, Vicki Thorn, founder of the national post-abortion healing ministry Project Rachel, has witnessed the effects abortion has on mothers and fathers. Thorn began Project Rachel in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 1984 to tend to the open wounds left in the aftermath of abortion.

It was the first ministry of its kind and has set an example for dioceses around the country and world. Today, Thorn continues in her service to those touched by abortion by offering her ears and words. She discussed “What We Didn’t Know: Understanding Our Biology and Wounds” at the Lake County Right to Life dinner July 28.  

Thorn spoke about the wounds left by recent changes in the way women procure abortions, media and human interaction in a phone interview with contributor Chris Jeske.

Chicago Catholic: We hear from women’s centers that the use of the abortion pill is on the rise and that often they receive visits from women who changed their mind about the abortion but it is too late because the drug is already terminating the pregnancy. What effects of the abortion pill are you seeing in your ministry? What are some of the things people don’t think about, such as how a woman sees the baby's remains?

Vicki Thorn: I think that the abortion pill is far more brutal than surgical abortion in terms of the mother’s usage because there are multiple layers involved. The first layer is that she went and got the pill. Then she took the first pill, and then the second. Then, she saw the remains of her child. And she did all of this in isolation.

The experience of the woman who’s had a surgical abortion is different in that there’s a little distance. The procedure happened somewhere else and most of the time the mother does not see the remains of the child. Women do talk about avoiding the whole part of town where the abortion clinic was.

I’ve also had women talk to me about how traumatized they were by seeing their baby after taking the abortion pill and not knowing what to do. What do you do with it? In terms of healing, that level of trauma really escalates.


Chicago Catholic: Are users of the abortion pill not considering the aftermath?

VT: No, no. The lie of the abortion industry is that under any circumstances this is an easy procedure. Isn’t it even easier to take a pill than to go and have an abortion procedure performed? That’s what is being sold. Women have no idea.

So many women who choose abortion are in a very difficult place. They’re very frightened. They have no support. They can’t tell the boyfriend. He doesn’t know what to say because he’s been told “Shut up, it’s her body!” So she feels alone.


Chicago Catholic: What are the effects on fathers when the abortion pill is used?

VT: When a woman is four weeks pregnant, that’s before she would have an abortion, her scent changes. And the man in her life recognizes that this is pregnancy. He couldn’t tell you that, but his body recognizes the scent and it begins to go through all sorts of hormonal changes that don’t conclude until after the baby is born.

The man may experience something called couvade, meaning symptoms with his partner. In this time he might be nauseous, he might throw up, and he might have headaches, backaches, or toothaches. He might even tell you he’s anxious or that he’s not sleeping well.

All of this has to do with the hormones that are changing inside of him. The first hormone that comes is cortisol, which is typically thought of as a stress hormone, but it’s also a bonding and protecting hormone. Cortisol is nature signaling to him “Pay attention! Something is going on here!”

At the end of pregnancy, the man’s body experiences more hormonal changes. His testosterone drops and he has more estrogen in his body. He also gets vasopressin and prolactin. All of these changes lead him to be more protective and tender so he can make a full transition to fatherhood. Interestingly, after the first pregnancy, his testosterone drops lower than it ever was as a bachelor and remains there for the rest of his life. From an anthropological standpoint, this is because he has turned from hunter/gatherer to protector/provider. Men and women are both in this dance, but the fathers are often just shuttled aside.


Chicago Catholic: What happens to men when the hormonal changes of pregnancy are halted by abortion?

VT: We don’t know that. Because who looks at men? There’s been research on the front end regarding those hormones, but nobody’s looked at the outcome after abortion because we shut it all down. We do the same with women.

In the process of pregnancy, a woman’s body goes through many changes, including some that protect her from breast cancer so she is able to nurse. If she cuts that short, her cells, especially her breast cells, stay in this non-differentiated state in which they are more vulnerable to carcinogenic events.

Abortion is so much a part of our culture. The count is now in excess of 50 million. The problem is that we don’t really know the exact figure because before abortion was legal, women still had abortions. During the world wars and the Great Depression, doctors did them in their offices. So, we don’t really know how many abortions there have been over the course of time because nobody recorded those. They were very hush-hush.

There have been an incredible number of people affected, and for every woman there’s a man. We have a website called and there are testimonies and research on there. We had two conferences about men and abortion because nobody really talks about them.


Chicago Catholic: You often talk about the power of just listening to someone. Would you share your thoughts on that? For some that doesn’t come naturally. Any advice on how to be a good listener in the situation with someone hurt by abortion or who is angry?

VT: I’ve been to 25 countries and all the women I’ve met have the same type of grief. Pope John Paul II in section 99 of the Gospel of Life told women that nothing was definitively lost. In some respects, I think a woman, when she’s ready, can complete closure by knowing that.

Now we also have to understand that there are multitudes of women out there who did not go through any healing process. Some of them are very angry and many of them are involved in the pro-abortion movement because they feel they need it.

Everybody deals with abortion at a different time, in a different set of circumstances. But we need to recognize that there’s a whole spectrum of people here from severely disturbed to in a state of “Well, I needed to do it. It’s OK.”


Chicago Catholic: Knowing there’s such a spectrum of people affected, how can we be appropriately sensitive to the topic?

VT: I think there’s a couple things we can do. One, when we discuss abortion, we always need to mention healing. And I think the other thing is when we encounter someone who is really angry, we need to, if we’re in the position to, stop and not argue. All the books that have been written about people who come to a pro-life stance from a pro-abortion stance got loved in by somebody, including Bernie Nathanson. Cardinal O’Connor used to invite him to dinner. Out of that came the movie “The Silent Scream” and Nathanson’s conversion. But only because O’Connor was respectful. He would invite him to dinner and they’d have a conversation.

Maybe you’re with your family and somebody’s really angry. And they’re asking you, “How can you be pro-life?! How can you do this?!” You have to ask them, “Would you mind sharing with me why you feel so strongly? I’d really like to understand.” And just be quiet and let them tell you. It may or may not even be a cohesive way of talking. Things may just spill out.

But when they’re done, rather than argue, simply say, “Thank you for sharing. It really helps me to understand.” That changes the whole discussion. If it’s possible, when you’re done, shake a hand or put a hand on their arm. That releases good chemistry and shows that you’re no longer the enemy. That changes the whole dynamic. The combination of letting people know there are places to get help and listening well is essential because we become more effective healers when we hear what others have to say.


Chicago Catholic: As Catholics we’re often told by others that we only care for the unborn child, not the mother or father. That’s not true. Can you explain why and how we can best respond to comments like that?

VT: There are many communities with crisis pregnancy centers. In my own experience there are a lot of Catholic men and women involved with those. The Knights of Columbus have been buying ultrasound machines for crisis pregnancy centers so that the women can see that it is in fact a child, not a clump of cells. That’s important.

I started Project Rachel in 1984. Across the country in all different dioceses there are similar services to help men and women who have had abortions that are staffed by clergy members and spiritual directors. There are many resources within the church. With Pope Francis having left the general faculties in place, in terms of dealing with the sin of abortion, he has spread healing around the world.

The church also has Catholic Charities. It helps people place children up for adoption if they seek to do that. There are many practical resources to choose life that benefit not only the child but also the mother and father.


Chicago Catholic: At the Lake County Right to Life dinner you are speaking about “What We Didn’t Know: Understanding Our Biology and Wounds.” Would you give us a brief summary of your talk?

VT: I will be talking about the wounds people born since the ’60s carry. Society has changed so rapidly. Now, we’re very mobile and we don't have the people in our lives who would have supported us in the past. In the old days, there was an aunt that lived far away with whom the pregnant girl went to live and maybe placed the child up for adoption. There were people invested in helping. Now, that’s largely gone. We don’t know our aunts, and everybody’s busy.

So many people are looking for love in all the wrong places. We assume the pill is going to take care of this for us, but the pill fails sometimes. And then what? What does that mean? Well it means that children become possessions because I'm entitled to my two. That third one comes along and parents introduce him as Sam, our little mistake. Then that Sam grows up with an existential hole in his soul the size of a truck. He’s thinking, “I’m the mistake and any way I cut it I have to be perfect to prove you wrong or I'm off the rails.” And that's tough.

I’ll also be talking about the issue of abortion and who's been touched by it. Not just who's had one, but who's been touched by it. We carry the cells of everyone who’s been in the womb before us -- they’re called microchimeric cells. I've had people say to me, “I always thought I was supposed to have a brother or a sister.” It’s biological recognition. And people say “That’s weird. How'd you know that?” But when I found out about these cells I realized this might not be as weird as it seems.

I’ll place some focus on the evil child movies that came out starting in the ’50s such as “The Bad Seed,” “The Exorcist,” “The Omen” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Those movies were the first time in literature that children were inherently evil. Prior to that, kids were mischievous, but never evil. That concept of the evil child shifted things. That got tied up with the whole zero-population-growth movement, which now has disappeared because countries are in serious trouble with falling populations.

Divorce is another wound. Around 51 percent of all marriages end in divorce. What does that mean for the children? I was part of a conference about just that at Catholic University, and I covered the biological outcomes of all that stress. We’ve got so many young people who are suffering. They’re afraid of marriage so they cohabit. Then they get pregnant. Then they figure it’s better they get an abortion since they’re not married. There's this trail that runs all through this.

Now we have kids in full-time day care. Full time daycare from 0 to 3 years old is really stressful for kids. Nobody talks about that, but there's research out there. Bullies are born there. Day care is an age-segregated environment. When I was younger, it was grandma or an aunt that took care of us. And we were there with our cousins and our siblings of all different ages. These siblings and cousins could have been good or bad. Regardless, you learned all sorts of things about relationships -- that you could jolly your sister out of being cranky, but that if your cousin’s cranky, you should disappear for a while. That doesn't happen when you're in a group of kids separated off by age. You don't learn how to cross-interact.

Media and social media is another pressing issue today. Where do you see intact healthy families in the media now? They’re not there. When television first became popular there were stories of intact, healthy families. Now it's the stepfamily or whatever else.

Now, social media allows us to get to pornography very easily. Men who have been with women who have gotten abortions often turn to pornography because they say they'll never touch a woman again. We also have people who are not attending to those around them because they're on their cell phones. You don't have deep discussions on your cell phone. It’s a “Where are you? At the store,” kind of thing. This is problematic because we’re not basing our relationships off of real human interaction anymore.

I watch couples sit on their cell phones during dates. The mother in me wants to go take the cell phones from them and tell them they'll get them when they're done eating. How do we get to know each other when we're talking about our cell phones? We don’t. Talk about each other. Learn to see that other person.

Large wounds exist in the path of reproductive technology. There are people who are sperm-donor children who don't know who their fathers are, but they've found they are in a community of 50 people to whom they are related because we carry our father’s Y and the Y goes back multitudes of generations. This is causing people to question who they are.

In Britain there was a sperm donor clinic run by a physician. The wife thought that they had donors, but in fact the physician was the only one. And later they found out there were 500 people in that community that were related to one another. Now there is an intense fear in the mind of the sperm-donor child about meeting his estranged brother or sister, being attracted to them and falling in love. That didn't use to be a fear for the most part. Once in a while it may have happened, but this was not an epidemic.

There are many people who are being surrogates for babies. Now there's several issues here with surrogacy. I’m carrying a child with someone else’s ovum and someone else’s sperm to which I haven't been exposed. It takes 6 months of exposure to my partner’s sperm for my body to recognize that this is our child. Now, this child is going to carry the cells of this woman who carried it for the beginning of its life. And this mother is going to carry the cells of a child to whom she is not related. We don't know what the effects of this will be in terms of autoimmune issues. The world is sort of turned upside down as far as how babies come into the world, how couples interact and in fear of intimacy. It’s important as a society to be aware of the woundedness present.


Chicago Catholic: Do you think these changes observable since the ’60s have driven young women today to be predominantly pro-choice?

VT: I think it’s part of it, yes. But there’s an increasing number of young adults, both male and female, who are pro-life. If you go to the march in Washington, it's all young adults. When it started, it was middle-aged and older people. Now there's a ton of young people who have probably been touched by abortion and learned that it is not a life-affirming choice. Abortion is supposed to set women free. And women were supposed to be able to be just like men.

I think that's all part of that mentality. We don't celebrate the genius of women enough in my opinion. As Catholics we have a long tradition of women saints who were movers and shakers, but we don't talk about them enough. Who started the first hospitals? Who educated the children?


Chicago Catholic: Pro-choice is supposed to be empowering to women. How is that paradoxical?

VT: Women have been lied to about our empowerment, starting with the pill. We were told this is good, benign medicine,  that it would let you be freely sexually active with whoever, but according to the World Health Organization it's a type one carcinogen. People don't know this. If I'm on the pill and I pick a partner, I pick the wrong biological mate because my body thinks it is pregnant because I am not ovulating. I pick a man who is too much like me, causing a large fertility challenge. If I pick the male that I would be attracted to, and I'm not contracepting, I have to pick a man whose immune system is quite different from mine.

That's a fertility possibility. If I go off the pill after getting married, I may find this mate to be adverse to me, not in personality, but biologically bad smelling. That is nature's way of saying this is a mistake. Women have come up to me after I’ve explained this and told me I gave them the reason their past marriages have failed. There are a lot of health risks associated with the pill. Some women are put at risk for stroke by the pill.

One of my daughter’s friends in college died from being on the pill for health reasons. She was filled with blood clots that they couldn't get out. Twenty-one years old, what a waste. We don't talk about the nutritional deficiencies. We don't talk about the fact that if I take the pill for an extended period of time my brain changes and begins to grow like a male brain. I now see things from a male perspective rather than a female perspective. Does that set me free? It may well kill my libido and it may well be permanent. There’s different research on that. But how ironic that the thing that supposed to empower me also takes away my possibility for pleasure?


Chicago Catholic: What new things are you working on in your ministry?

VT: I’m working to find Catholic sisters in Second and Third World countries who will help heal women who have had abortions. In those countries, there are many missions where a priest could have four missions 100 miles apart, so he's not around much, but the sisters are the boots on the ground. They're the nurses, teachers, midwives. So I'm working on finding sisters who would take this as a ministry. At this point Project Rachel is overseen in the U.S. by USCCB, the bishops’ office. People still need to talk to me, though. I have an 800-number in the office.

I would also like to do training in Poland or Eastern Europe because the abortion numbers there are unbelievable. The average in Russia is nine procedures. In Romania I had two doctors tell me that women reported having had 70 procedures done.

My first reaction was “Is that even possible?” Then I got to thinking about how Romania was and how brutal it was under Ceausescu and I decided that what probably happened was that whenever a woman missed her period, she went and had a procedure done. Those were the days when it had to be confirmed by a clinic. They didn't have a whole lot of access to that stuff and so I think she would panic.

There was so much stress at that time, I doubt it was unusual for a woman to miss her period, but not be pregnant. When I started the ministry we had a priest in the house who was a good friend of John Paul II and he said to me, “Vicki, this needs to come to Poland. There were so many women who had abortions under communism.”



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