Nancy Gonzalez still regrets the abortion she had 37 years ago. The whole thing haunts her. “It was shameful, a horrible experience that I feel bad about,” she says.
While abortion is billed as a straightforward medical procedure, some women like Gonzalez say that’s a false premise.
“Society sees it as a simple thing, and that if you make that decision, you should be quiet about it,” she said. “A lot of women are suffering.”
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Gonzalez credits a nonjudgmental healing program called Project Rachel, with helping her understand the situation, mourn the loss she feels and forgive herself.
She now speaks to others about how they, too, can reconcile lingering inner turmoil.
“I was really scared and terrified and felt like I couldn’t tell anybody,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
Calls to the local office from post-abortive women seeking assistance have increased since the United States Supreme Court’s June 24 ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, reverting abortion legality to states rather than the federal government, said Rhonda Miller, Project Rachel director for the Diocese of Colorado Springs.
The nationwide ministry of the Catholic Church is open to anyone of any or no faith who wants help processing emotional and psychological pain from an abortion.
“The reaction of anger and hostility to the decision was a trigger for people — it was upsetting, and they realize they need this kind of help,” Miller said.
Bridges of Hope, another faith-based healing program in Colorado Springs, also has received additional inquiries in recent weeks, said Brenda Shuler, program director.
“With all the media coverage, it stirs up things people haven’t thought about in a while, and now all of a sudden it’s coming to the surface.”
Abortion is common, says the Planned Parenthood Federation of America — 4 in 10 pregnancies in the United States end with abortion.
By age 45, 1 in 4 women in the U.S. will have had an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
The organization was founded in 1968 as part of Planned Parenthood and now is an independent nonprofit focusing on sexual and reproductive rights and health.
Statistics vary on the numbers of post-abortive women who develop depression, anxiety, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder or suicidal thoughts.
A 2011 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that women who had an abortion were at an 81% increased risk for mental problems.
The 164,000 women in the study who had an abortion were 34% more likely to develop an anxiety disorder than the 713,200 women in the sample group who had not had an abortion.
Post-abortive women also were 37% more likely to have depression, 110% more likely to abuse alcohol, 220% more likely to use marijuana, and had a 155% increased risk for suicide, the study concluded.
Nearly 10% of their problems could be attributed to abortion, according to the authors. Most studies on the topic do not draw a direct correlation between abortion and mental illness or distress.
“There are unresolved emotions, and you have to numb the pain, so there’s the propensity for self-harming behaviors,” said Project Rachel’s Miller, who had an abortion 47 years ago.
Women vary by faith
How a woman views abortion may play a role in after-effects, Miller said. Women who do not have a spiritual practice or faith tradition may not be psychologically conflicted with the decision, she said, because they view the fetus as a mass of tissue or cells.
Women who are of a particular faith and believe that having an abortion means they took a life are more likely to feel guilt and shame, she said.
There were 930,160 abortions performed in the U.S. in 2020, according to the Guttmacher Institute. And nearly three-fourths of women who have an abortion claim a religious affiliation, the institute determined, based on statistics from abortion providers.
“When the dominant narrative, on social media in particular, is there’s nothing wrong with abortion and nothing to grieve, you can feel that it creates a contradiction in your mind and psyche,” said Julie Bailey, director of the Respect Life Apostolate for the Diocese of Colorado Springs.
Women who think the fetus is not a child can face delayed trauma, said Shuler of Bridges of Hope. The program is part of Life Network, a Colorado Springs nonprofit that's supported by churches. The organization also operates a pregnancy center and provides parenting education.
“I’ve talked to a lot of women who believe that at first, that it was just cells early on,” Shuler said. “That’s how they were able to go through with it. But later in life, they think differently."
The American Psychiatric Association doesn’t recognize PTSD from abortion as a condition. From her work, Miller said she knows it can occur, particularly for women who had previous mental imbalance.
COVID exacerbated trauma for women who have a chemical abortion, Miller said.
The pill form of expelling the fetus up to 11 weeks of pregnancy has been on the market for years but during the pandemic became available via telehealth.
While the first dose can be administered at an abortion facility, the second pill is taken at home, which Bailey said produces cramps and blood clots and empties the uterus.
“Because there wasn’t anyone else involved, the isolation they feel along with the guilt and responsibility is overwhelming.”
Miller said she went to a psychiatrist for mental anguish after her abortion in 1975 and was told her condition didn’t have anything to do with the abortion. She said she bottled up her feelings for decades before joining a Project Rachel class.
“No one talks about the trauma and stress,” Miller said. “There are things that trigger it, if someone was physically abused as a child, an abortion adds to the trauma, it’s compounded and often not recognized.”
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Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains did not have anyone available to discuss post-abortion care, and its website does not mention potential psychological effects of abortion.
“Feelings of relief, sadness, elation or depression are common and may be strong due to the hormonal changes that occur after an abortion,” says the Michigan affiliate's website. “Most women find these feelings do not last very long.”
Discussing emotions with parents, a partner and people in a support system may be helpful, the site says.
Some Planned Parenthood affiliates provide a link to a “pro-choice spiritual care” website and offer lists of counseling services.
For those having difficulties, forgiveness is a key to healing, Shuler said.
“It’s forgiving other people; it’s accepting God’s forgiveness — if they come from that perspective — and believing that they can be forgiven themselves,” she said.
Both Project Rachel and Bridges of Hope provide nonjudgmental, confidential group therapy for anyone interested. Classes are free and run up to 10 weeks.
“There are many more people out there with this experience in their past than most people realize,” Shuler said.
As part of Project Rachel’s curriculum, participants learn how to re-humanize the aborted fetus by naming the child and writing a letter to them. They also address their anger toward the doctor, their parents, the partner and themselves.
“They’ll always grieve the loss of their child,” Miller said. “We help them feel like they’re not alone anymore. You begin living your life as healed.”
Affects on men
Don’t forget about the men involved, said Mark Braunlich of Colorado Springs, who has a science and legal background.
A Russian woman he was dating in Moscow in 1993 unexpectedly got pregnant with his child.
Braunlich, who said he wasn’t a Christian at the time, told her he would raise the child without any strings or expectations.
She decided to have an abortion, and the couple split up.
In the following years, Braunlich experienced two unexplained bouts of weeping. Once was during prison ministry, after a man at a church service told Braunlich he hadn’t seen his daughter in several years and wouldn’t see her for another decade.
“I started to fall apart in this room full of prisoners,” Braunlich said. “I ran out to the maintenance closet and remember to this day a big ceramic basin and a mop. I wept for five to 10 minutes before I could get it together. I thought, ‘What is this about?’”
He now attributes his sorrow to the loss of his child through abortion.
“It can grab your soul so powerfully,” he said, “and you can be completely unaware.”
Men often feel like they don't have a right to grieve because they weren't the ones going through the procedure, Miller said.
While they also can feel anger, guilt and shame, psychological damage varies, depending on the circumstance, she said. Whether they paid for the abortion or insisted on it, whether they knew about the abortion at the time it was performed, or whether they wanted to keep the baby.
Braunlich went through the Project Rachel program in 2015.
“It’s a very structured program, it’s not just sit around and talk about it — there are different exercises and readings and homework,” he said.
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“The goal is to make the child you lost real because this whole culture is if the child is not born, it’s not real. If you say there wasn’t a child, what’s there to grieve?”
Braunlich said he learned how his lifestyle of casual sex had consequences, and he realized the meaning of true love.
“You can’t accept healing until you can finally accept the responsibility,” he said.