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Victims of their own choice

Abortion | A growing number of women are speaking up about the crippling effects abortion had on their bodies, hearts, and spirits

Issue: "Terri Schiavo: In memoriam," April 9, 2005

By 5 p.m. on Jan. 24, the temperature in Washington, D.C., had dipped to a bone-numbing 13 degrees-so cold that, had more experienced activists not given Leslie Graves disposable hand-warmers to tuck into her boots, she might have fled indoors. Instead, the 49-year-old stay-home mother of three shivered near a small stage erected in front of the United States Supreme Court, waiting for her turn to tell a crowd of 250 about her abortion.

Others spoke before her: Actress and model Jennifer O'Neill, 57, a veteran of more than 30 films who aborted a child in the early '70s and loathed herself for decades. Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King, who said the question of whether her two aborted babies were boys or girls still haunts her. And Georgette Forney, an abortion survivor who co-founded a group that helps abortion-injured people proclaim their pain.

As Leslie's turn on the dais grew closer, her throat tightened. She worried that her testimony would drown in a flood of her own tears. Finally, she climbed onto the platform and heard her own voice echo out through the mike into the icy breeze.

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"Other women had spoken about coerced abortion," she says now. "So I decided to focus on the relative freedom of my choice, my strong pro-abortion convictions at the time . . . and how empowered I felt that day."

Empowered-until months later, when an inexplicable depression consumed her, and years later, when her mind "erected an invisible wall between me and my living children," she said. "I didn't trust myself to get too close to my own kids because my abortion caused me to perceive myself as a violently damaging woman."

Leslie spoke for about two minutes, pushing out the words through the pressure of building tears. Then she stepped down to the cold concrete and berated herself for not keeping her cool. But soon her turmoil turned to resolve: "I may look like a mess and talk like an emotional wreck," she thought: "But I am Silent No More."

Neither are more than 2,700 other women who have registered with the National Silent No More Awareness Campaign, founded by Georgette Forney of National Episcopalians for Life (NOEL) in 2002. Sponsored by NOEL and Priests for Life, the campaign aims to proclaim publicly the truth about abortion's crippling effects on women's bodies, hearts, and spirits.

Peer-reviewed studies of post-abortive women over two decades reveal a pattern of effects that some clinicians call "post-abortion syndrome." The syndrome is said to resemble post-traumatic stress disorder and includes sleep disturbances, sexual dysfunction, suicidal ideas or attempts, increased substance abuse, and chronic relationship problems such as child abuse or neglect and divorce. Studies also chronicle abortion-related physical complications such as hemorrhaging, infection, embolism, increased risk of tubal pregnancy, breast cancer, labor complications, and death.

But for every such scientific study, another stands ready to rebut it. The National Abortion Federation (NAF) website notes that such "mainstream" groups as the American Psychological Association (so mainstream it published in 1999 a study that proposed to nix the term "pedophilia" in favor of the "value-neutral" term "adult-child sex") analyzed similar research and found "there is no such thing as 'post-abortion syndrome.'" NAF also cites other researchers' findings that "significant psychiatric sequelae" from abortion are rare.

Perhaps in academia's ivory towers, Georgette Forney concluded, but not in the trenches of women's lives. Ms. Forney, who had an abortion at 16 and found healing through Christ at 35, has worked with NOEL since 1998, providing confidential online counseling to women seeking help with post-abortion guilt and grief. "I had been contemplating the lack of women's voices" on the spiritual and emotional toll of abortion, she said. "Pro-lifers seemed to be about the babies, while the media portrayed groups like the National Organization for Women and NARAL [National Abortion Rights Action League] as representing women. But I knew they didn't represent me or the women who were contacting me."

So in January 2002, when NOW and Planned Parenthood held their annual candlelight vigil for "choice" on the Supreme Court steps, Ms. Forney stood quietly on the sidelines with a sign that said, "I regret choosing abortion."

"It was almost an experiment to see who would express compassion," she says now. "One woman said to me, 'I'm sorry you feel that way.' But no one else in that crowd offered me a hand. No one cared to reach out to me one iota. I knew in that moment that these people did not care about women's rights. They cared about abortion rights."

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