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.
"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."
That angered Ms. Forney, who had spent heart-wrenching days helping women who wrote in with stories and letters like these:
· "My husband didn't want me to have an abortion. I was stubborn and thought it would make life easier on everyone . . . I knew as soon as my uterus was violated I had participated in a murder . . . I cried every day for a year or more. Every time the vacuum [cleaner] was used, I thought about how my baby died."
· "I remember sitting on the toilet crying nonstop, bleeding and in terrible pain . . . [Seven years later] I have a lot of grief, remorse, and guilt deep in my heart. I wonder what the baby felt while it was being murdered with its mother's consent."
"Women were writing letters that were tearing me up inside," Ms. Forney said. "I knew it was time to do something to represent those women who were out there hurting."
That's how the Silent No More Awareness Campaign (SNMA) was born. The group, co-founded by Priests for Life associate director Janet Morana, holds nationwide gatherings similar to the one in Washington, D.C., where Leslie Graves spoke. In addition, SNMA offers to women healing resources such as retreats and memorial services, and publishes articles and op-eds to draw attention to an overlooked contingent in the abortion debate: women who've had them.
Attention multiplied rapidly after Ms. Forney met Jennifer O'Neill. The actress/model was a Hollywood force during the '70s, '80s, and early '90s, starring with John Wayne and Dustin Hoffman and working with prestigious directors like Otto Preminger. But in the early 1970s, at the top of her game, she fell in love with a wealthy New York businessman named "Craig." That relationship led to an unintended pregnancy. Already the mother of a 3-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Ms. O'Neill was happy about the new baby. But when she told Craig about it, he responded slowly and concisely, "If you insist on having my baby, I promise, the moment it is born, I will take it away from you. . . . I will prove you unfit, emotionally unstable, and I will bury you."
Though they now wish they hadn't, Ms. O'Neill's parents also counseled her at the time to have the abortion Craig ordered, as did her doctor, who told her the baby was a blob of tissue. "I buckled under fear," she writes in her autobiography, Surviving Myself. "Deep down I knew it was wrong when everyone was saying it was alright. I hated myself, no question about it."
Ms. O'Neill's self-loathing ate at her soul for 18 years, until she committed her life to Christ in 1987, when "I saw real hope for my hurting soul for the first time." Still, 10 more years passed before she felt completely healed from the pain of her abortion. Then, in 2003, she became the international spokeswoman for the Silent No More Awareness Campaign. Since then she has written two books on post-abortion healing: You're Not Alone: Healing Through God's Grace After Abortion and Life After Abortion, a workbook and video set.
Now Ms. O'Neill travels constantly, speaking at pregnancy centers, women's conferences, and schools. She feels it's especially important to let kids know that there are options besides abortion in an unintended pregnancy, and that "esteem comes from God and how He sees them. . . . Kids who've made mistakes need to know they can start again with the God who gives second, third, millionth chances."
Like SNMA, other post-abortion groups-Operation Outcry, the Elliot Institute, and Priests for Life-are helping women speak out about the negative impact of their abortions.
"In a sense, it's kind of weird," said Ms. Forney. "How can you stand up and talk about your abortion? But the other side of that is when people break their silence, they're freed from being controlled by the shame of their abortions. They're able to open up to God's healing and forgiveness."
No second thoughts
Reacting to the stories of women who suffered after having abortions, a mini-movement of women who are unashamed, even proud, of their abortions has emerged. The "no regrets" movement includes the "I had an abortion" T-shirts that popped up at pro-abortion rallies last summer and abortion-story websites like the Abortion Conversation Project and I'mNotSorry.net. At I'mNotSorry, women have posted about 300 stories like these:
· "I am a mom of three wonderful children. I love being a mom. However, I had two abortions before I actually was ready for this job. I am not sorry that I chose to end two pregnancies. I am sorry that I became pregnant . . . I do not lie awake at night second guessing my decisions . . . I rarely think about it . . ."
· "I'm Claire, I've had three abortions. Regret = zero. My first was at 21. . . . A strict Christian upbringing almost succeeded in dumbing down my brain, but the father forced me to abort, as he did not want his burgeoning income eaten away by a child I couldn't support."
I'mNotSorry.net founder Patricia Beninato believes most women aren't sorry. She launched her site in 2003 to show that "contrary to pro-life propaganda," most post-abortive women aren't wracked with pain and guilt.
WORLD: There's at least one story on your site in which a woman said she's had numerous abortions. Do any of the stories that come in make you think, wow, that's taking "choice" a little too far?
Beninato: It doesn't bother me at all. One of the peeves I have is that there seems to be a mindset even within the pro-choice community that having to get one abortion is OK, but anything after that and you're a dumb slut who doesn't know how to use birth control. I often hear younger women say things like, "Well, yeah, the condom can break or whatever, but I don't believe in people using abortion as birth control." Um . . . abortion is birth control, just a more expensive and intrusive version of it.
WORLD: There is no longer a debate about whether a fetus is a living baby. Yet, a September 2004 Salon article notes that "most abortions in America are about convenience." Morally speaking, what do you think about that?
Beninato: It doesn't bother me. I believe in the Planned Parenthood axiom "every child a wanted child." We see all too often what happens to an unwanted child, the horrors that are inflicted upon them. Yes, a fetus is alive. But weeds are life and mold is life and bugs are life and we destroy those on a regular basis. Pro-lifers want to give the impression that abortion is someone ripping a full-term baby out of a woman's womb and dashing its brains out against the nearest wall, when in actuality the average abortion-nearly 90 percent-is done within the first trimester.
WORLD: You post your own abortion story on I'mNotSorry.net [under a false name]. Isn't your insistence that your own story remain anonymous at odds with your assertion that you're not sorry?
Beninato: I am not sorry I had the abortions. I never will be sorry I had the abortions. I am sorry, however, that I have to worry about my husband or family being harassed over my website, which has already happened. And you may look to your so-called fellow Christians for the source of that worry. . . . I have chosen to make certain aspects of my experience public, but that doesn't mean I have to make it all public.
WORLD: Do you think women who tell stories of pain and regret over their abortions are telling the truth?
Beninato: I have no doubt that there are women who regret their abortions. . . . But when you read the stories on the regretful sites, a theme starts popping up-"I didn't want to abort, but. . . ." And they start the blame game. . . . "My boyfriend said he'd leave me." "My parents said they'd stop paying for school." Never is it said that they made the decision. Until someone can show me a case where a woman was tied up, stuffed in the trunk of a car, brought to a clinic and tied down onto a table, I will always believe that a woman knew exactly what she was doing.