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What Pro-Life Advocates Can Learn from Listening to Women’s Abortion Stories

When the US Supreme Court published its decision in Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Center in June 2022, pro-choice advocates’ misinformation about pregnant women’s access to emergency care spread quickly, uncritically, and widely in the media. 

We heard shocking stories of women suffering from complications and being wrongly denied care out of confusion about ethics and state law. So I launched a project called Pro-Life Professional Insight to collect and publish stories from pro-life medical professionals, who illustrate how they save women’s lives without elective abortion. 

One of the first stories in the project reminded me that if I were going to think deeply about the problem of abortion, I should also listen to the stories of women who have had them. 

That story tells of a high school student named Ashley whose boyfriend said he would support her if she ever got pregnant. She did, and he didn't. Instead, he told her to get an abortion and gave her the money to do it. He said that if she didn't, her parents would not understand and would kick her out of the house, she would have to quit school and she would never fulfill her dreams. 

So, Ashley went to the abortion clinic and took the first pill. She immediately regretted it, tried all alone for a day to figure out what to do, and then went to her mom. Her mom was supportive and loving and took her to a nearby crisis pregnancy center, who sent her to my co-author in the story, Dr. Matthew Harrison. It was 2006, and the first time he had ever seen the abortion pill in action, so he had to figure out what to do. He gave her progesterone; it saved the baby, and his experience became an early example of what is now known as the Abortion Pill Reversal Protocol ( 

I know there are millions of Ashley’s out there and that most of them go through with their abortions. Their stories are easy to find. Planned Parenthood websites post lots of them. There are projects like the 1 in 3 Campaign, but I have learned the most from a podcast called The Abortion Diary

I do not agree with the pro-choice goals of The Abortion Diary or the pro-choice views of nearly all the 170 women interviewed. But the project’s director and the women interviewed deserve a lot of credit for telling their stories with detail and honesty and for not worrying that some pro-life advocates might propagandize, or that some pro-choice advocates might try to silence, their expressions of grief and loss, descriptions of the uncomfortable silence inside abortion clinics, and honesty about difficulties along the road to recovery after abortion. 

After listening to their stories, I still think these women should not have ended the lives of their children, but many of their stories also show a remarkable period of personal growth that began with the experience of unexpectedly becoming pregnant and having an abortion and continued by recognizing the problematic circumstances that led to that choice and by working to change their circumstances and themselves.  

When I listened to the episodes, I heard variations of Ashley's story much more frequently than the stereotypical tales of random promiscuity. A young woman is looking for a meaningful relationship. She starts dating a guy, starts having sex with him, and becomes pregnant. Neither wanting nor expecting to become pregnant, she is surprised to discover that she is and may experience some mixture of fear, confusion, and conflict about what to do. Others are certain that they want an abortion and simply set about doing it. 

In some stories, the guy abandons her, her family is not supportive or she fears they won’t be, and the sadness and isolation move her to get an abortion. In other stories, the guy sticks with her, and some but not all of the women want to know what her partner thinks about keeping the baby. He typically says “It’s your choice” and accompanies her to the clinic, in some cases struggling with his own feelings about wanting to raise the child. 

Often, the unexpected pregnancy makes the couple confront the problems in their relationship. They realize they want children but not with each other and that the relationship should have ended long before. Some couples think that they are unable to parent, or they want to complete important projects like career or graduate school before having children. There are also couples who don't want children at all but do want companionship. 

Regardless of the particular circumstances, most of the relationships end within months of the abortion. Many of these women eventually meet someone else, establish a more stable, loving relationship, and have children. Very few have an abortion after having children. 

The Human Experience of Abortion

Their stories highlight the humanity of the women who have abortions, and here is what stood out to me:

First, becoming pregnant unexpectedly and having an abortion usually changes a woman for the rest of her life. Her abortion experience ranges from unpleasant to grueling, and she never wants to repeat it. Looking back on the experience, most of the women count it as one of their pivotal life events. Becoming pregnant was a pivot from girlhood toward womanhood and from “I didn’t think it would happen to me” to “Wow, I can actually have a baby.” 

Along with their fears about the unexpected pregnancy, some women have other reactions they never expected, including bonding with the baby. For younger women, having the abortion is often one of the first hard decisions she ever had to make, even if deep down she knew what she would likely choose at the moment she saw the pregnancy test result. She seeks people to talk to and often learns who her real friends are and aren’t. Sometimes she’s surprised to learn that other women among her friends and family, including her own mother, had abortions. 

Second, most women who get abortions recognize that they have ended the life of a child, and many feel that they have lost something of themselves too. They know an embryo is not a blob of cells but a human being. They feel embarrassed that they let themselves get pregnant. They feel the contradictory pressure on women to get an abortion when the circumstances are not right and then the guilt of having done so. They grieve and sometimes take years to process their grief. They write about the experience, perform rituals, mark anniversaries of due dates as birthdays, bury the remains, and visit burial places. Other women repress their grief, only to have it return years later. 

Third, nothing riles post-abortive women more than pro-life advocates who try to make them feel guilt and shame and tell them they have killed their babies. Not only do most already recognize that they’ve ended their child’s life, but they also know the reasons why that choice seemed right to them. 

They reserve the most intense anger for those of us who pray or witness outside abortion clinics, especially those who try to speak to women as they enter the clinic. They speak of hearing pro-lifers shout that if they go through with the abortion, then they will be murderers. They do not make any distinction between pro-life advocates who use shaming language and those whose speech is more judicious and caring. It is true that some women are coerced or conflicted as they approach a clinic, but at least as many arrive at the clinic having given serious thought to the decision and have little patience for others who would challenge their choice.  

Fourth, entering the abortion clinic moves her from anger to fear and especially to sadness. Many women speak about a strange silence in the waiting room, where the women all know why they are there and do not make eye contact or speak to each other. Sometimes the clinic staff even instruct them not to have conversations, which becomes especially difficult when one woman becomes upset and another wants to comfort her. They are disappointed when their partner, if he accompanies her, has to stay in the waiting room when she goes back for the abortion. Nonetheless, she appreciates the presence of a kind nurse or volunteer to hold her hand. She also appreciates real talk about what to expect physically and, for a medication abortion, what changes are expected and what are the signs she should go to the nearest hospital emergency room. 

Finally, having an abortion sometimes makes a woman reexamine her assumptions about fundamental human questions regarding suffering, love, fertility, loss, death, grief, shame, and failure and about how those assumptions have played out in her life so far. Most of the women on The Abortion Diary say that they do not regret their abortions, but many say they do regret the circumstances that led them to become pregnant and confront that choice in the first place. Some say the abortion “showed me I needed to grow up and get my act together.” That often involves admitting and responding to the personal weaknesses that led to a variety of problems, including the untimely pregnancy. 

She arrives at a more mature vision of permanent loving relationships, recognizes the problems of the men she had been involved with, changes her relationship habits, and ends up married with children. Sometimes there’s a need to take stock of her own talents and aspirations and embark on a long-term project in life, work, or both. 

What These Stories Teach About Abortion

Civil discourse about abortion should be merciful as well as honest. The women of The Abortion Diary speak candidly about seeking abortions to escape criticism and embarrassment or to avoid disrupting important projects such as graduate school. Unfortunately, some pro-life advocates use such stories to portray women who have had abortions as selfish and childish. No mercy for the woman. 

Other women get abortions when they find themselves in such difficult and dire social circumstances that it seems impossible to do otherwise. Unfortunately, abortion advocates exploit those hard cases to expand legal abortion. No mercy for the child.

Social stigma against abortion inevitably arises because it deliberately ends a human life, but stigma need not arise because a woman becomes pregnant when she did not want to, because she is poor or unmarried, or because other people expected her to use contraception. Each one of us makes mistakes and fears the consequences and the criticism, especially from the people closest to us. 

The women of The Abortion Diary remind us that correcting our biggest mistakes leads to remarkable lifelong growth when we can share our stories. Eliminating stigma about unwanted pregnancy will save children because fear of rejection leads women to abort them. 

The lack of legal and material support leads to abortion as well. Abortion will never be morally good or legally just, and enshrining abortion in law and state constitutions is just as much a perversion of justice as slavery laws ever were. But ending the practice may be more difficult than ending the practice of slavery and discrimination in the United States. 

It is hard enough to write laws protecting the child in the womb when pro-choice rhetoric confuses and frightens voters. It is even harder to support the woman whose untimely pregnancy has left her vulnerable and whose society has unjustly come to depend upon abortion to solve that problem. 

Without the right kind of support, some women will default to abortion, including clandestine ones. Providing the right kind of support requires people around her to accept the burdens of helping her and for her to accept the help. If people are not prepared to accept those burdens, abortion shifts them onto the child in the womb. The more times that abortion shifts that burden onto the child, the more that solution appears to be one that people obviously should accept—until people reckon with the facts that abortion is a form of killing and that childbirth could become a realistic alternative and a better life-changing experience. 

The variety of women’s abortion stories shows the need for abortion restrictions and for pregnancy help centers that are not involved with the abortion industry. For example, some women interviewed in The Abortion Diary were adamant that the required 24 hour wait between consultation and abortion never could have changed their thinking. But others admitted to making the decision “on autopilot” and needing the time to process the decision. They wished they had considered abortion’s implications and would have accomplished post-abortion healing more easily had they done so. A few even said they would have kept their babies if they had taken more time to think. 

Women also need to hear about realistic pathways for carrying their children to term and raising them themselves or, if that is not possible, for giving the child up for adoption, despite adoption’s difficult dynamics. Many women are conflicted about having an abortion but pushed toward abortion by their own future aspirations, a real or perceived inability to parent, partners or family who do not want a child at that time or ever, and political pressures. These women deserve real non-abortion options presented as a feasible if not desirable path forward. 

Today’s abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood are not at all prepared to help women understand non-abortion options in a positive light. Other providers, such as Pregnancy Resource Centers, are maligned because they refuse to provide abortions, but when these organizations are well-resourced and well-governed, their non-abortion stance enables them to partner with community resources that provide safe and affordable housing, quality and affordable daycare, recovery programs, and other material and emotional support. 

It is better for the woman if society spends time and other resources helping her see a realistic pathway to give birth to and raise a child than if we spend resources giving her an abortion and then helping her heal from the grieving and loss that abortion entails. 

Pro-choice disinformation makes progress impossible for both women and children. The vast majority of the women of The Abortion Diary aborted healthy children. A small percentage aborted children with life-limiting conditions such as Trisomy 18, or because there was a chance they had such a condition. None had pregnancies they wanted but could not continue because of serious or life-threatening medical conditions for the mother. Why? Because the abortion debate has never really been about life-threatening complications or serious harm to the mother’s body. Long before Roe, doctors treated women for these complications, even if it meant losing the child. Doctors always recognized that the mother is their primary patient, that centuries-old ethical principles permitted these procedures, and that the law at that time would neither prosecute doctors nor require them to wait for circumstances of imminent death. 

Scaring voters that women will die without abortion is simply widespread public deception. Aborting healthy and disabled children is ethically and legally different from having to lose a child in order to preserve the life and well-being of a mother suffering from a pregnancy that is severely compromised by medical complications. This basic ethical distinction was true long before Roe, was true during Roe, and will always be true. 

Medical institutions must make sure that their medical professionals and students understand this distinction. Citizens should ask every political candidate, whether pro-choice or pro-life, to show publicly that they understand this distinction and criticize every pro-choice and pro-life argument that fails to respect it. 

A pro-life advocate should be one of the best companions a post-abortive woman can have as part of the healing process. The pro-life advocate should help them find forgiveness and plan a thriving life rather than provoke more shame and guilt. Many of the women of The Abortion Diary were striving to grow into adulthood, chart a course of life, and fill their lives with important projects, such as graduate school or a career. Pro-life advocates rightly point out that even such important projects do not justify ending the life of a child, but we also must recognize the difficulty of suddenly changing major life commitments in order to take on a new one and help shoulder its burdens. 

If women regret the circumstances that led them to choose abortion, they might help other women avoid those circumstances. The vast majority of women of The Abortion Diary tried to make sexual activity a part of their search for a meaningful relationship. Reflecting back on their pregnancy and abortion experience, many recognized that this was a relationship mistake, or that contraception is not as easily used or reliable as they thought, or that they were compensating for personal problems in other areas of their lives, or that some other factor made sexual activity seem right. Then, dealing with all the implications of unexpected pregnancy and abortion prompted serious reflection and course correction that eventually led to the meaningful relationships that they had been seeking. 

When they are able to tell their stories without judgment, these same women might help other women place sexual activity within a long-term relationship that has been tested enough to provide support in the case of pregnancy.  

Toward the end of each interview, the director of The Abortion Diary asks the woman “Why do you want to share your story?” The second most common response is that she wants to keep abortion legal. The most common answer is that she does not want other women to feel alone. 

Telling her abortion story is an experience of healing and growth that she wants for other women who have gone through the experience of abortion. The irony is that these women, nearly all pro-choice, also hated the experience and would have preferred to find personal growth and a meaningful relationship without it. For the sake of both the woman and the child, doing away with the abortion experience should be our society’s goal.

Grattan Brown is a Catholic theologian, medical ethicist, and founder of the Pro-Life Professional Insight project.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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