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The Benediction of Kate Michelman: A case study on coping with post-abortion trauma

Amy R. Sobie and David C. Reardon

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As president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), Kate Michelman is one of the most powerful pro-abortion "feminists" in the nation. Defending abortion is more than Michelman's job. It is her passion. In defending the "right of women to choose," she is first and foremost defending the choice that she made nearly thirty years ago.

In her much-repeated personal testimony, Michelman has described how in 1970, she was abandoned by her husband and left to care for her three young daughters alone. Then, just after her husband left, she found out she was pregnant.

As Michelman describes it, her decision to abort was an agonizing one. Because of the social and legal taboos surrounding abortion, she was unable to discuss her decision with anyone -- not her relatives, her friends, or her priest. As a Catholic, she says, her decision to abort "challenged every religious, moral, ethical and philosophical belief"(1) she held.

Like so many other women today, Michelman abandoned those beliefs out of desperation and fear. She was on welfare, with three daughters to raise, and without the support and help of a husband. She felt that she had no choice but abortion because of her impossible circumstances.

Abortion was illegal at that time except where the mother's health or life was at stake. This was a broadly interpreted exception, but it required Michelman to appear before an all-male hospital review panel to obtain permission for the abortion on the grounds that she was unstable and incapable of raising another child. The board granted her request -- provided that her ex-husband also agreed.

During the time she was waiting to get permission for the abortion, Michelman carried with her the name and phone number of an illegal abortionist whom she was prepared to contact if she was "thwarted" in her quest for a legal abortion. Since her ex-husband agreed to the abortion, however, she never used that number. But she says that having to obtain permission from the hospital board and her ex-husband for the abortion left her feeling "worthless and violated."(2)

As the spokeswoman for NARAL, Michelman uses her personal story to effectively appeal to the empathy of those who truly care about women. She argues not only that women must be free to choose abortion so they can control of their lives, but also that America should never return to the days of illegal and restricted abortions that injured, shamed, and degraded women.

Michelman At Risk

Michelman's story is not an unusual one, either for that period or for today. Clearly, it is not the story of an intellectual feminist, liberated from sexual, familial, and religious restraints, who simply took control of her "reproductive destiny." Hers is the story of a woman caught in a trap.

Michelman and her three daughters were all emotionally bruised and financially devastated by the husband and father who had abandoned them. Already confronted with poverty, another child would have increased their expenses and been a further drain on the time Michelman needed to raise her daughters and to earn an income.

"I had to . . . debate my obligations to my children against my responsibility to the developing life inside me," she has said.(3) Like the Jewish woman in Sophie's Choice who was forced by a Nazi officer to choose which of her children would die so the other could live, Michelman felt she had no choice but to sacrifice one child for the sake of the others.

In many respects, Michelman matches the profile for those women who are most at risk of suffering emotional maladjustments after an abortion. She had moral and religious values that were in conflict with the choice to abort, strong feelings of ambivalence in making the decision, strong concerns about secrecy, prior children, a poor or unstable relationship with her male partner, and a lack of social support. She did not feel free to choose what was best, but instead felt that abortion was her "only choice" if she and her family were to survive.

Given all these risk factors, it is no surprise that Michelman felt "worthless and violated" after her abortion. It is also not surprising that she, like many women who had abortions prior to Roe v Wade, has projected the blame for her negative feelings on social circumstances, the attitudes of the day, and the illegal status of abortion.

Her Benediction

Perhaps her most revealing comment to date was during a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California in January 1998. Michelman said that when she had learned that the Supreme Court had legalized abortion, "I was quite overcome. It felt somehow like a benediction -- a retroactive reprieve that helped restore my sense of worth, my integrity." She described Roe v. Wade as"the promise that emerged from darkness to light. From despair to hope."(4)

The emotional importance of the Supreme Court's decision to Michelman is not incidental. Indeed, it is very revealing that a woman who felt alienated from her religion because of her abortion would describe the Court's approval of abortion as a "benediction." To a former Catholic like Michelman, "benediction" refers to the highest and most profound form of blessing by Christ Himself. For her, the Court's decision was a substitute for the religious blessing she needed to restore her moral identity.

Moreover, the Court's "retroactive reprieve" affirmed that she had done nothing wrong. Therefore, she had no reason to repent. Her shame and guilt had been for nought. Her painful decision to abort was not only accepted by the highest judges in our society, but it was even enshrined as a Constitutional right!

When one empathizes with Michelman's conflict over an abortion decision that violated her "every religious, moral, ethical, and philosophical belief," it is easy to see why she and thousands of other women like her have clung to the Roe decision as a vindication of their moral selves.

The emotional value of this legal ruling also explains why Michelman and other post-abortive women are so angry at those seeking to reverse Roe. For them, this would be more than a political set back. On an internal, emotional level, overturning Roe would remove the "benediction" that they have received for choosing what even Michelman herself admits is a "bad thing."(5)

Clinging to Approval

No one loves abortion, but everyone yearns for approval. It is the insatiable desire for social approval which drives some post-abortive women and men to battle for abortion rights. They will never be content with merely legal access to abortion. What they long for is universal approval of abortion.

By immersing themselves in the political fight over abortion, post-abortive women and men are satisfying several psychological needs. First, they are surrounding themselves with like-minded activists who reinforce the rightness of their decision. Second, each time they see other women choose abortion, they experience it as a reaffirmation their own decision.(6) Third, they are diverting negative internal feelings into outward expressions of righteous anger.

As Magda Denes, a post-abortive woman and pro-choice psychologist, has observed, it is easier for a post-abortive woman to "regard oneself as a martyr and to battle the world" of anti-abortion enemies than to confront the "private sorrows" and the "heartache of self-chosen destiny" which are inherent to the abortion experience.(7)

In the heat of battle with an outside force, one can avoid examining one's own self-inflicted wounds.

This is why Michelman honestly does not understand how abortion today is still causing women so much pain and grief. Blinded by the "benediction" she received in the form of Roe v. Wade, she honestly believes that the shame and loss that is inherent to abortion can be wiped away by social approval. She wants to believe it. She needs to believe it.

The truth, however, is that social acceptance of abortion can never sanitize what is inescapably a life-destroying experience. As Denes rightly realizes, even if every critic of abortion was silenced, even if every person on earth approved of abortion as a pragmatic necessity, the "private sorrows" would still remain.

In the end, self-worth that is rooted merely in social acceptance will fail. The only firm foundation for our human dignity lies in the fact that we are children of God. Even when we fail, our one certain hope is that God will never turn away a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 34). He loves us. And when we cast aside the straw of our excuses, and lift up the gold of Christ's sacrifice, He will heal us and restore our joy.

There are many former abortion advocates like Carol Everett, Norma McCorvey, Dr. Beverly McMillan, and Dr. Tony Levatino who became "converts" to the pro-life cause because they experienced the love of pro-lifers. This should remind us that those who are most outspoken in defense of Roe v. Wade are really crying out for acceptance. If we are to convert a nation, we must, as ambassadors of Christ's mercy and love, accept and embrace them.

Notes

1. Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee during confirmation hearings for Judge Clarence Thomas. Copyright 1996, NARAL.

2. Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee during confirmation hearings for Judge Clarence Thomas. Copyright 1996, NARAL.

3. Speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, January 15, 1998 (Transcript provided by NARAL, 1156 15th St. NW, Suite 700, Washington, D.C. 20005)

4. Speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, January 15, 1998. (Transcript provided by NARAL)

5. Howard Kurtz, "Poor Choice of Words from Abortion Rights Advocate?" The Washington Post, Feb. 7, 1994, in which Michelman told a reporter, "We think abortion is a bad thing. No woman wants to have an abortion."

6. "I found that in talking to other women about abortion, their decisions to abort satisfied something in me. It was almost like I was gloating in their misery. If I'd had an opportunity to work at a counseling center to counsel women before their abortions, I would have done it. It would have strengthened my own decision to abort." Reardon, Aborted Women, 85.

7. Magda Denes, In Necessity and Sorrow: Life and Death in an Abortion Hospital (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1976), xv-xvi.

Originally published in The Post Abortion Review 7(1) Jan.-March 1999. Copyright 1999 Elliot Institute. Reprinted with permission.

The Elliot Institute, PO Box 7348, Springfield, IL 62791-7348. Additional material is posted at www.afterabortion.org.

Read this article on the Elliot Institute website.



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