by David C. Reardon, Ph.D.
The idea that “abortion is an act of despair” is one of the key points I have always tried to stress in my writing and speaking engagements. Despair is not only the driving force behind most abortion choices, it is also the greatest obstacle to post-abortion recovery. Until more pro-lifers understand this, they will be handicapped in their efforts to help women in crisis.
In describing the despair which leads women to abort, Frederica Mathewes-Green of Feminists for Life of America, gives us this compelling word-picture: “No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.”
This quote is so powerfully accurate that it has even been reprinted by Planned Parenthood. Why? Because pro-abortionists have long wanted to diffuse the notion that women abort for selfish or casual reasons. They want the public to sympathize with the desperation of women seeking abortions because they want to convert sympathy for women into support for abortion.
Actually, the fact that most women agonize over the decision to abort is one of the few areas for finding “common ground” in the abortion debate. Most, if not all, counselors and researchers on both sides of the political issue would agree that most abortion decisions involve elements of fear and despair.
But simply because women agonize over their abortion decisions does not make the decision morally acceptable, not even to the women themselves. In fact, post-abortion research suggests that the more a woman agonizes over making an abortion decision, the more she is likely to agonize over the abortion afterwards. Maternal desires, moral doubts, and feelings of being exploited do not disappear after an abortion. They continue. They grow. They become sources of constant reflection, or stifling avoidance. They can even become the source of crippling self-condemnation.
Escape Through Self-Destruction
Returning to Mathewes-Green’s analogy of an animal gnawing its leg off to escape a trap, we see that abortion is actually an act of self-destruction. When pro-abortionists view a woman in this desperate situation, their solution is to offer the woman a clean, legal way of cutting off the offending leg — after all, they believe there are too many unfit “legs” in the world already.
But what abortion counselors fail to tell women who are choosing abortion is that the loss of their “leg” will leave them crippled. Just as many amputees, they will experience the feeling of a “phantom leg.” This missing part will leave them less whole and less capable. And at times this missing piece will cause an indescribable ache and a flood of uncontrollable tears. In escaping the trap, they will have lost a part of themselves.
Contrast this approach to that of crisis pregnancy centers where pro-lifers are committed to finding a way to open the jaws of the trap to save both the woman and her “leg.” Pro-lifers insist that there is always room for hope. There is always a way to avoid a destructive amputation — a way which in the long run will be appreciated by both her and her “leg.”
What we see in these two perspectives is the difference between despair and hope. Despair inevitably leads us to accept abortion. Hope always leads us to embrace life.
Hope is a virtue. It is centered on God, the source of all hope. Despair is a sin against hope. It is one of Satan’s greatest weapons.
The Weapon Of Despair
By fanning the flames of despair, Satan can lead us into the greatest of sins, because desperate people do desperate things. At the moment a person gives in to despair, one has suffered a loss of faith and trust in God. In the case of abortion, the desperate woman has lost faith in the promise that God has a plan for her life, much less a plan for her child’s life.
Desperate people try to take control. They try to save whatever they can by doing whatever needs to be done — which may include betraying their own values. For example, when the Nazis undertook the extermination of millions of Jews, the sheer magnitude of their task required them to develop ways of soliciting the cooperation of the victims. There were too few soldiers to contain millions of rebellious Jews. So it was necessary to manipulate their victims so that they would choose to cooperate for at least one day at a time. The Nazis did this by exposing the Jews to limited threats; the victims were always left with the bit of hope that by submitting to the present indignity, there was something else which could be saved. According to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman:
At all stages of the Holocaust, the victims were confronted with a choice (as least subjectively – even when objectively the choice did not exist any more, having been preempted by the secret decision of physical destruction). They could not choose between good and bad situations, but they could at least choose between greater and lesser evil… In other words they had something to save. To make their victims’ behavior predictable and hence manipulable and controllable, the Nazis had to induce them to act in the ‘rational mode.’ To achieve that effect, they had to make the victims believe that there was indeed something to save, and that there were clear rules as to how one should go about saving it.1
These choices were presented in a way that discouraged reflecting on the decisions from a moral perspective. Instead, the victims were pressured to make rational decisions based on the rational need to “save whatever we can.”
Using this demonic strategy, the Nazis encouraged the empowerment of ghetto Jewish leaders who would see to the needs of the people, coordinate distribution of medicine and materials, maintain morale, etc. These same leaders were then manipulated into cooperating with the Nazi extermination program. They were confronted with the agonizing choice of cooperating with the Nazis or witnessing the slaughter of their people. At first the cooperation was in “small” things, maintaining a ghetto police force, providing lists of names, selection of ghetto residents to be sent to “resettlement” projects, providing transportation to pick-up points, and the like. In some cases, when the Nazis wanted to punish the entire community for some infraction, Jewish leaders were even forced to select and arrest the desired number of victims who were to be publicly executed by the Nazis. And always–no matter what the request–the leaders were told that by cooperating they were saving the lives of the majority who remained. Leaders who didn’t cooperate were eliminated. Leaders who did cooperate saved their own lives, the lives of their families, and the lives of the dwindling majority of Jews under their leadership–at least for a time–and were left to agonize over their complicity.
The similarity between Nazi manipulations of the Jews and the abortionists’ manipulation of women faced with crisis pregnancies is striking. Just as the victim-Jews were forced to choose between losing everything, or just a little, so abortion counselors encourage the victim-woman to view “this pregnancy” as a threat to everything she has, her relationships, her family, her career, her entire future. She is assured that by sacrificing this one thing (a tiny unborn child), she can save the rest. During this process, the victim-woman is urged to view the abortion decision not as a moral choice, but as a rational choice of “saving what you can.”
But in fact, just as those who reluctantly cooperated with the Nazis discovered, the bargain is a false one. The demands on ghetto leaders to sacrifice more and more victims never stopped. And so it is with the post-aborted woman. After her child is destroyed, she faces self-condemnation, lower self-esteem, difficulty with relationships, substance abuse, career problems, a cycle of repeat abortions, and more. Often she experiences an intense desire for replacement pregnancies to atone for her lost child, and she becomes a single parent, the very problem she sought to avoid in the first place – but now she also has to deal with the emotional scars of an abortion.
The Devil versus Christ
It is significant how differently Christ and the Devil appear before and after any sin, in this case, abortion. Before the abortion, Christ stands, with his arms outstretched to block the way, saying, “Do not do this thing. The sacrifice you make now will be rewarded a hundredfold. I offer you life, so that you may live life abundantly. Place your hope in me and I will not abandon you.”
The Devil, on the other hand, insists, “You must get rid of it. Look at all you will lose… You have no choice. You have already gotten yourself into this problem. Now you must get yourself out. Do this one thing and then you will be back in the driver’s seat of life. Things will be the way they used to be.”
Christ asks us to trust in a plan which we do yet fully understand; Satan urges us to act now to save what we already have. Christ asks us to make a moral decision rooted in hope; Satan asks us to make a “rational” decision based on present needs, desires, and fears.
But after the abortion, how do they appear? Afterwards, Christ continues to offer hope: “Come to me. I want to share your tears. I want to comfort you. Know that all is forgiven. See, your child is in my arms waiting for you to join us when your day is completed.”
Satan on the other hand continues to fan the flames of despair. He who pretended to be on her side now stands as her fiercest accuser. “Look at what you have done! You have murdered your own child! Can there be anything worse than that? There’s no hope for you now. You are nothing. You’re beyond redemption! You may as well seek what little comfort you can in the embrace of an affair, in the bottom of a booze bottle, or in the silence of suicide. And if you get pregnant again, you’ve already had an abortion once, so you might as well do it again–it may even help you to get tougher and more immune to this pain. It makes no difference now. You’ve proven you can murder. Nothing can be worse. And, oh, how you must hate those people who led you to this. Your boyfriend, your parents, your doctor. There is no one you can trust. There is no one who can love YOU — a murderer. You are alone. Your best hope is to bury your past. Hide it from others. Hide it from yourself. But remember it will always be yours alone to bear.”
Before the abortion, Christ condemns it and Satan makes excuses for it. After the abortion, Satan is the one condemning it while Christ wants to forgive it.2
This is the Devil’s bargain. He encourages women to submit to abortion in order to avoid losing what they already have. But once they have chosen it, he tries to keep them trapped in despair so as to strip away everything else. Indeed, Satan pumps as much despair into her life as he can generate. And not into her life alone, but into the lives of the child’s father, grandparents, siblings, and everyone else he can touch with the poison of abortion. His purpose is threefold: to generate misery, to encourage more sin, and to create doubt in the unfathomable mercy of God.
Despair and Forgiveness
For many post-aborted women, the forgiveness of God is a precept which they can mouth, but it is difficult for them to digest. How can they be forgiven? The horror of their sin is so great. Many know that they must believe in God’s forgiveness, and they do so in an act of faith. But how can they feel forgiven, when every instinct in their nature says they cannot be forgiven, even should not be forgiven?
This is the question I will try to address with a few thoughts in part two of this series.
Originally published in The Post-Abortion Review 3(2) Spring 1995. Copyright 1995 Elliot Institute
1. Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1989) 130.
2. This general description of the stance of Christ and Satan before and after sin is drawn from the audio-tape “The Devil” by Archbishop Fulton Sheen and is applied here specifically to the case of abortion.