Linda Couri of Libertyville, Illinois, age 41, is a committed Catholic. She is a wife and mother, she works hard to maintain a deep prayer life, and she strongly supports the Church’s teachings on the Gospel of Life. She is also a licensed clinical social worker employed by the Archdiocese of Chicago as its associate director of lay ministry formation, working out of the archdiocese’s Mundelein Seminary and helping train lay ministers for the Church.
But a decade ago Couri was an agnostic who was contemptuous of the Catholic faith as well as a staunch advocate of legalized abortion who worked for Planned Parenthood as both a volunteer and employee. In fact, she herself had an abortion at age 24.
“I’ve come a long way,” Couri remarked. “And God has supported me through this process.”
Couri was born in Chicago and attended Catholic schools. She stopped going to Church when she was 18, and remained agnostic until age 32. She surrounded herself with like-minded people. At age 24, she became pregnant with her boyfriend’s child.
She initially planned to have the baby. It was a human being, she believed, and caring for the baby was her responsibility. However, being single and having little money at the time, the thought of having a child caused Couri much anxiety. Having an abortion seemed like a quick and easy solution.
Her boyfriend had a hands-off approach. Couri could have the child or get an abortion; either way was fine with him. He left the decision to her.
“It was disappointing,” Couri said of her boyfriend’s attitude. “He didn’t take responsibility. He washed his hands of the whole thing. It was lonely making the decision by myself. He was a product of our culture, however, and I think it was the best he could offer me.”
Couri reflects that even though she considered herself a feminist and pro-choice, she wished she had the strength to stand up to her boyfriend and say, “Let’s have this baby.” A few months later the relationship would end.
Couri decided to have an abortion. Once the decision was made, her stress immediately left her. “It was the best drug you could ever have taken,” she said. But her relief came at a cost. She had to ignore her conscience, and do what she knew was wrong.
When Couri went to the clinic, the staff offered to drug her for the procedure. She declined, wanting to remain fully awake. She sat in a waiting room in a hospital gown, along with six other young women. She described the experience as surreal, with Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings playing over the P.A. system while the women waited for their names to be called, each of them alone and isolated. No one would even make eye contact.
“There is nothing joyful about abortion,” Couri reflects today. “Some women are complacent, but most just bare-knuckle their way through it.”
Her name was called, and she went into a room to have her abortion. She lay down, and saw a painting by Henri Rousseau on the ceiling. It was put there to distract the women, she thought. Couri made a point of not looking at it, as she wanted to be fully aware of what was going on. The nurse held her hand during the abortion.
Immediately after, Couri asked the abortionist to see the aborted fetus. He was surprised, but agreed. He held up a bowl with the remains of her child. “It was gruesome and sad,” Couri recalls.
For years after, she thought little about what she had done and the morality of her actions. “I tucked it away in a comfortable, intellectual place,” she said. She did allow the experience to motivate her as she grew increasingly active in pro-choice political work.
JOINING PLANNED PARENTHOOD
Couri became a volunteer, and later an employee, at Planned Parenthood. She worked in Champaign, Illinois, about a three-hour drive from Chicago. At Planned Parenthood, she presented sex education classes in schools, having students try on a “pregnancy suit,” a weighted-down jumper that simulates some of the physical aspects of pregnancy. The suit was an attempt to impress upon students the less-than-glamorous side of pregnancy so as to encourage them to avoid it.
A licensed clinical social worker with a master’s degree in social work, Couri was the only mental health professional on staff at her Planned Parenthood facility and was responsible for offering pregnancy counseling to women seeking abortions. Much of it was not, in fact, counseling, but rather a review of the abortion procedure and a double-checking of the patient’s intentions. Couri would ask, “Do you know what you’re doing?” and, “Is this what you want to do?”
Couri has many sad memories of the women with whom she spoke. One was a married university professor with three children. Even though abortion was readily accepted in the university culture of which she was a part, she was clearly struggling with the decision; Couri thinks she could have gone either way. In the end she had the abortion, and Couri never saw her again.
“I have a lot of regret when I think of her,” Couri said. “I could have dissuaded her from having an abortion, and I didn’t.” At the time, Couri was herself conflicted about abortion. While she supported its legalization, she also believed the unborn child was a human being and that abortion destroyed the child’s life.
She recalled a pregnant 16-year-old girl she counseled. Couri told her she could keep the child and rear him herself, put the baby up for adoption, or have an abortion.
The girl asked, “If I have an abortion, am I killing my baby?” Couri responded, “‘Kill’ is a strong word, and so is ‘baby.’ You’re terminating the product of conception.”
In her heart, Couri knew she was playing a semantic game.
Later, Couri shared her concerns with her supervisor, who suggested that the 16-year-old’s choice for abortion would be the lesser of two evils, implicitly acknowledging abortion to be an “evil.” The supervisor’s ambivalence is not unusual among Planned Parenthood employees, Couri says; virtually all Planned Parenthood staffers are women, and many will privately concede that they have mixed feelings about abortion, she said. “You can’t be a woman and not be conflicted about it,” Couri explained.
Couri offered further evidence that Planned Parenthood staffers know that abortion kills babies. On Wednesdays, her facility offered a pre-natal clinic for women who wanted to have their babies. The staff put up pictures of babies around the office on that day. Afterward, when it was time to prepare the facility for abortion procedures, the baby pictures came down and paintings of landscapes went up.
There were also indications that the abortionists themselves knew they were killing babies. Couri recalls the case of one abortionist, an unpleasant man flown in from out-of-state due to the difficulty of finding local doctors willing to perform abortions. He was about to perform an abortion on a young woman when he recognized her as someone he had done an abortion on before. In fact, it was the third time she had had one. The abortionist was angry at her for getting pregnant again, and treated her coldly.
“If abortion is nothing more than, say, removing a mole, then why get angry about it?” Couri said. “Obviously he knew it was something more.”
RETURNING TO CHURCH
In 2003, yearning for some kind of spirituality in her life, Couri went back to church. Although she had scorned Catholicism, it was the faith she had been reared in, so it was a starting place. Returning to the Church was difficult, as her thoroughly secular friends and co-workers did not support her. An ex-boyfriend ridiculed her, saying, “I hear you’re going to be a nun.”
She joined a daily Mass group at St. Patrick’s Church in Urbana. She was still pro-choice, however, and wore her Planned Parenthood name badge to Mass. She got to know her fellow worshipers, but no one ever asked her about the badge.
Curious to learn more about the Catholic faith, she began having private meetings with the pastor at St. Patrick’s, Father George Remm. “I’d ask him about who Jesus was, what sin was, and any number of other questions,” Couri recalled. “He’d listen to me and seemed to really like me.”
One day, however, Father Remm asked her, “Linda, how can you be who you are, and still be pro-choice?”
“Don’t go there,” was Couri’s uncomfortable response. Father Remm dropped the subject.
“She appreciated that I would listen to her without judging her,” recalled Father Remm, now retired after 18 years at St. Patrick’s. “You have to take a person where they’re at and gently lead them.”
Some time after that conversation with Father Remm, while on retreat, Couri decided it was time to leave Planned Parenthood. Couri still considered herself pro-choice; that would change on November 11, 2004.
“A MESSAGE TO MYSELF”
Couri trained her replacement at Planned Parenthood, left Champaign, and returned to Chicago. She stayed with her mother for a while as she re-established herself in the city.
For years, Couri had maintained a video diary. Sitting alone in her mother’s basement on November 11, she came across a tape she had made just before she went in for her abortion 10 years before, and watched it. “It was the saddest thing I ever saw,” she said.
She saw herself, 10 years younger, talking about the abortion she was just about to have. She apologized to her baby, and, although an unbeliever, said she hoped they would meet some day.
“It was horrible to watch,” Couri said. “It was a message to myself, from me to me. I said, ‘If you’re watching this one day in the future, know that you love this baby.’”
Couri, a therapist herself, had what she described as a psychological breakdown. She endured panic attacks, and had trouble thinking clearly. She turned to the Church for help. Couri contacted Margie Breen, coordinator of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Project Rachel program, which offers confidential counseling and services for women recovering from abortions. Often, as in Couri’s case, Project Rachel also helps women return to the practice of their faith.
Breen remembers her first meeting with Couri; she was surprised to learn Couri had recently been an employee of Planned Parenthood. Breen was eager to help. “Without compromising Church teaching, I tried to meet Linda where she was at,” she said.
Couri appreciated the support Project Rachel offered. “Defining abortion as an objective wrong that is forgivable was very helpful,” she said. “Margie did it in a way that was graceful and tender, the way any post-abortive woman should be treated.”
When talking to post-abortive women, Couri believes, counselors should stress that the women are brave for confronting their sin, rather than following the example of those who live in a state of “passive denial that can be soul-crushing.” While women must accept that what they’ve done is seriously sinful, they must also remember that Jesus came to forgive sins, Couri said.
Healing is a process, Couri maintained, and a woman might not feel better for a long time. “‘Feeling’ forgiven is not a prerequisite for forgiveness itself,” she explained. “Forgiveness is an objective action by God.”
Father Remm at St. Patrick’s was overjoyed to receive a letter from Couri stating that she had fully embraced the faith and no longer considered herself pro-choice. “As I look back, I can see that there was a movement of grace going on within her,” he said.
A NEW LIFE
Couri’s conversion and recovery led to a desire to work in the Church, so when a job opportunity opened in the Office of Lay Ministry Formation, she jumped at the chance. Today she helps train lay people for ministry roles in the Church.
In 2006, she married Robert Couri, a technician with AT&T and a committed Catholic. “The standards which the Church sets came more naturally to him than to me,” Couri said of her husband. “This is actually the life-blood of our marriage. We frequently discuss Church teaching and how we both, in different ways, come to accept and obey it.”
The couple has been blessed with two children, ages one and three. Couri is now a sought-after pro-life speaker, and regularly shares her experience at churches and other venues. Recently, she made a presentation to a group of pro-life students at a medical school. Breen said the archdiocesan Respect Life Office recommends Couri for presentations because her story is an effective and unique one.
“Not only is she post-abortive, but she has worked on the other side of the abortion issue,” Breen said. “She can share a perspective that most pro-life people don’t have.”
Couri hopes her public speaking will help dissuade other young women from making the mistakes she once did. Talking to women considering abortion is something that must be done with great care, she says, and it must start with the counselor establishing a relationship with the woman. This involves talking specifically about the fears she has about having a child, and acknowledging that she has legitimate concerns. The woman must also be given the opportunity to discuss her relationship with the father of the child, as this can impact her feelings about her unborn child. “I imagine that she will have conflicting feelings,” Couri said about such a situation. “I would allow her to talk these out. In essence, I would work with her in choosing to have the baby. I would help her to identify her resources and support systems, and I would tap into the times in her life when she has been brave. I would help her to feel like a strong woman who is making the right choice; a hero, in a sense.”
Warning the woman about the regret she will have one day for killing her baby is often counterproductive, Couri believes, as it can add to her stress and lead to “emotional overload.”
Couri loves her job, and is pleased to be making a contribution to the work of the Church and the pro-life cause.
“I’m grateful I’m not living in the midst of a soul-crippling relativism that was once intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually devastating to me,” she said. “I thank God for all he has done in my life.”