In the wake of the Roe v. Wade ruling of the Supreme Court in 1973, it became clear to those in pro-life work that some sort of ministry was required to help women suffering from the far-reaching ramifications of legalized abortion. Thirty years ago this week, Vicki Thorn launched Project Rachel to meet that need.
Catholic World Report spoke with Thorn about how Project Rachel got started and the fruit of its three decades of service to women, men, and children affected by the scourge of abortion.
CWR: Tell us about Project Rachel. How did it get started? Thirty years out, does it look anything like you expected it to when you began?
Thorn: I had a friend in high school before abortion was legal who had an abortion arranged by her mother in a major metropolitan hospital. I learned later that my friend had placed a baby for adoption prior to this. Her situation was one of the hard cases because her brother was the father of the second baby and, I had a hunch, the first baby. We attended a day school/boarding school and she was a boarder. Her mom had gone there and I think she sent my friend there to try and protect her. Anyway, I listened to my friend talk about her pain for years and felt utterly helpless to assist her. She ended every conversation with the same two sentences. “I can live with the adoption. I can’t live with the abortion!” Those words are etched in my heart to this day.
We moved to Milwaukee where I took a job in the Respect Life Office of the diocese. While the blueprint for the diocesan pro-life work was contained in the 1975 Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities issued by the US bishops, which called for a ministry of healing after abortion, no one knew what that looked like and how to make it happen. It took me from 1977 to 1984 to assemble enough expertise to sponsor a training for our priests and Catholic Charities. When I proposed putting this together to my boss, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, OSB, his response was enthusiastic and totally supportive. He told me he would give me whatever money I needed to make this happen. His vision made this possible!
The day of the training, someone told the press about the newly developed post-abortive ministry. The next morning, it made the front page of the local newspaper as the lead story, thanks to a religion reporter who had had a friend who had had an abortion. There were only a few people at the training who knew about the ministry and to this day I think it was my archbishop who told the reporter. We were going to announce the ministry in about six weeks when all the pieces were in place. That day, however, the press around the world picked up the story and passed it on. It was September 19, 1984, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that someone told me that that is the Feast of Our Lady of La Salette, the Consolation of Sinners, who is often pictured as a weeping Madonna.
Today, Project Rachel is an outreach of a diocese with the blessing of the bishop with a contact referral number and email located in a diocesan office. There is a network of specially trained priest confessors, mental health professionals, spiritual directors, medical professionals, and others who provide on-going, one-on-one, confidential care to those who come. We recognize that the wounds of abortion are deep and that many times there are other issues that need to be addressed as well. This holistic approach allows us to meet the needs of any one who comes, on their timetable. Over time, retreat models and days of reflection have been developed and added to the outreach of a diocese as their resources allow.
Honestly, when I began it, I thought it would be a nice local ministry. I never anticipated what has happened. Its universality astonishes me to this day.
CWR: How did you come up with the name? Why Rachel?
Thorn: We needed a name that spoke to the problem and that didn’t have the word abortion in it. Women could not bring themselves to even say the word. The name comes from the Old Testament, Jeremiah 31:15-17. To paraphrase the passage, Rachel is mourning her children who are no more. God says: “Cease your cries! They have been heard. There is hope for your future.”
The message of “hope for your future” is the message of Project Rachel. When we advertised, we always put the passage there for people to see.
CWR: What sort of fruit have you seen since its inception?
Thorn: The ministry spread to other dioceses very quickly. Many had all spoken about the need for this, but once there was a model, others quickly adopted it. At this time, it is in the majority of dioceses in the US and the USCCB has assumed oversight responsibility! They can provide so much more for resources!
CWR: Project Rachel hasn’t just been implemented in the US, but beyond. Describe how other countries are using the model.
Thorn: The wounds of abortion are the same regardless of the culture! I’ve been blessed to go travel as far as China and train caregivers there, as well as in India. The wound is that of a mother who has lost her child in a traumatic and unnatural fashion. As a Church we can bring mercy and healing!
Over the years, I have been invited to speak about the ministry in 25 countries. We have done a training in Rome, and a woman from Romania rode the bus for 40 hours one way to come and hear about it, and then brought me to Romania to introduce the work there in the Byzantine, Roman, and Orthodox churches. To my knowledge, there is not another bishops’ conference that has adopted it in the same way it is here, but it took more than 25 years for it to happen here. There is a great deal of interest in various countries. The only continent in which it has not been formally introduced is Africa.
There is a book that was published by Libreria Editrice Vaticano, the Vatican Publishing house, entitled Il Progetto Rachele Il Volto della Compassione or Project Rachel: The Face of Compassion, with a preface by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. So far it is only in Italian, but other translations are being discussed.
CWR: Project Rachel seems to be geared toward post-abortive women. What about men involved in abortion?
Thorn: In the beginning Project Rachel was geared towards women, but I quickly encountered fathers who also talked about their pain! We have been blessed with the support of the Knights of Columbus, who have sponsored two conferences on men dealing with abortion. We had no idea that biologically men are changed by pregnancy if they are with their partner. The wounds of men are a little different depending on his role in the abortion. There is a web site people can go to read more: www.menandabortion.info
For every one of the 50 million abortions in this country, there is a woman and a man involved. Men are dismissed in our society when it comes to pregnancy. The pain of many men is very deep and they don’t feel they can talk about it because they “aren’t supposed to” have feelings.
We also discovered that other family members and friends call looking for help, too: the grandparents of the lost child who may have been responsible for forcing the abortion or found out after the fact; the siblings who might know and who in fact carry cells from children who occupied the womb before they did; people who were almost aborted and survived call. The friends who might have been part of the experience call and even former abortion providers call. It is interesting that many of them have their own abortion story. No one is untouched!
CWR: How has Project Rachel affected your own life? Has your perspective on abortion and post-abortive women changed all?
Thorn: The more I learned about the biology, psychology, and spirituality associated with healing post-abortive women and men, I became convinced that abortion is good for no one! I have become more aware of the significance of the pregnancy in lives of women and men and am in awe of that. The fact that women carry cells from every child they ever conceive (called microchimerism) is astonishing. In fact, if there is an abortion or miscarriage, there are more cells transferred and retained in the woman’s body throughout her life. That means that abortion is never an insignificant event just from a biological perspective. It is impossible to forget. The fact that cells are passed to other offspring raises more questions of biological knowledge. The discoveries of how men are biologically engaged in pregnancy is another amazing fact.
Project Rachel led me to study more about bereavement, prenatal loss, spiritual direction, and a myriad of other things I would have never thought about. I discovered that my degree in psychology wasn’t enough to help me understand the pain of abortion and how to help someone. It led me also to look at other cultures and understand how the problem of abortion loss is understood and how the culture mourns. I was stunned to discover that since the 1950s, temples in Japan have special mourning ceremonies for those who had abortions. They believe that the spirit of an aborted child cannot be reincarnated and they create mischief in their families! Abortion’s aftermath of pain, sorrow, and loss is culturally universal.
My involvement in this work has led me to truly appreciate God’s mercy and tender care of each of us. As St. Augustine said: “as though there were only one of us.” When women and men take the step of giving God permission to heal them, God is always faithful. When we are wounded, we tend to keep God at arm’s length, believing that our sin is too great for God. That God would reject us! When we come with a repentant heart, the Father of Mercies is waiting for us.
I have also been blessed to meet incredible priest confessors who reflect the face of Jesus to the wounded who come to them and multitudes of others involved in this work who are extraordinary caregivers!
CWR: What do you perceive to be the next step? If you had unlimited resources, are there other projects or programs you would add to Project Rachel?
Thorn: Every year it is estimated that more than 50 million abortions happen in the world. This is an enormous soul wound in our world. In this time of the New Evangelization, this is a necessary ministry as we reach out to people with the Good News. It isn’t just helping them to hear the Good News, but they need to have a personal encounter with our Merciful God. Project Rachel helps this to happen.
In light of this, the next step is to help other countries organize their own ministries. I would like to do a Project Rachel training in Poland. It will be called the Bishop Jan Chrapek Conference in honor of the Polish priest who was staying with us when Project Rachel began. He first told us how much Poland and Eastern Europe needed this ministry because of all the abortions that took place during Communist times. Hosting it in Poland for all the Eastern Bloc countries would make it easier for representatives from other countries to come. The average woman in Russia has had 9 abortions. … I will never forget the woman who rode the bus 40 hours to come to Rome from Romania. The need is so great.
Secondly, I want to meet with Mother Superiors of congregations that serve in the Second and Third World countries to convince them to have their communities take post-abortion healing on as a charism. In those countries, the women do not have access to mental health professionals. The sisters are on the front lines, as I discovered in India, China, and South American countries. Recently, I met a sister from Ghana and sisters and priests from other African nations who would love to see this, but I need to raise the travel money because these dioceses are so poor.
I would also like to see materials translated into other languages so they can be of more use, which would require the assistance of good translators.
CWR: After all these years of helping post-abortive women heal, what is your best advice to a woman in that painful situation?
Thorn: Begin your healing journey! Say a prayer that goes like this: “God, I give you permission to heal me!” We remember the painting of Jesus knocking on the door and recall what was wrong with the picture…there is no doorknob on Jesus’ side. We need to risk opening the door of our heart to the Lord. Healing is possible! God wants to restore our broken motherhood to us and to embrace us with his mercy and Love! Don’t be afraid! There is hope for your future!
I’d also like to say to those who work so hard to protect the unborn, that when they speak about the evil of abortion, they need to always include the news of God’s healing! People who are healed after their abortions are never supportive of abortion. They become incredible advocates for life!
Saint John Paul II said the following in Evangelium Vitae, Section 99:
I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.
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