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Pregnant Silence

[whitespace] statue Mourning Sickness: This graveyard shrine in Colma is used by some post-abortion counseling groups as the site of a memorial service for women have completed their pro-life Christian workbook activities, such as naming their unborn child and determining whether or not it had fingernails and teeth at the time of the abortion.

Christopher Gardner

Politics keeps pro-choice groups from admitting that some women need grief counseling after an abortion. Christian pro-lifers are happy to step into the void.

By Cecily Barnes

TRINA FLIPS OPEN her black-speckled journal and slides it across the table at Denny's in Sunnyvale. Her manicured fingernail points to a letter carefully penned in blue cursive.

"Dear God, one thing I will never be able to say to my baby is that I love him and that I'm truly sorry for what I have done. I will never be able to change his diaper, or give him his first bath or just hold him in my arms and rock him to sleep. ... I want to name my baby Johnny."

"At first I thought I wanted to name him Johnny," Trina slides a clump of wavy brown hair behind her ear and shrugs, "but it just didn't feel right, so I ended up not giving him a name."

The pretty 27-year-old brunette starts at the beginning of her painful tale. She had been a senior in high school when she became pregnant. All of her cousins had given birth at young ages, and her father never ceased to remind her how proud he was that his girl didn't go down that road. When she told her teenage boyfriend, he stuttered, suggested an abortion and then quickly disappeared. It wouldn't be long before Trina followed his advice.

After the procedure, Trina and her boyfriend split. School ended, and summer began. It would be eight years until she sought post-abortion counseling. Trina doesn't remember thinking about the incident while at DeAnza College. She took a series of general education classes, hung out in the bars after school and landed a job as an anesthesiologist's assistant. Then she met her current boyfriend and wound up pregnant a second time.

"I didn't tell him for like two weeks. I just kept thinking, 'I'm going to keep this one,' " Trina says.

Soon after the birth of the little girl, who is now 3, Trina and her boyfriend began having sexual, parenting and financial troubles. They began couples counseling.

"I was having problems sexually," she says shyly. "I guess it was because I felt a lot of guilt."

After one session, the therapist recommended that Trina seek individual counseling to resolve her feelings about the abortion. Her referral was to the Community Pregnancy Center in Los Altos.

Calling It 'Baby'

TRINA DIGS IN HER BROWN purse and hands me the book she used in her post-abortion counseling. Pink and glossy, the cover reads, "Forgiven and Set Free: A Post Abortion Bible Study for Women."

"I learned that everybody is human and we all do bad things," she explains. "But if you're really sorry, then you are forgiven."

The Community Pregnancy Center makes no secret of the fact that it is pro-life, but more importantly, counselors say, they are Christian and welcoming of all people.

Trina just knew she was broke and the therapy was free.

Having spent countless Sundays in church as a child, she figured that the Christian elements would be familiar and even comfortable. At least that's what she thought.

The first issue surfaced almost immediately when the counselors asked Trina about her "baby."

"That was the hardest thing for me, the whole time, thinking of it as an actual baby," she says. "When you go to Planned Parenthood, they don't ever actually say the word "baby."

But Trina figured her counselors knew what they were doing. She didn't object to their word choice, but she, at least in the beginning, stuck to words like "it" and "the abortion."

"Finally one time at the end, I did call it a baby, and she [my counselor] said, 'Wow, you've never called it that, you've really made a lot of progress,' " Trina says. "It was like a big deal."

Calling her abortion "her baby" was just the first uncomfortable hurdle for Trina. Other exercises soon followed.

"They asked me to trace back how old the baby was when I had the abortion, and whether it would have had arms or eyes or teeth. I didn't do that," she grimaces.

Trina refused to do this exercise. She says the counselors supported her decision.

In another chapter of her workbook, Trina was supposed to name her "baby." It was the ninth exercise of the workbook.

"I just couldn't decide on a name," she says apologetically.

When the workbook called for her to write her "baby" a letter, Trina randomly selected the name "Johnny."

Fetal Position

IN THE PLANNED PARENTHOOD clinic on The Alameda most women stare silently at the wall, munching abjectly on the complimentary saltine crackers placed next to the trademark brown paper sack that every abortion patient receives. The bag contains an instruction sheet with warning signs, antibiotics to protect against infection, and a new, hopefully more effective, method of birth control.

According to Sheila Kriefels, head counselor at San Jose's Planned Parenthood, most women rush out of the clinic relieved, never to return. And that is why, says Kriefels, limited counseling for post-abortion patients is offered.

For patients who request it, San Jose's Planned Parenthood offers one free counseling session followed by subsequent sessions based on a sliding-scale fee. The counseling takes place in an unmarked building across the intersection from the clinic, and much of the treatment is provided by interns working toward their counseling degrees.

But this post-abortion counseling is not promoted in Planned Parenthood's Yellow Pages advertisement, or even in their waiting room. Few of the clinic staff are even aware that it is offered.

Kriefels and director of clinic systems Terese Brennan-Marquez admit that the services could be beefed up and better advertised. Unfortunately, politics, the women suspect, may play a role in the clinic's failure to promote post-abortion counseling.

"One of the things that happens with the pro-choice profile is they think, if we provide counseling, if we feel we have to, then there's something wrong with providing people with this service [abortion]," Kriefels says. "Of course this is not true, because only 10 percent of women come back [for counseling]. But we don't want to give ammunition to the other side."

How would it look if the very people who provide abortions conceded that the service they offer might cause psychological harm?

"If those who support the right for a woman's choice acknowledge that there is an aftermath, then they have to say it might not be the best choice for women," says Vicki Thorn, president of the National Office of Post Abortion Reconciliation and Healing.

National Abortion Federation president Vicki Sapporta doesn't deny that clinics rarely counsel abortion patients, but says that it's not because of politics, but because of the facts. When the experts convened, producing an American Psychological Association study years ago, the results were clear--most women experience little, if any, psychological distress after an abortion. Rather, 76 percent of women feel "relief and happiness" afterward. Besides, when clinics used to offer post-abortion counseling, Sapporta says, nobody came.

Terry Beresford, who ran her own clinic for years, says that the women who sought post-abortion counseling did so because they already had severe psychological problems, mostly unrelated to the abortion.

"There's always some feelings attached to abortion, including some sadness and feelings of loss," Beresford says. "But research shows that women who are deeply troubled after abortion were deeply troubled before."

A 'Mixed-up' Issue

BUT THE PROBLEM FOR many women who have had an abortion is not severe psychological reactions, but a need to process their feelings of loss, feelings which can also accompany miscarriage. According to the American Psychological Association, 17 percent of women say they feel some guilt after their abortions. With approximately 1.4 million women receiving abortions each year, that's nearly 250,000 women.

What is clearly absent from the abortion scene is a support system for women who believe abortion needs to remain safe and legal, yet recognize that abortion can be a stressful and emotionally painful experience.

"It's not 'Rah, rah, I had an abortion, isn't this wonderful?' " says Anna Runkle, author of In Good Conscience: A Practical, Emotional and Spiritual Guide to Deciding Whether to Have an Abortion. "I'm a very strongly pro-choice person and I also feel that this is a very mixed-up issue."

Even Planned Parenthood's abortion supervisor Heather Smith admits she was very hesitant to accept her position, despite an unwavering commitment to a woman's right to choose.

Kriefels and Brennan-Marquez both confide that their personal views on abortion changed after having kids. Although she's 44 years old and it's not in the plans, Brennan-Marquez says she would not have an abortion if she became pregnant. Both women share these thoughts with some hesitation. When Brennan-Marquez admits that counseling can help women after an abortion, she waffles. "I hope I'm not representing the Planned Parenthood perspective," she says nervously.

Meanwhile, women like Trina and Heidi Waagen continue to be enticed by large pro-life advertisements. For some, the counseling offers healing; for others it inflames the wound.

Grave Confessions

HEIDI WAAGEN became pregnant for the first time at 18. Just accepted to art college and in a relatively new relationship, Waagen didn't think twice about having an abortion. Five years later, she was back at the clinic for a second abortion, pregnant by the same man, only this time as their relationship was ending. Waagen grimaces as she recalls that the doctor at the Santa Cruz Women's Choice Clinic remembered her from the previous abortion.

Three years later, the sadness inside Waagen over her two abortions grew dangerously large, and in despair she sought counseling at the Crisis Pregnancy Center in Santa Cruz.

"The first night we went around the room and told our story, why we were there. Abortion is usually treated so privately, and suddenly it was OK that you feel like there's something wrong," Waagen says.

The subsequent classes, for her, completed a healing journey. Much like Trina, Waagen learned that the fetus she aborted had been a baby, but God was all-forgiving and all-loving. He forgave her, too.

At the final class, Heidi stood before a table laden with blue and pink candles surrounded by her three classmates, two counselors and pastor Joe Childs. With soft music playing in the background, she eulogized her two babies whose lives ended through abortion, and told how the group helped her to grieve their loss and forgive herself. Then she lit one blue candle and one pink for her two aborted babies, whom she named Claire and Nathaniel. One week earlier, she had written her babies a note.

"I have always been afraid of never knowing you and it hurts most when I think that I gave up the opportunity to know you physically on this earth and share your lives with you," she wrote. "I want to thank Jesus for taking care of you and loving you so completely, even when I didn't know how to. I love you both so very much and I long for the day when I will hold you in Heaven." The note is signed, "Love, Mom."

Heidi shows me a pamphlet she made up just for the memorial service. The thin booklet names the babies being remembered and outlines the order of the service--prayers, song and speakers, much as the bereaved would do for a funeral for a family member.

Similar cathartic ceremonies are taking place around the Bay Area.

At Birthright in Marin County, a different young woman holds her memorial service at the beach, where she reads a poem to her child and then casts a plastic baby bottle into the sea. The bottle is filled with diaper pins and has been drilled with holes so that it will sink. She also tosses her medical card into the ocean, because to her it represents the abortion.

"These services have to be very tactile; you really have to get down and feel it," says Rita Widergren, a counselor at Birthright in San Anselmo. "Nobody wants to have the reality of those painful experiences, but when they do, it's very healing."

Memorial services and other counseling offered at pro-life centers try to address what University of Minnesota psychiatrist Dr. Anne Speckard deemed "post-abortion syndrome."

In her 1985 doctoral dissertation, Speckard compared this syndrome to that experienced by Vietnam veterans who suffer hallucinations, flashbacks and nightmares. In addition to these symptoms, Speckard wrote, women will have trouble sleeping and concentrating, become depressed and even experience physiologic responses, such as sweating and shaking, when in situations that remind them of the procedure, such as pelvic exams.

Although the American medical community does not acknowledge post-abortion syndrome as an actual psychological or physiological condition, crisis pregnancy centers say that women come to them often showing these symptoms. The symptoms are made worse, counselors say, because women are not allowed to feel bad in a society that simply won't accept post-abortion feelings. It's as if because women choose to abort, they can't feel bad about it. They made their bed and must now lie in it. Perhaps without knowing, Planned Parenthood counselor Sheila Kriefels offers a different version of this same thought.

"Half the battle is in the decision," she explains. "And Planned Parenthood has excellent pregnancy counseling. Once a woman makes a decision, if it's the right one, that's half the battle." Other pregnancy counselors reiterate this again and again. If a woman was properly counseled before, they say, she won't feel bad after.

Pro-life Propaganda

THIS, HOWEVER, WAS not the case with Vicki, a 44-year-old mother of two who had her second abortion last year. While she doesn't regret her choice to abort, she still feels sad, sometimes even distraught, and wishes there were an outlet to talk with others who feel the same.

Ironically, the child was due to be born on her 11-year-old son's birthday. "On his last birthday I told my son, 'Why don't you go out with your dad and we'll celebrate your birthday tomorrow.' Then I just went walking in the woods."

Vicki says she would go to a counseling group if there were any available. "There's just nobody out there that specializes in it," she says.

Except, of course, the crisis pregnancy centers. Vicki says she's turned off by the religious element and wouldn't want to go.

She's not alone in her distaste for these centers. Vicki Sapporta of the National Abortion Federation fears that such centers counsel women after abortion not out of magnanimous concern for all of God's creatures--even the greatest sinners--but out of a desire to promote their political message by converting more women to pro-life politics and Christianity. Why else would groups that actively oppose abortion open their arms to women who've chosen to abort?

"We are concerned with some of the counseling services that the antis are providing because they focus anger on the abortion provider," Sapporta says. "They tell women they have been misled and abused by the abortion providers, rather than reviewing with the women why they chose to have an abortion or talk with them about constructive ways of coping with any stress they're experiencing. It's basically not to help the women cope with that stress but to help advance the [pro-life] political agendas."

The national group Women Exploited by Abortion doesn't deny its anger toward abortion providers. "Women are told lies," writes the group's founder, Nancyjo Mann. "They are being patronizingly 'guided' to choose abortion for the convenience and profit of others."

Although crisis pregnancy centers strongly maintain that their only goal is helping women, the workbook used at some centers asks clearly leading questions.

"Are you resentful and unforgiving toward anyone for his or her involvement in your abortion? This might include parents, boyfriend, husband, the abortionist, or friends? Was there anyone by whom you felt deceived in your abortion experience?"

After thinking over these types of questions, Heidi Waagen realized she was extremely angry at her mom and boyfriend for their indifference. Rather than try to stop her, her mom and boyfriend both said they would support her in whatever she did. "I wish someone had just had the courage to try and stop me," she says. Waagen also became aware that she was furious with the clinic where the abortions were performed, Women's Choice in Santa Cruz. "All they asked me was one question, 'Do you want counseling?" Waagen recalls. "When I said no, that was it."

Trina came to believe that the nurses at Planned Parenthood were kind of "pushy."

"They pushed a little bit for the abortion," she says. When asked for specifics on what the nurses said or did to give that impression, Trina told about the help she received. "They helped me go and apply for Medi-Cal, but they didn't tell me, If you decide to keep it, here's where you can go."

Other women recall doctors turning the sonogram screen so they could not see their baby. Had the screen been visible, perhaps they would have changed their minds.

"The heart begins to beat after 21 days," Waagen shares. "They try to make you think it's just tissue, but it's not--it's a baby."

Wiggsy Sivertsen, head counselor at San Jose State University, worries about the effect that this type of counseling--calling the fetus a baby, holding memorial services and emphasizing the need for forgiveness--has on women.

"When you do something like that, you're saying, You killed somebody and now I'm going to help you recover from something that you've done. I think it's designed to highlight the fact that they have killed a child, and from my line of thinking that's diabolical," Sivertsen says. "I would strongly condemn that as a means of helping women heal from the event of women having an abortion. I would consider it very unprofessional."

Sivertsen acknowledged that in severe instances, such methods might be appropriate for a woman who for some reason felt very guilty about having a stillborn child or a spontaneous miscarriage, but not for women who made the choice themselves.

Vicki, Trina and Heidi all chose to abort and still feel the pain of that decision. Abortion may be simple medically, but for some women it's not so simple emotionally.

"Trina" is a pseudonym; she asked that her real name not be used.

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From the February 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro.

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