The key to moving on from the pain and loss is awareness and understanding  

  Newsletter Excerpts 2011 

There Is No Getting Away From It

The abortion debate has raged around the moral right and wrong, human rights and political aspects. Regardless of people’s positions there is no getting away from the fact that terminating a pregnancy is terminating a preborn human life, either very early or later in its development. It’s how people choose to view this reality, and why they view it the way they do, that is the real question that requires understanding.

It is curious exploring the different “positions” around abortion and wondering what they are saying and what they mean for the people who hold them. Even more interesting is learning the stories of how people come to have their different perspectives and what holds them to their position in relation to the idea or practice of abortion. Following are some reflections and questions to ponder along with me.

Claiming the unborn child to be defenceless and militantly fighting for its rights, without compassion or consideration for the rights or wellbeing of the mother, makes one feel righteous, but can also make one judgemental. Extreme pro-lifers who justify violence for the cause, abuse and threaten those involved in abortions, or make actual attempts on their lives - how is that pro-life and how do such actions effect change?

What happens in and for people who wholeheartedly believe abortion is not the destruction of a life, those who frame it up as somehow innocuous like removing a tooth? Or claiming that a life is not human until after birth? And calling the developing human embryo or foetus merely a bunch of cells, or talking medical speak about products of conception, the pregnancy, removing the gestational sac, second trimester termination, reduces the offspring to a nothing and the experience of the loss of a baby to something common or insignificant - what’s that about? Is framing up abortion in this way, a means to make it easier to accept abortion as the simplest solution to the problem of unplanned pregnancy, which appears to have become our cultural norm? Any mention of the reality of what abortion actually does, and what it can mean for those affected, is often perceived as a threat and it would seem opposing notions must be annihilated along with the life.

Whether from an altruistic origin or whether associated with a personal experience, some in a pro-abortion position have a genuine concern for the welfare of women and the understanding of how difficult it can be for those facing an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. There is a knowing that in this situation women who are desperate will resort to drastic measures, some of which put them at huge risk, and this triggers a sense of injustice. What issues from this position and thinking? Is there a sense that the women’s needs are great and the reality of the child and his/her rights or needs are less important of health professionals who struggle with personal feelings around the practice of abortion, especially later stage terminations of pregnancy. For numbers of doctors and staff at abortion clinics or hospitals, the participation in abortion procedures is unpleasant and also traumatic at some level. Often a sense of detachment, enables them to perform their professional duty with something they may find difficult and conflicting. Some may do it just for the money, but usually there is an underlying assumption or belief that is also at play and that may be a motivating factor? How are health professionals supported and where are they able to acknowledge or talk about their experiences and how they feel around assisting in abortion processes and procedures?

We acknowledge that many post abortive parents continue on with life with few repercussions. For them the focus is about adjusting and coping afterwards and there is often no real thought about what has occurred. This works for many, but for others, cracks appear in their defences either sooner or later, and there is a sense of there is no escaping the reality.

Those who we journey with in our healing work, when they acknowledge the reality of what occurred in their abortion their natural grief often surfaces and they come to realise the trauma of it. In those moments the denial of all that supported the decision is broken, and often they with it. Others present with a head acknowledgement of the reality of the termination of the pregnancy and/or the life lost therein, without any emotional connection to that reality. This is a necessary protection for many, for to confront the reality can be too overwhelming or distressing. Psychological defence mechanisms are employed to help us manage such extraordinary and painful situations in life, and emotions and trauma can be suppressed for along time. If however at some point these are triggered then people may need help to work through their grief and trauma. This is not a new or strange phenomenon, this is how it happens with any difficult change, painful loss or traumatic life event.

In any event, how people adapt after an abortion, or how we choose to frame it up in our various roles, does not change the reality of what occurs in the procedure!

These are some of my reflections and wonderings evolved over time, raising more questions than it gives answers. What are your thoughts? What position do you hold, and how have you come to that place? How does this affect the way you engage with others who hold a different belief and have another perspective?

- Carolina Gnad

Back To Top

Respecting Life - inside and out

This article was first published in Wellington, 09/10/2011

Working as a volunteer at Arohata Women’s Prison has given me uncomfortable insights into how hard it can be to ‘respect life’.

I was called in to work in my capacity as a pregnancy counsellor with women who don’t qualify to keep their babies with them in the prison system. My job is to prepare these women for the birth of their babies and for the separation which will inevitably follow. It is work that involves deep grief and at times, very brief glimpses of hope.

I see women inmates during their pregnancy and continue with them after the birth of their babies. In this time we look at grief and loss focusing on their separation from their newborn baby. Inevitably the counselling uncovers in depth, hurts and atrocities often with gang and drug associations. We often talk about bigger losses women experience – the loss of a child through abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth. These pregnancy losses are unspoken and the silence in these women who have a history of other secret hurts such as sexual abuse ripples through all their behaviour. Abortion often triggers an immediate escalation to drug abuse and other self-destructive behaviours—cutting, bizarre piercings or tattooing, food or alcohol abuse, repeatedly destructive relationships. It can be a long list.

These women are brutally honest. They speak about their regrets in life, their losses, the events that lead them to prison and their children lost through abortion. They mostly have no hope that things could ever be different and feel this is what they deserve. There are very few people in their lives to tell them anything different. In our Justice system they feel forgotten about and unimportant; punished, damaged, unforgiven and unforgivable.

The women in Arohata are not the only ones in prison.

I work in pregnancy counselling and post-abortion counselling throughout Wellington. This brings me into contact with all sorts of women, and men, who don’t understand what abortion has brought into their lives or how to resolve the issues of unrecognised loss that simply won’t go away.

Those hurt by abortion cannot rewrite their history, but they can change their future. Each abortion story is complex and personal; it is isolating and lonely. To allow someone to break their silence and take up the offer of being brought to wholeness, is an act of great compassion and in my view, the Church’s greatest gift.

- Wendy Hill

Back To Top

Abortion is part of the Spectrum of Pregnancy-Baby Loss

Miscarriage, stillbirth, induced labour for foetal abnormality or health issues for the mother, neonatal death or a cot death or early death by accident or illness are obvious and widely accepted and acknowledged within the spectrum of pregnancy-baby loss.  Less widely acknowledged is loss inherent in emergency surgery for removal of an ectopic pregnancy, multifoetal pregnancy reduction or loss associated with adoption. Abortion as an intentional termination of pregnancy is rarely addressed as a pregnancy-baby loss.

Miscarriage implies unexpected and sometimes unexplained loss. Common feelings include sudden shock and horror of it happening, a questioning why, a blaming of self or wondering what is wrong with me. Loss of a dream is very real and there may be heightened anxiety around future ability to conceive or maintain a pregnancy. Generally, the more a baby was wanted the more intense the feelings accompanying a miscarriage.

There is a cruel sense of birth as death in stillbirth. Expected or unexpected it was not meant to happen this way. Shock, disbelief, anger.... The bereaved parent may experience guilt, loss of trust in the divine or in self, a betrayal by life, anxiety or dread of future pregnancies, helplessness, possibly a sense of being punished but “for what”?

In both miscarriage and stillbirth the womb has become a tomb and that experience can be deep and profound. Today the grief for these losses may be openly expressed, though for many it may not be terribly well supported for the duration. Comments such as “it wasn’t meant to be” “time heals”“you can have another child” “it’s time to move on” “give it all to God” are not uncommon and may not be helpful. Bereaved mothers, and fathers, are often expected to be staunch as if this were only a minor blipp on the landscape, and this can be more for the sake of others who are unsure how to handle it.

Neonatal death (from prematurity, illness, cot death, or accident) can feel like a sudden tragedy. It too may be unexpected and possibly unexplained. There is usually a sense of shock, unfairness, emptiness. Having a brief time with baby, experiencing a bonding and some memories and then the wrench. There are lost dreams for parent and wider family, and there may be lots of questioning in the search for answers. Issues of self blame or blaming others can be huge. There may be degrees of anger or rage at losing a “wanted” child.

Adoption loss is often seen as the most devastating. Adoption is seen as an unpopular choice for unplanned pregnancy. Many women with an unplanned pregnancy feel the thought of carrying the baby to term and then “giving the baby away” as abhorrent and impossible. The thought is one of continuing the pregnancy and a sense of abandoning the baby after birth, and this may be regarded as something unworthy of being a mother.  Fear for the baby’s life situation or outcomes, or fear for self with the complication of having a child out there, our legacy around Closed Adoptions and a lack of information or understanding of Open Adoption in New Zealand go a long way to assuming  adoption as undesirable. That adoption can be a loving and viable option does not appear to really  be promoted or worked through fully with parents considering their options in our current climate.

Emergency surgery for the removal of an ectopic pregnancy, and multifoetal pregnancy reduction, are often dismissed or minimised as inconsequential, as if the baby was non-existent and the surgery merely a necessary medical intervention. The reality that a pregnancy ended, and dare I say a life terminated and therefore a grief being valid, is somehow overshadowed by the medical imperatives.

Abortions, usually written off for mental health reasons but actually occuring for more social or personal reasons, have been relegated apart in terms of being accepted and acknowledged as part of the spectrum of pregnancy-baby loss. If it were viewed within that spectrum of specific losses would so many agree to or succumb to a procedure that can have deep, significant and lasting impacts?

Some who anticipate the loss and attempt to prepare for it may fare better but can still come to grief. For what they incur in abortion, with the intentional termination of a pregnancy, is often  greater conflicts and dissonance with the self, deeper disturbance in the psyche and ruptured relationships that actually may not be so easily mended. More careful therapeutic exploration of what the abortion as a pregnancy-baby loss in a person’s life could mean in real terms mentally, emotionally, spiritually, socially, relationally... in the decision making phase may be preferable.

No one can anticipate what an abortion experience will be like and mean until after the event. Sadly for numbers of women and men it was not what they expected. And what’s more they remain isolated and their pain remains hidden as their experiences and losses are not socially recognised or validated.

- By Carolina Gnad

Back To Top

Case Illustration from Complicated Mourning

- by Anne Speckhard 1992

“A 21 year old single female patient presented for therapy over an eating disorder of three years duration, beginning shortly after an abortion occurring at age 19. Upon exploration of the abortion, the patient remarked, “It was just one of those things. I wish it wouldn’t have happened that way, but I don’t see how that could have any bearing on what I’m dealing with now. I had to get that abortion, I didn’t have any other choice. I was in college and I would have had to drop out otherwise.” 

The patient was invited to consider discussing any thoughts or feelings about the abortion that may have been related to the onset of her eating disorder. At first she was reticent, but in a matter of weeks she began remembering and sharing more of her feelings about her abortion. The patient alternated between remembering intense feelings of attachment to the fetal child while denying any long-term impact, stating that she knew the abortion was the right thing to do. She continued to deny until asked about her thoughts and feelings during the abortion. In tears she recounted, “When I was up on the table I felt this terrible panic inside, and I wanted to scream and say, ‘Stop, don’t do this,’ but I knew     it was too late.  It was like I could feel my baby panicking inside, trying to get away.  It was horrible, too horrible for words.  Then I just felt an emptiness and I knew my baby was dead, that it was over.  I felt so alone and I wished I could be dead too.  Now I feel like my uterus is a tomb and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to have children.”

As the patient dealt with her feelings of loss over the abortion and her guilt and anger, at herself and others, for not protecting the fetal child, her eating disorder was no longer utilized to manage the intrusive recall and she began to openly mourn her loss.”

The traumatic potential of any pregnancy baby loss is often overlooked by clinicians and researchers.

More recent research in traumatology highlights the interpretative nature of the trauma response. Not every pregnancy loss or interruption of pregnancy is experienced as a traumatic death. Indeed, for many women, such events may not even be considered losses but the potential is there. Much depends on how the event is defined by the woman. When it is perceived by the woman as involving a human death event, particularly when parental attachment to the deceased has occurred, the experience very closely conforms to the DSM-IV criteria (1994) for defining a trauma. Central to the criteria is that the event involves “actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity, or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or the threat to the physical integrity of another person.” Accordingly, the stressor capable of producing trauma is usually experienced with “intense fear, helplessness or horror”.  Such emotions are not uncommon with many pregnancy loss experiences. The degree of trauma or potential trauma will vary depending on the situation, individual psyche, supports, attachment and perception aspects.


  1. (http://www.annespeckhard.com/publications/Death_in_Pregnancy.pdf - chapter 4 in book Death and Trauma - Figley, Bride and Mazza, Publishers: Taylors & Francis)

Back To Top

Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats - Healing for the Grief / Trauma of Abortion

The RV Retreats are a warm, safe and loving environment with a retreat team who guide and support retreatants using an integrated psychological and spiritual approach.

First of three Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats for 2011 delivered   

- by Suzanne O’Rourke

The first of three Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats to be offered in the Wellington region in 2011 has been achieved, despite the complications of earthquakes, travel difficulties and personal loss which looked set to deter some attendees.

The Wellington-based Retreats draw on Team members from Wellington, Tauranga and Christchurch, while Retreat participants come from all over New Zealand.

“When people begin to recognise that they can truly let go of an abortion experience they have carried, often in secret for many years, they tend to find their faith tested,” says Retreat Facilitator, Wendy Hill.  “It is so humbling to see people turn up to a Retreat uncertain, but none-the-less they come in whatever faith they have.”

While Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats are a ministry of the Catholic Church, there is no particular group or faith-background among Retreat participants.  Those on a Retreat weekend will be drawn by their experience of pregnancy loss, usually but not exclusively, through abortion.  Emotions around unexpected pregnancy are often very complicated; particularly if there has been a previous history of abortion.  

The pain of turning away from a pregnancy leaves a very deep and often secret grief.  Retreat Participants find their grief acknowledged and a new sense of themselves, their child and their family emerge.   “It is amazing to see the work of the Holy Spirit in this and how deeply some are touched and changed,” says Wendy.

According to a recent Retreat participant, “I still can’t really say the word abortion, and I don’t want to.  But what I can feel, which I couldn’t before, is a sense of my complete family and an amazing sense of love.  I didn’t know what to expect, so this has surprised me.  I am beginning to feel really strong.  I feel safe and I feel much softer.”

For more information contact Wendy Hill (Co-ordinator)
Phone: 04 974 8693 or 027 733 2990
Email info@rachelsvineyard.org.nz  Website www.rachelsvineyard.org.nz

 Back To Top
Home | Counselling & Support | Resources & Links |
© Copyright P.A.T.H.S. NZ - April 2002