Salt Lake City, Utah -- December 2000 -- There's a peace in her eyes and an empathy in her face you can't fake. It comes from God, and nowhere else, she'll tell you. And you'll believe.
Sherry Semchuck knows what it's like to be in bondage, to have a secret you think is so dark that no one could ever understand or help take it away. No one but God.
This mother of four was once mother to others a boy and a girl. Luke would be 27, and Emma, 24. But she aborted them.
"I had my first abortion at 15. I got pregnant, and my parents made me do it. I didn't have any options. I felt guilty for being sexually active so I didn't fight it. . . . I remember asking the doctor whether it was a baby. He told me it was just a blob of tissue. . . . Then shortly after that I got depressed and switched schools. I got through school but didn't have any close friends. I told no one. It was just this secret between my parents and myself."
"The second time, I was 18 and had graduated. You find that many women have repeat abortions, because once you do it the roadblock is gone. You go into denial and stuff it in a place you know is there but you don't have to go back for it. Some people become irresponsible and use it as birth control. I know one woman who had seven abortions, and others who don't know how many they've had."
"I started doing a lot of drugs and drinking. I became promiscuous as a result to try to kill the pain. It's like I felt like an object. All I wanted to feel was valued and loved. I didn't go on to college. I had no ability to focus on what I wanted to do. I was stuck."
Teaching post-abortion counseling and education (PACE) classes at the Pregnancy Resource Center of Salt Lake, Semchuck regularly helps women deal with post-abortion syndrome. It's a term researchers use to describe "a woman's inability to: process the fear, anger, sadness and guilt surrounding her abortion; grieve the loss of her baby; and come to peace with God, herself and others involved in the abortion decision," according to a pamphlet distributed by Focus on the Family, a Christian non-profit organization that specializes in research on family issues.
The group is one of several national organizations reaching out to women who've had an abortion. Another is Feminists for Life, which focuses on helping women who find themselves dealing with a crisis pregnancy by providing resources for counseling and support.
According to the group's statistics, "one out of every five abortions is performed on a college woman." The group has established a college outreach program, sponsoring lectures and pregnancy resources forums at several major universities, though the group has yet to make an appearance in Utah.
Education is the key to helping women, according to Jacquie Markowski, director of the Pregnancy Resource Center. She said women with post-abortion syndrome experience many of the same kinds of symptoms that veterans deal with in post-traumatic stress disorder, including guilt, anxiety, psychological numbing, depression or thoughts of suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse.
Other symptoms grow out of the guilt: self-punishing or self-degrading behaviors, anniversary syndrome focusing around the date of the abortion and the due date of the aborted child, a preoccupation with becoming pregnant again, and an interruption of the bonding process with present or future children.
"At 20, I married the first man who came along. He was an alcoholic. We were married three years, and I had a little boy. I divorced when he was 18 months old and married again when he was 2 1/2. Now I have four kids, ages 20, 15, 13 and 9. You hear about how abortion affects your relationship with your children. I couldn't connect with them. I felt detached and angry at myself."
"And there's the avoidance behavior. I now have a hard time having a gynecological exam. For years, I didn't go because it would bring back those memories. After the birth of each baby, I'd have the mental image of each of those aborted babies at my breast, and I knew that two were missing."
"There is self-hatred. I didn't feel I deserved anything good that came my way. It affects every relationship you have, with my parents, my husband and kids. I had a fear of intimacy with my husband as well."
Semchuck and Markowski agree that the biggest hurdle most women face is forgiveness and that developing a relationship with Jesus Christ is a vital part of overcoming post-abortion syndrome. Freedom through forgiveness is part of the PACE program for women who come to the center looking for help.
Some have turned away from religion completely, while others feel like "second-class citizens" within their own faith community. Some believe their relationship with God is irreparable, while others feel they must "prove themselves" in order to find forgiveness. But even feeling forgiven by God can leave one more hurdle to cross.
"The biggest thing for me was forgiving myself. About 14 years ago, I accepted Jesus as my Savior and felt forgiven by him. I struggled to forgive myself."
"About six years ago, I felt it was time to go down to the Pregnancy Resource Center. I took the PACE class and went through it twice, once for each baby. Once I got through that, I went through training so I could lead the classes myself."
"If I could take a before and after picture of these women, you wouldn't believe the difference. In the beginning, it's that guilt and shame that ties them to their baby."
"I think of the story of Lazarus (in the Bible), coming back from the dead already wrapped in these burial clothes. These women are so tightly wrapped in their grave clothes they can't free themselves. That's what God does with these women. He allows them to live and walk in victory. It's just amazing to see the transformation. . . . I think we're sick because of the secrets we keep."
Once the three-month class has been completed and the memorial service held, Semchuck said, women have given their aborted children a name and embraced them as a once-living person who is now dead. Those who believe in Christ and an afterlife have the added belief that they will one day see those children again. Do they fear such a reunion and wonder what they'll say? How do the surviving children cope?
"I've already talked to my children about my choices and what I did. They all know, and we've cried and I asked them to forgive me for aborting their brother and sister. I think it was a hard thing, and they know we don't believe in it, but it was a choice I made way back. They have forgiven me and now see what I'm able to gain through the privilege of ministering to other women who are where I was."
"Seeing my babies again is something I really look forward to, and it's going to be wonderful. I think they already know why I made the decision I made, and it's OK."
"There's a CD we use as part of the group that includes a song called 'The Choice' by a woman who went through this herself. One of the verses is the child talking to his mother, and it says, 'I don't remember why I never had the chance to be in your arms.' I believe we will have that conversation, and we'll just hold each other, and there will be no more pain or tears."
[Moderator's Note: The following is part two of a two-part special on providing hope and healing to women who have experienced the pain of abortion and desire reconciliation and forgiveness.]
Salt Lake City, UT -- The women stand silently outside the old home, heads slowly rising with the pink and blue helium balloons that have escaped their grasp and ascend skyward.
Sherry Semchuck is surrounded by children Sarah, left, Sam and Grace. Semchuck, who had two abortions as a teen, teaches classes at the Pregnancy Resource Center.
Bobbing lightly on the breeze, each balloon's buoyancy belies the burden it represents to a woman who has carried her secret sorrow for years, even decades, inside her heart. Pink for girls, blue for boys, the balloons represent the children that once were conceived inside each woman and then -- for a variety of reasons -- aborted. And their trip to the heavens is the final letting go, a goodbye to the initial denial, and then the anguish, that has trapped and tormented the women all these years.
As the string slips through each woman's fingers, it becomes a physical, emotional and spiritual release that says "I've owned my actions, I've grieved over the child that never was born, and though I'll never forget, I will forgive myself and move on."
It's the final act in their journey to "let go and let God" take care of their lives.
After the last balloon has drifted out of site, they clutch a tiny T-shirt bearing the name each has given her aborted child, along with a personal keepsake like a baby blanket, a poem or a pair of booties. While the items will never replace the unborn child, they provide an acknowledgement of its existence -- and something physical to hold on to.
The balloon release is the final act in a ceremony that culminates weeks of intense self-examination and sharing, of grieving and caring for others caught in the same snare of sorrow and pain. In most cases, it took years for these women to even realize that abortion was at the root of their continuing despair.
"Most of our post-abortive clients are 20 to 30 years out. As they look back on their lives and pinpoint the abortion, in so many it has been the cause of trouble in their lives," says Jacquie Markowski, director of the Pregnancy Resource Center of Salt Lake. "It's more than the guilt, the shame and the anniversary syndrome they've been dealing with -- mentally identifying time frames when their child would be taking his first step, going to preschool or graduating."
"They find it in relationship problems where they can't get along with men, have a hard time relating to children, and they feel this big time anger. And lots of the things they're dealing with will come out in little ways."
Some post-abortive women "go extreme in helping with causes like save the whales, animal rights or conservation," Markowski said. "A lot of people go out and want to save things to compensate for their own loss. They get pretty fired up, and some become very radical. Then there's the other type of person that just stuffs it inside and might deal with it through alcohol and substance abuse."
As the 28th anniversary of Roe vs.. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, approaches in January, more than 40 million abortions have been performed in the United States alone, making it the most common medical procedure available. Statistics show that one in four American women has had at least one abortion.
"That means anytime you sit in a crowd of people, there are women around you who have gone through this -- and so many of them are hurting," said Sherry Semchuck, who had two abortions years ago and now leads recovery groups at the Pregnancy Resource Center.
There were 3,237 abortions reported in Utah in 1998, as opposed to 45,128 live births, according to Debby Carapezza at the Utah Department of Health. She said the majority of abortions were done at the state's two primary abortion facilities, the Wasatch Women's Center and the Utah Women's Clinic. "Private doctors can also do [abortions], but the majority are done at one of those two clinics," Carapezza said.
Though the topic of post-abortion regret has long been shielded from widespread public discussion, there are signals that things are changing to allow a more open dialogue. A recently aired episode of the popular television series, "Touched by an Angel," was centered around post-abortive syndrome.
Classes for post-abortive women at the Pregnancy Resource Center focus on every aspect of a woman's emotional and spiritual healing, Markowski said, and allow the women the privacy they need in the company of others who understand. Meetings are held weekly in the evenings, and the groups are intentionally kept small -- generally about six women -- to facilitate the kind of deep grief work that results from years of guilt and shame.
The center is one of 600 non-profit Care-Net centers across the United States and Canada, which offer help with crisis pregnancy counseling and support as well as post-abortive care.
Women aren't the only victims when it comes to abortion, Markowski said. A male class is also offered in some parts of the country for men who have been party to an abortion and don't believe anyone will understand their anger or the guilt that causes it. " We're trying to get a men's group going here. They have lost babies through abortion, and they are not happy with that either."
Men generally have a more difficult time talking about how they feel, but Semchuck is convinced that abortion regret is part of the reason "there are so many angry men walking around out there." Anger and rage are common male coping mechanisms, she said, while women instead become depressed.
Privacy is paramount for participants, many of whom have never told anyone that they had an abortion, so the center takes pains to help clients deal with their pain in a non-threatening atmosphere with others they don't know. "That makes us attractive. They can come to us and talk freely because we're not here to gossip but to help. . . . What the program does is help them to go back into their memory." The groups are non-denominational, though the course work is Christian-based and involves healing through seeking and obtaining forgiveness from God. Markowski said people of all faiths are welcome, and participants from any faith or no religious belief would be allowed to substitute their own version of God or a divine power in working through their grief. Discussions center around a Christ-based curriculum that emphasizes prayer and forgiveness, culminating with a final memorial service to acknowledge the children that were never born. The service, which is led by an invited member of the clergy, helps bring finality to the process. "Because we're human we need tangible things to deal with grief. That's why we have funerals. Our memorial service puts life to that child that was just a memory of painful suffering all these years. These women are able to memorialize the baby, accept God's forgiveness and (figuratively) bury the baby with prayer and praise. . . . It's a very intimate, very sacred and solemn occasion. Sometimes there's a lot of joy and laughter mixed with tears because there is freedom coming out of anguish."
You can help women suffereing for a past abortion to find hope, healing, and forgiveness. Pregnancy Centers Online (http://www.pregnancycenters.org) provides an extensive listing of post-abortion ministries as well as on-line counseling from post-abortion experts. Please link to www.pregnancycenters.org on your web page or refer women to the Help After Abortion section of the web site.