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Groups support those who regret abortions

Sunday, January 20, 2002

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Georgette Forney comes to Rachel's Garden to grieve for the child who never was, to let herself wonder what their lives would have been like had she made another choice when she was 16 and scared.

Georgette Forney wipes away a tear as she visits Rachel's Garden at Calvary Cemetery in Hazelwood. Forney, who aborted her child when she was 16, went through a post-abortion healing group many years later and now offers such ministry to other women who have had abortions. Places such as Rachel's Garden, where mothers can place a memorial stone with the child's first name and the year of the abortion, provide a tangible way for women to remember their aborted babies and mourn them. Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

She sees the child as a girl, but she has not placed a stone engraved "Elizabeth -- 1976" in this special section of Calvary Cemetery in Hazelwood.

Six years ago, Forney, 41, of Sewickley, did hold a memorial service after completing a program for post-abortion healing. Now she offers online support to others who regret an abortion.

"Women are feeling pain, but they suffer in silence. It's a forbidden grief," she said.

Opponents of abortion have offered support to women who have had abortions since at least the early 1980s. The goal is not to feel better about the abortion, but to grieve, express remorse and move on. Most of the groups are Christian, and the best known -- Project Rachel -- is Catholic.

No one keeps count of those who have sought help from post-abortion healing ministries. By all estimates, the number is small compared with the more than 1 million abortions done annually since abortion was legalized 29 years ago this week.

Founded in 1984, Project Rachel is in 145 Catholic dioceses. Its name comes from the biblical account of King Herod slaughtering babies in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." (Matt. 2:18)

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has had Project Rachel since 1990. Its mainstays are a telephone line and e-mail address for confidential conversation and referrals to therapists, support groups and specially trained priests.

Sue Rauscher, director of the diocesan Department of Social Awareness, answers the e-mail and the phone.

Most calls concern an abortion that took place seven to 10 years earlier. Most are from women who have had abortions, but some are boyfriends, husbands or parents. Rauscher works with 40 to 60 clients annually.

Some callers pour out regret for an abortion, others aren't sure what's bothering them, she said. Those with an immediate crisis, such as an addiction, suicide threats or a crumbling marriage, are sent to professional therapists. Some want to see a priest. Others aren't Catholic.

The Rev. Frank Almade, diocesan secretary for social concerns, is one of 15 Pittsburgh priests who work with Project Rachel. Apart from that, he said, only two women in 20 years had ever confessed an abortion to him.

Canon law lists excommunication as the penalty for abortion. But it also says that no one can be excommunicated for a sin that they committed out of fear, under duress, when they were under age or if they did not know what they were doing. Because he considers those common among women who have had abortions, Almade believes that excommunication would only apply to someone in the business of providing abortions.

  Tighter security planned for march

About 6,000 abortion opponents from Allegheny and adjoining counties are expected to travel to Washington, D.C., Tuesday for the annual March for Life, which protests the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

The number of local marchers is down from 125 busloads last year to 112 busloads this year, probably due to safety concerns stemming from Sept. 11, said Helen Cindrich, president of People Concerned for the Unborn Child.

"We have meetings scheduled with all of our legislators and we are expecting tighter security for that," she said.

Transportation is available by calling Mary Lou Gartner at 412-793-0807.

Catholic Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh will be in Washington for the march. But Auxiliary Bishop David Zubik will celebrate a Respect for Life Mass at noon Tuesday in St. Mary of Mercy Church, Downtown.


Women who confess an abortion already feel bad about it, he said.

"In 99 to 100 percent of these cases, you don't need to tell people that they've done wrong or committed a terrible sin. What they need to hear is God's mercy," Almade said.

Forney never considered any option but abortion when she became pregnant in her junior year of high school. She didn't want to disappoint her parents. She thought a baby would ruin her chances of marriage. Her older siblings helped her arrange and conceal an abortion.

She was not raised in any faith. She was never told that abortion was wrong, but it didn't feel right.

The next morning "I told myself that what happened yesterday was just a bad dream. It didn't happen."

She married at 20. She told herself that she chose not to have children because her husband already had three. But the deeper reason was that she was afraid to revisit her pregnancy, Forney said.

In 1982, they became Christians at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Sewickley. The national Episcopal Church supports abortion rights, but her parish was opposed. When the pastor spoke of abortion as killing, "I would just cringe," she said.

In 1989, her faith gave her the courage to have a child, Rebekah. She started to think that the problem she had fixed in 1976 was Rebekah's sister. The idea was so painful that she repressed it as much as she could. She believes that stress was why she developed ulcerative colitis.

When another woman in her Bible study spoke of remorse over her own abortion, Forney almost spat at her: "Get over it. I had one, too. It's OK."

In 1995, she came across her high school yearbook. "I opened it up, and all I could see was my baby," she said.

Overwhelmed with feelings of loss, she called the woman she had told to "get over it."

"She came over and cried with me and wept with me," Forney said.

Forney spent 13 weeks with two other women working through Forgiven and Set Free, a Bible study for women who have had abortions. Her colitis began to heal.

Teresa Sherry, a Mt. Lebanon psychologist, doesn't doubt Forney's experience, but says it is not typical of what she sees. Sherry expected to find more post-abortion trauma than she has. In her experience, women with great difficulty after abortion are usually those who were later unable to have children or who didn't achieve the goals they believed the abortion would allow them to reach.

"Those who have been able to restart their lives don't seem to have trouble with it," she said.

But clinical social worker Ann Depner was surprised at how often an abortion seemed to be tangled up with the marital strife, depression and other issues people brought to her. Until she saw that pattern, abortion was not an issue she cared about, she said.

Now, as director of family services at Catholic Charities, she oversees Rachel's Vineyard, a 14-week support group for post-abortion healing. It is offered free of charge twice a year and is limited to eight participants. A weekend retreat version will be offered for the first time in the fall.

The women spend the early weeks talking and praying about the circumstances that led to their abortions. Later they discuss their feelings about the child who would have been. Most have some intuition of its sex. They name the children and are encouraged to think of them as saints in heaven that they can pray to.

"This allows them to form a spiritual relationship with that child," Depner said. "While they are grieving a loss, they are also finding something."

Depner believes the remorse is natural and not only the result of being raised in a church that opposes abortion. Many of the women are not Catholic and some are from backgrounds that support abortion rights, she said.

Amy, who did not want her real name used, came to Rachel's Vineyard on impulse, which is the way she said she had three abortions from three relationships two decades ago. She was in her 20s, was focused on a career and was careless with contraception.

She was raised Catholic but can't recall hearing abortion mentioned in church. She did not feel guilty when she had her abortions.

A decade later, she married and started attending Mass again. She was not overwhelmed with remorse. But three years ago, something inexplicable moved her to respond to a bulletin notice for Rachel's Vineyard. The group became a safe place to unpack thoughts and feelings she had never admitted to herself.

"There is not one iota of judgment or guilt-throwing in that program," she said.

"I think they helped me to surface my own guilt and they helped me get past it. I think I had carried a lot of guilt, but I lived with it by burying it. So, instead of making me feel guilty, it was almost the opposite."

The memorial Mass was heartbreaking and necessary, she said.

"I had never, never thought about those children until that program. Now I pray for them and to them. They are real to me now, as painful as that is. I finally acknowledged them as human beings."

Rachel's Vineyard gave her the courage she needed to change careers and start her own business, Amy said. But she is apolitical about abortion. She wants to help women who have had one, but is not interested in outlawing it.

Forney took a different path. She is executive director of the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life, which seeks to reverse the denomination's support for legal abortion. She estimates that 25 percent of women in leadership of the anti-abortion movement have had abortions.

She began to speak about her abortion after Rebekah found an essay she had written about it. Her daughter urged her to go public.

At last year's anti-abortion march in Washington, D.C., Forney carried a sign that she intends to carry again Tuesday: "My biggest mistake was having an abortion."

"I couldn't believe all the people who came up to me and said, 'I wish I had the courage to carry that sign,' " she said.

A major anti-abortion Web site with links to post-abortion programs nationwide is

Project Rachel is at The Pittsburgh phone line and e-mail are 412-456-3167 and

A session of Rachel's Vineyard begins Feb. 26. Call 412-456-6955.

Forney provides online post-abortion support at

Nondenominational post-abortion support is available locally through Counseling Abortion Related Services, which is associated with Lifeline of Southwest Pennsylvania at 412-572-5099. Quickenings, a Protestant group, offers support after abortion, stillbirth or miscarriage. Contact Christine Shaw at 412-725-8040 or e-mail

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