Every year in the United States, approximately 133,000 pregnant mothers will undergo routine pre-natal tests and receive what is called “poor pre-natal diagnosis,” or PPD. This means that their infant is afflicted with a chromosomal abnormality or a serious defect in a vital organ. The most difficult and complicated grief that we witness on Rachel’s Vineyard Weekends involve couples that aborted a child for this reason.
With the increase in genetic testing and fertility treatments there are growing numbers of couples facing these difficult decisions. Parents are often pressured by doctors, therapists, friends and family to “terminate” the pregnancy. They are given the grim prospect of a child born prematurely who die or suffer severe deformities with only the assurance of a brief life filled with suffering and pain. More than 90 percent of these pregnancies end in abortion. Some fertility treatments include “fetal reductions” where multiple embryos are fertilized and implanted, followed by a later decision by doctors to end the life of the less healthy fetuses.
When abortion is the preferred course of “treatment” not only is the baby’s life ended, but the lives of these parents are changed forever. Like our first parents in the Garden of Eden, assuming this power over life and death has far reaching consequences beyond the decision to abort. The fallout from this loss places a tremendous strain on a couple as they struggle to come to terms with the shock and pain of their experience. Research confirms that women suffer years after the procedure:
Women 2-7 years after were expected to show a significantly lower degree of traumatic experience and grief than women 14 days after termination…Contrary to hypothesis, however, the results showed no significant inter-group differences.1
These parents suffer from a particularly complex form of grief and guilt years after the experience. They hunger desperately for healing and peace, but struggle to come to terms with their responsibility in the death of their child and the need for repentance, reconciliation and healing. They feel strongly that their situation is “different” from others who abort. Couples cling desperately to the idea that they did what was best for their child, saving them from a life, however brief, of suffering and pain. In other scenarios they must choose among healthier embryos or multiple fetuses so that the healthiest survive. Given the medical advice and pressure from a spouse or others, they feel they did not have a real choice.
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The husband in these cases may have encouraged abortion as a way to protect his wife from the pain of giving birth to a child who would have died, or would die shortly after birth or would have been born with a physical and mental handicap like Down Syndrome that would be a burden to his wife and family. In their efforts to establish control and take action, they are tempted to see abortion as the best solution.
After the abortion there can be considerable anger at God, whom couples often blame for putting them in this situation. One couple expresses this struggle:
If we were given a normal child, we would not have been put in this situation. We are different from others who have aborted because we wanted this child. God put us in this impossible situation, forcing us to make these painful decisions. We are left without our child, and with powerful feelings of confusion, resentment anger and grief.
Without a healing process for this complicated grief, this pain will surely impact their relationship
Empty Arms and Wounded Hearts
It is only when these mothers and fathers come to a clearer and honest understanding of their abortion loss that they can begin to repent, grieve and heal. An important part of this process is facing their role in that decision to abort, and the fear and weakness that tempted them to embrace this solution. When the rationalization and seemingly wise counsel of doctors and others fades away after the abortion, a mother and father are faced with empty arms and a wounded heart. They must face the painful realization that this decision also aborted their opportunity to hold this child and offer that child love and affection for however long the baby lived. In the case of Down and other conditions, they were given a child with special challenges to love and care for, and in their rejection of that child, something in them has also died both individually and as a couple.
The healing process can never be forced. We must be patient, especially in the early stages of healing as the wound is very raw. There can initially be great defensiveness. It’s important to acknowledge their pain and loss, the confusing nature of the decisions and challenges that their fertility treatment/testing and medical care presented to them. We need to remind them that they are not alone and that there is help! You can direct them to Rachel’s Vineyard where we have counselors who want to speak with them.
For those offering the Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats, it is important when couples register for the weekend sharing this type of loss, that you go over the entire weekend, making them fully aware of the process. With that understanding, we can entrust them to the God of mercy and pray for the Holy Spirit to open their hearts to his forgiveness and healing, according to His perfect will and time.
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1 Kersting, A. et. Al. (2005) “Trauma and 2-7 years after termination of pregnancy because of fetal abnormalities.” Journal Psychosoc Obstet & Gynae.V26: #1 9-14.
A Guide for Decision-Making After Receiving A Difficult Prenatal Diagnosis Regarding Your Baby
A listing of perinatal hospices and other valuable information. From their website: A perinatal hospice approach walks with these families on their journey through pregnancy, birth and death, honoring the baby as well as the baby’s family. Even in areas without a formal program, parents can create a loving experience for themselves and their baby, and health professionals and family and friends can offer support in the spirit of hospice.
National Association for Down Syndrome
National Down Syndrome Congress
The DeVeber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research
Prenatal Partners for Life
LifeNews.com Note: Kevin Burke, LSW, is the co-founder of Rachel’s Vineyard Ministries and a Pastoral Associate of Priests for Life.