In 1985, a silent and numb seventeen-year-old girl named Michele tagged along as her boyfriend’s mother took care of the paperwork—first for her pregnancy test in a Missouri strip mall, and then for her abortion at a clinic in West St. Louis County.
Only no one knew that secret but Michele, her boyfriend, and his mother. For decades, fear ruled her life—fear of exposure, fear of her parents’ disapproval, and fear that her sorrow would never end.
But fear, she says today, is a liar.
“Fear paralyzes you,” Menke said. “You can’t think or function the way you normally do.”
Having grown up in a church-going family, she would have described herself as pro-life.
“That was one of the hardest things: I knew it was wrong, but I just couldn’t think at the time,” she said. “I wish I could have screamed I didn’t want to do this. Because I know in my heart that’s not what I wanted to do. But you’re in a crisis. You feel backed into a corner.”
She barely looked at the counselor’s sheet of paper that listed all her options. She just passed it to her boyfriend’s mother.
The status of her pregnancy was estimated by pelvic exam, not by ultrasound. Two days later, she showed up for her procedure. A staff member who barely remembered her first visit sat beside her, while a masked doctor who never spoke to her performed the abortion.
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“They tell you it’s not going to hurt,” Menke said. “But it was extremely painful, just terrible cramps—just a terrible, terrible pain.”
Living with the Secret
Even worse than the physical pain, which came to an end, was Menke’s emotional pain.
“I started to cry that evening, and I don’t think I quit crying for twenty years,” she said.
Never sharing her painful secret with family or friends, she moved on through life, eventually marrying, raising a family, and earning her nursing degree. While administering physical healing to her patients, she worked hard to hide her own emotional and spiritual scars.
“It was a time in my life where I was just trying to justify what I did,” Menke said. “I voted for presidents who I knew would put pro-choice justices on the Supreme Court. I wanted to fight for the right for everybody to [choose abortion].”
Yet her pain never went away.
Freedom from that pain only began when she and her husband started attending a church where the pastor dropped a comment that changed her life. One day, he told her in passing, “When people say they can’t be forgiven, they’re saying Christ’s death on the cross wasn’t enough.”
Menke was startled.
“I realized, ‘I’m totally dissing what Jesus did for me,’” she said. “When the pastor said those few little words, a light bulb went on.”
Forgiven But Not Yet Free
But accepting God’s forgiveness didn’t guarantee that other people would forgive her.
“You worry if someone figures it out, what are they going to think?” she said. “Will they hate you for it?”
So when her church hosted an event supporting the nearby Hand ‘n Hand Pregnancy Center, Menke felt she had to sneak over to sign up as a volunteer.
“I was sure everybody would know I had an abortion and that’s why I put my name down there,” she said. “I was so sure people would see right through what I was doing.”
Instead, she found the center’s executive director Gary Smith to be very compassionate when she revealed her secret to him—only the fifth person she had ever told. He gave her the book, Her Choice to Heal, which Menke labeled “one of the first things that began my healing process.”
In 2004, when the youngest of her five children was a toddler, Menke joined Hand ‘n Hand Pregnancy Center as a volunteer receptionist. Alongside a client, she participated in the center’s abortion recovery program, working through the study Surrendering the Secret.
“This was before I had told my kids [about the abortion],” Menke said. “So I bought a book cover to conceal what I was studying.”
Through the program, Menke’s healing progressed further. She moved from re-examining old memories of her abortion to processing them and experiencing new freedom in Christ. In time, she found a way to bring hope to other women by opening up about the very secret she had hidden all her life.
Giving Women the Choice She Never Had
“I used to wonder why there wasn’t just one person who said, ‘Don’t do this, we’ll help you, we’ll help you tell your parents,’” Menke said. “I was never offered anything like that.”
Back then, she could only silently assent to choices that had been made for her.
Now, her role at Hand ‘n Hand Pregnancy Help Center allows her to create a warm and caring environment in which pregnant women know they can make their own choices—equipped with all the facts, including an ultrasound view of their babies.
Since 2015, when her center began offering ultrasounds, Menke has served as nurse manager. Today, she works with two other staff members, 40 volunteers, and 40 support members. On average, Menke provides 15 sonograms a month, a number which has grown steadily in the three years since the Knights of Columbus first donated the machine.She quickly discovered clients often wanted to hear her own story to help them decide what to do.
“I let them know they’re in a safe place,” Menke said. “I don’t want them to ever feel like this pregnancy center is going to make them choose to have their baby. They know they can choose abortion, but it’s definitely an option to choose life for their child. They need to really consider that. I’m just very honest with them, about how abortion’s not an easy fix. Then I get to show them life through the ultrasound.”
“There are some good stories that have come out of all this ugliness,” Menke said. “Now there are sweet babies I get to hold because some girl heard my story and then saw life on the ultrasound. I even babysit for one of them.”
Roughly 93 percent of the clients who receive an ultrasound at Hand ‘n Hand Pregnancy Help Center choose life for their babies. But for those who don’t, Menke still keeps the door open.
“I want the girls to know, ‘Even if you choose abortion, I’m not going to hate you for that. I am going to be here on the other side so you can talk to me about it,’” Menke said. “I have a couple of girls who have had abortions, and we still text and talk so I can see how they’re doing.”
Ultrasound is only one of the ways Menke and her center make choosing life easier for women who hadn’t planned to be pregnant. The center also offers “Caring Hands,” a program in which women meet with a caregiver to discuss video lessons on pregnancy and baby care. And “Get Connected” is their monthly moms’ group that meets to share a meal, a Bible study, and lessons in life skills.
In addition, mothers can receive material needs support up to a child’s second birthday. The only requirement is that they stay connected with the center by checking in with updates at least once every four months.
The Last Shackle
Menke said working at the pregnancy help center not only facilitated her personal healing, it also showed her that “God takes all those terrible things we did and works them out for good.”
Yet one piece of business remained unfinished until last year: telling her parents about her abortion.
In December of 2017, her church published weekly videos featuring different members telling their stories of redemption. Menke was set to be one of them. One week before her video was to be released online, she took her parents to lunch and told them her long-guarded secret.
“The saddest thing was they already knew,” she said. “They had found some papers or something. But they never said anything to me, and I never said anything to them. That day they said, ‘All these years we wondered why you couldn’t come to us and tell us.’”
“That was the last shackle,” Menke said. “I was finally free completely.”