Women share personal testimonies as they take part in pro-life ministries
By Gabrielle Nolan
Not only was October “Respect Life Month,” but it was also “Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.” In addition to men and women grieving miscarriage, stillborn birth, and the death of an infant, there is also the grief of loss due to abortion.
Catholics are not exempt when it comes to the tragedy of abortion, and three women who know that truth well are sharing their testimonies with the hope that others may also find healing. In addition, a program leader from Catholic Charities of East Tennessee is offering her perspective on hope and healing for those affected by abortion.
‘Continue the healing process’
Back in 1979, Colette Souder had just graduated from college and found herself pregnant.
“I just put my blinders on thinking, ‘I’ll take care of this problem, and then I won’t have to deal with it.’ And, oh my goodness, was that the biggest mistake of my life. It is my need to control the situation, was what it was. I think whenever you try to avoid suffering that comes into your life, like suffering of an unwanted pregnancy … whenever you try to avoid a suffering that just kind of comes into your life, you bring on yourself so much more suffering than you can imagine, and I think this is a perfect example of that,” Mrs. Souder shared.
“The suffering that I went through because of that abortion was so great,” she continued. “You know, just depression … self-hate are the biggest things that happened. I did not stay with that father of the baby, and I think it’s almost impossible unless you really deal with what you did as a couple.”
Mrs. Souder was eventually led to her now-husband.
“I did tell him on our Engaged Encounter that I had had an abortion, and that was really, really, really difficult. It was very difficult for him, too.”
After getting married, Mrs. Souder wanted to keep her abortion a secret from her children but also prevent them from making the same mistake that she did.
“I didn’t want them to know what I did. I wanted to keep it secret. You’re as sick as your secrets,” she said. “Now, I’d gone to confession, but I had not forgiven myself, that’s the biggest thing. … It’s the inner self-hate and the way to try to control the situation so my children wouldn’t do it. That’s not healthy. I’m making sure my children didn’t do what I did, which of course I have no control over that.”
“If I have that intention in my being a mother, then I lose sight of who are my children and what do they need to grow and be the person that God called them to be,” she continued. “My mothering definitely wasn’t as good. … I didn’t follow their heart because I was too wounded, and I know when you are so wounded and not healed, you cannot do the job God called you to do as well at all.”
After more than 20 years of marriage, Mrs. Souder’s husband suggested that she needed post-abortive counseling.
“It was one of those times where the truth hit me like cold water in the face, and I knew he was right,” she shared.
At the same time, a friend introduced her to the Sisters of Life, a religious order that is committed to the protection of human life and offers help to women who have had an abortion.
“I called them, and the first conversation—oh my gosh, I just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed,” she said. “They invited me up for a day of prayer and healing, and I ended up staying in their convent for a couple of nights because I came from out of town. … The one day of this retreat there was a talk in the morning, and it was all in front of the Blessed Sacrament. And I’m listening to this talk, and it kind of struck me, it all brought back to me my pain, and I just sat there in front of the Divine Mercy picture and just cried and cried and cried.”
While at the retreat, Mrs. Souder had an encounter with a priest who commended her courage in coming there.
“I just looked at him, and I go, ‘Oh, we who have had abortions, we deserve nothing. Please don’t say that.’ We deserve nothing, and it’s truly how I felt. And by the end of that day, I knew I deserved it. I deserve mercy and peace. But I had a chance to talk about my hate. My self-condemnation was so strong, and by the end of it, God’s mercy came through,” she cried. “Now that did not mean I forgave myself really all the way, but it was so great of a breakthrough.”
About five years ago, Mrs. Souder brought the Sisters of Life to the Diocese of Knoxville for a retreat at the Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center.
“It’s a one-day retreat, and it’s the kind of opening up of the healing process for women, and after you go on this one day of prayer and healing, then you can go on their three-day silent retreats,” she said.
“After bringing the Sisters to our diocese, … Sandi (Davidson), myself, and [one of the Sisters] had a meeting just to kind of talk about it. … We needed to start doing follow-up, and it’s called Spirit and Life. Every month we go to the Sisters of Mercy, and we have a holy hour, we eat dinner with all the Sisters, and then we break off and do kind of a Bible study. … It’s just a way to continue the healing process and invite other people to continue their healing,” she said.
Mrs. Souder, a parishioner of Our Lady of Fatima in Alcoa, said her faith life is fueled by the Eucharist and confession.
“They bring me to tears. It’s such a great gift,” she shared. “I have this place to go with my sins, and then I have this place to go to—I always think food for the journey. … He sits there, and He waits for you, and then He comes in you, and you can ask Him anything…. You can give me your love so I can love other people; You give me your yes for everything that I can think of, prudence and wisdom and knowledge, and that He will give it to you. … How I love the Eucharist, and how I appreciate confession.”
To women who have had an abortion, Mrs. Souder has a message.
“Oh, mercy is waiting for you. He’s waiting for you, and when you finally forgive yourself, you can finally grieve the loss of the child. Because if you are so busy beating yourself up, hating yourself, and unforgiveness, you can’t even focus on grieving for this loss that you have,” she said.
‘Jesus is there, He’s waiting’
Lisa Campbell was 21 years old and away at college when she had her abortion.
“I was in a loving relationship, thought we were going to get married,” she said. “I was not living a good Catholic life; I was away from my faith so to speak. I would attend Mass every now and then.”
When she found out she was pregnant, the father of the baby offered to marry her, but Mrs. Campbell declined.
“I thought about that for half a second, no, no. A big part of that was fear because, oh, my gosh, then my parents would know I was having marital relations when I wasn’t married. So, that fear of disappointing my parents. … And the other part of that was well, no, I was on this trajectory to finishing my degree, getting on with my life, making money, making … the dream, the American dream, come true, and this was a problem that needed to be solved.”
A friend drove her to an abortion clinic after she saw a billboard advertising free pregnancy tests. After her test turned up positive, the clinic offered to schedule Mrs. Campbell’s abortion.
“So, [I] went there. It was weird. The whole thing was weird,” she said. “So, you walk into the clinic, and you get the gown on and go into a waiting room, and there’s many other girls in there just sitting. No one talked. And I glanced around, and there was another girl in there that I recognized from school, from like volleyball intramurals. And I thought, oh, my gosh, and our eyes met, but we didn’t say a word to each other.”
“So, I went in, they called me back, I was given anesthesia, which many women aren’t,” Mrs. Campbell continued. “I believe that I was probably eight or nine weeks along, at least that’s what I remember them telling me. And then I woke up in recovery, they had seated you in these lounge chairs, for lack of a better term, and brought me two little cookies and a little thing of juice. I clearly remember the moment I was conscious, just bawling my eyes out. I will never forget that. And the nurse there said, ‘It’s OK honey.’ Oh no, it was not.”
Because of her recovery from the abortion that semester, Mrs. Campbell had to drop out of a physical education class.
“Then the next semester I remember calling home to my mom crying, ‘I can’t make it here.’ I wasn’t doing well in school, and I wanted to come home. … So, I went back home, lived at home, enrolled in a local college, and finished my degree. It took me a little bit longer. And in the meantime, I guess it was that Christmas maybe … [my boyfriend and I] got engaged, and I thought we were going to get married. And then that next summer we broke up because it just dissolved,” Mrs. Campbell recalled.
For years, Mrs. Campbell submerged her abortion history. She went to graduate school, married, and then became pregnant again.
“I was like, oh, my gosh I need to teach my child the faith; I need to get back into my faith. So, I hadn’t been to confession, probably since I was 13 years old, and looking back that was probably part of the issue, sliding away from the faith,” she said.
“I remember walking into confession. I was very nervous about that whole thing, but I knew I had to go. … I finally got enough courage. And it takes courage, oh, my gosh. I had no one to talk to,” she continued.
Once she entered the confessional, the priest welcomed her, which put her at ease. He suggested they go through the Ten Commandments to go over her sins.
“Then he got to the part, have you killed anyone? And I just lost it,” she said. “So, that’s when I confessed my abortion. I cried, oh, my gosh. … I think that was the start of my turning back to the Lord in the Catholic faith.”
In the fall of 2009, Mrs. Campbell attended a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat, which is a retreat weekend specifically designed for men and women affected by abortion.
“I guess I was ready. It takes a long time because there’s a lot of fear and shame and just things, obstacles that get in the way,” she noted. “The weekend was very healing. There was a lot of group sharing, compassion shared. … Each woman’s story was different, different circumstances, but the same pain of loss and all those things—we don’t like to go through painful things, we don’t like to go through painful memories, but that’s part of the healing. You have to bring all the infection out in the open so it can be healed.”
“I think when I look back at the fruits of that retreat, I think the one thing that I would say really helped me was becoming a more peaceful person and a more peaceful mom to the three children I did have then at that point,” Mrs. Campbell continued. “Sometimes the woman who’s had abortions, even men, too, but the women who’ve had abortions, those suppressed feelings can come out in different ways, and for me it was control and anger. So, I think I was able to become a more peaceful person at home with my girls.”
After that weekend, Mrs. Davidson asked Mrs. Campbell if she would like to help out on the next Rachel’s Vineyard retreat, and Mrs. Campbell said yes.
“There’s additional healing in that as well,” Mrs. Campbell said. “I mean there is such compassion I had for these women. … One story was more heart wrenching than the next. But because I had had a degree of healing, I felt like I would want those women to feel that mercy and love and healing and all that the Lord can give if they would just open their hearts to it and forgive themselves. And I think with a lot of women, they hear in confession God’s forgiven them, that they’ve done that step, but yet they can’t forgive themselves, and that’s a hard one. We beat ourselves up a lot.”
Mrs. Campbell said that she would definitely recommend a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat to those affected by abortion.
“The fact is that Jesus is there; He’s waiting for us to just pour out His mercy on us,” she said. “It’s during the Rachel’s Vineyard retreats we do living Scripture exercises, which are bringing the Gospel to life in a way. And it’s through that where something happens where the Lord is really present and it changes how you view yourself and the mercy of God.”
For women considering having an abortion, Mrs. Campbell would urge otherwise.
“I think if I had to go back and do it over again, I didn’t get any counsel. Seek wise counsel. Don’t just go to the foxes watching the henhouse. Seek wise counsel, seek the Lord. Ask the Lord what is His desire for you. Life is a gift from God. … There’s abuse situations, there’s drug situations, there’s all kinds, and I’ve heard a lot. But there is no situation, there is no situation where choosing abortion is good. Never. It’s evil; it’s demonic. Abortion is murder. I did not know that at the time; I had no counsel. I was solving my problem, and it created many more. It did not solve a problem. It shuts you off from grace,” she said.
Mrs. Campbell was previously a parishioner at St. John Neumann in Farragut but now resides in Cincinnati. She says the Eucharist is what fuels her faith life.
“You’ve got to grow your relationship with Jesus, and how do you fall in love with someone? You spend time with them. So, spending time with the Lord in adoration. I have an adoration hour once a week. How do you grow your faith life? Prayer, community, sacraments, time with the Lord. I go on an annual silent retreat every year to kind of get away from the daily concerns and foster that reconnection,” she pointed out.
‘God’s gentle mercy’
Lisa Morris was engaged to be married when she had her abortion.
“My mom had just committed suicide in September of ’79, and we were reeling from that,” Mrs. Morris said. “I got engaged. The person I had been dating was like, ‘Life is too short, what am I waiting for?’ So, we got engaged right then, found out I was pregnant in February of ’80. We had this big wedding planned for May, and I thought, I can’t do this to my dad after all he’s been through.”
At the time, sonograms were not widely used, and Mrs. Morris believed that the baby was really a “bunch of tissue and cells.”
“I was far enough along that I went in thinking that this was the right thing to do,” she said. “I went into a regular hospital, they put me under, but when I came out, I was absolutely inconsolable and just kept screaming, ‘I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to do it.’”
“My head went in thinking this was right, but when I came out of that recovery, and that’s still under the influence of the anesthesia, it’s like the heart, that law that’s written in your heart was screaming ‘no, no,’” Mrs. Morris added. “People still think it’s nothing, and it’s going to take care of the problem, and it doesn’t. It just creates a whole host of new problems and a heartache that goes on for a lifetime. Even though God is merciful and forgiving and is right there and weeps with us … the consequence is forever. And there’s not really a day that goes by that I don’t regret that and think about that baby. That’s why now I am so committed to helping people see the truth because I’ve been on both sides of this.”
Mrs. Morris attends the same Spirit and Life groups with Mrs. Souder and also has been involved with the organization Silent No More for around 15 years.
“At the March for Life in D.C., the Silent No More group at the very end of the march, at the Supreme Court steps, there’s a microphone, and we get up and do a one- or two-minute testimony of why we’re silent no more, meaning we’re not going to be silent about our abortion. So, I’m one of the regional coordinators for that … for East Tennessee,” she said.
Mrs. Morris, who is a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville, also has spoken locally about her abortion, giving talks for the Knoxville Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, 40 Days for Life, and a “Freedom Ride” in Chattanooga at the Memorial for the Unborn.
“For a long, long time, nobody knew my story but me. Even my family didn’t know,” Mrs. Morris said. “One thing led to another, and that’s how I kind of got involved with Silent No More.”
In the early 2000s, somebody asked Mrs. Morris to do a silent prayer chain for an end to abortion in front of her church.
“Again, nobody knew anything about my past. I went ahead and organized this silent prayer chain … and then after that I was asked to do some more pro-life stuff, and I remember feeling really just so uneasy because here I’m being asked to do this pro-life stuff, and yet nobody really knew that I had had an abortion, including my family. So, I remember saying to God, you know, ‘God, if you want me to be more involved in sharing my story, then I’m going to have to tell my family, and you’re going to have to make it really clear that that’s what You want me to do because otherwise I’m not going there.’ That was kind of the thought process and the prayer.
“And, as only God can do, over the next six months to a year He made it abundantly clear to be able to tell each one of my kids at that time … and was able to share with each one of them and my husband,” she continued. “I’ll never forget when I told my oldest son, who was the first one I shared it with. He said, ‘Mom, you have felt bad about this and struggled with this long enough, now go and help others.’ And that was like the big hug from heaven that I needed, through my son, to go out and really share in a more public way. So, that’s how I went to the March for Life in D.C., shared my testimony at the Supreme Court steps, and then got involved in being the coordinator for Silent No More.”
Mrs. Morris would describe her healing process as gentle.
“In God’s gentle mercy, He has been so gentle with me in that process,” she said. “As my life started to unravel after [the abortion] and just all the classic symptoms of post-abortive syndrome of addictions and failed relationships, and you know it was just one thing after another. It wasn’t until years later when I just really came to a really low point in my life, and that’s when God came in. … It wasn’t one big moment, it was just over time He gently let me see what I had done and the consequences and His merciful love.”
Mrs. Morris believes abortion is both an individual and communal sin.
“I look at what’s happening in our country, and I think until we get abortion right and make it unthinkable, the rest of our problems in this country are not going to get resolved because we can’t keep killing our children and think that we are going to be OK as a nation,” she said. “Laws are going to help, but it’s going to be one heart at a time to really truly make it unthinkable. Honestly, I can tell you, being a rule-follower, if it had been illegal at the time, I would have never considered it. And I know I’m not alone. There’s other people who have said the same thing. You know, I’m not saying it’s right, but I just left the whole thought process to somebody else thinking, ‘Oh, they figured it out; it’s legal; it must be OK.’”
Mrs. Morris has never heard anyone say they regret having their baby but has heard plenty of people say they regret their abortions.
“I would just say, please, please, do not do it. You will regret this for the rest of your life. We will help you; we will help you in whatever way. If you can’t keep your baby, there’s somebody who would love that baby. You will regret it (abortion); it will be something that will be devastating, even though you may feel relief at first, and you may feel relief for a long time, but eventually it comes full circle. You’re never going to be the same.”
Mrs. Morris wants women to know that God’s mercy is abundant, and there are people to walk with through the journey of healing from abortion.
“The statistics now are saying that one in three women in the church pews have had an abortion,” she said. “Most of them are sitting there in silence and secrecy about it. It is time to hopefully let people get out of that, the shame of it, and be healed.”
Sandi Davidson is the pregnancy services program leader for Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, and she also oversees Project Rachel, a ministry of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that is a diocesan-based network providing resources to those affected by abortion.
Catholic Charities offers a Rachel’s Vineyard weekend retreat twice a year at Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center in Benton. The Polk County retreat is open to men and women affected by abortion, whether it’s the father or mother, sister or brother, or grandparent. One does not have to be Catholic to attend the retreat.
The retreat includes a meditation of Scripture.
“It’s a re-enactment of sorts where they can put themselves in front of Jesus, and it helps them to understand that if God can forgive them, and He does forgive them, that they can forgive themselves,” Mrs. Davidson said. “So, that’s one part of it, but in a lot of the re-enactments, too, we help them to understand that they aren’t alone, that a lot of people feel the same way that they do. And not only does God forgive them, they need to forgive themselves, but also their babies forgive them. And a lot of our women get stuck in ‘what I did,’ and they don’t go beyond the act of their abortion, and they get stuck there. So, this takes them, and we walk them step-by-step through the weekend to help them to understand that.”
The retreat also includes a memorial service for the unborn.
“We do a memorial service to let them grieve the loss of their child because usually when a baby dies, you’re allowed to bury the baby and mourn the loss of the baby. Well with abortion, you aren’t allowed to do that. You’re told that you shouldn’t do that because it’s a quick, simple procedure, and there’s nothing to it, and when that doesn’t happen, women think there’s something wrong with them. So, this gives them the opportunity to mourn the loss of their child, name their babies, and honor their babies. So, we do that, and then at the very end we have a Mass,” she said.
Mrs. Davidson says she loves the retreats because of the transformation she sees in the participants.
“They come to us on Friday, they’re anxious, they’re scared to death, they’re afraid of what they’re going to have to talk about or unfold,” she shared. “Because not only do we talk about their abortion, but we talk about the decisions that they made during their lives or things that have happened to them during their lives that led up to them making that decision. And there is a definite connection with almost everyone. So, when they come, they just are absolutely broken. But as the weekend occurs, and we go through the different exercises, really the biggest transformation is Saturday night and then Sunday morning, that’s when you see the biggest difference. I’ve never been on a retreat where someone did not receive healing. Everyone receives healing. Now, it could be different degrees, but they walk away with hope, which means that’s the beginning of healing.”
For men and women dealing with grief and suffering from an abortion, Mrs. Davidson welcomes them to a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat weekend.
“Don’t spend one more second in pain because I’m here to tell you, and there’s a lot of people that are here to tell you, that there is in fact help, hope, and healing after an abortion,” she said.
Visit ccetn.org/project-rachel for more information about this ministry.