GATINEAU, Que. (CCN) — The founder of Rachel’s Vineyard, the world’s largest post-abortion ministry, discovered her calling while leading an eating disorder support group.
Theresa Burke told the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) seminar March 20 she became active in the pro-life movement while in high school, first volunteering at a crisis pregnancy centre and running a youth group to educate them about pro-life issues.
When Burke got arrested with her one-month-old baby demonstrating against an abortion facility, her husband suggested she find a different way to express her concern for the unborn.
She returned to school, working on degrees in counselling psychology, eventually obtaining a PhD. It’s during her training that she was assigned to the support group for women with anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive over-eating.
When several participants in one particular session reacted with intense emotions after one brought up her abortion, Burke was obliged to describe to her supervisor everything that happened in the support group. The supervisor told her, “You have no business prying into other people’s abortions.”
The supervisor said abortion was “a private, personal thing,” and instructed her not to bring it up again.
But Burke realized she was witnessing signs of trauma expressed differently by three women that night. Eventually she set up her first therapeutic support group for healing after abortion.
Her training in psychology and her understanding of spirituality led her to develop a sensory-based treatment involving psycho-physical re-enactment that would help prevent trauma victims from dissociating. “All the things we do in Rachel’s Vineyard are to ground people,” she said. “All of my training never prepared me for the wound of the soul” people experience after abortion.
A personal experience involving the loss of her second child at five months of pregnancy helped her understand more deeply what that kind of trauma felt like.
Because of her own trauma during the miscarriage and a subsequent difficult pregnancy, Burke said she realized when trying to hold her new baby that she was “afraid to bond” with her child.
She realized how much more difficulty someone who had chosen to abort a child or who had been coerced into aborting a child would have bonding with subsequent children. “How much more would they feel the grief, the bonding problems,” she said.
Many women who have had abortions suffer from post-partum psychosis when they do have a baby, she said. They might have thoughts urging them to throw the child out the window. Or thoughts like, “You killed one child; why not kill this one.”
Women who’ve had abortions may have trouble relaxing enough for the let-down reflex to occur to enable nursing. Some feel “so toxic inside, they are afraid to nurse because they are afraid they would poison their child,” she said.
Further research needs to be done on other trauma-related problems, such as sleep deprivation that could be caused by nightmares, anxiety disorders and other problems.
Rachel’s Vineyard offers “three days of boot camp, therapy for the soul,” she said. There are up to 1,000 retreats a year, and the ministry is now active in 83 countries in 37 languages.
The goal of the retreat is to strip away contempt and hatred toward oneself and others and replace it with humility, grief and tenderness, she said.
No matter what the religious background, or even if there is none, the symptoms of trauma are the same and so is the need for repentance and forgiveness.
It’s about saying sorry to the baby, to yourself because the abortion hurt you, to God, and about forgiving anyone who may have forced you or abandoned you or set you up to have the abortion, she said.
Through deeply entering into various Scripture stories, and the use of sensory aids, women are invited into a grieving process that helps them re-humanize the child they had dehumanized in order to abort it, she said.
“You need to empty grief into order to make room for grace,” she said.