NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. — “When I read that 73 per cent of churchgoing women who experienced abortion were not sure if forgiveness applied to them, I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” says Dr. Laura Lewis, executive director of the Canadian Association of Pregnancy Support Services (CAPSS).
Speaking at the national CAPSS conference held April 17 - 20 in Niagara Falls, Lewis talked about how this realization became the impetus for a new mission that she hopes will reach some 2,000 pastors across Canada.
The statistic identified came from a 2015 Care Net survey of 1,000 church-attending women. The study asked a series of questions of 1,000 post-abortive women about how they felt about their local church. Not only did the survey find that three-quarters of the women felt forgiveness might not apply to them, but that 57 per cent weren’t sure if it was safe to talk to a pastor, and over half had never shared their experience with anyone.
“It highlighted that the church was not a place where women felt they could find healing, freedom and forgiveness in Christ,” said Lewis, ”and that needed to be addressed.”
While many would like to believe that the experience of going to church regularly would give post-abortive women confidence in receiving support and healing from their congregation, the study found that that was not their experience. Both post-abortive churchgoers and non-churchgoers reported that they expected or had received judgmental or condemning reactions equally. Regular churchgoers were no more confident that they wouldn’t be condemned, and over 57 per cent had told no one at their church about their abortion.
“We heard that pastors didn’t really know how to speak about abortion from the pulpit. They would see people shutting down when they brought it up,” Lewis explained. “They knew it was a hard topic, so they would avoid it. At CAPSS we realized we had more practical experience with post-abortive women and maybe we could share those insights.”
Out of this need for change came the Healing Conversations video and booklet. The video begins with the statistics in order to show people the extent to which women view abortion as different than other sins.
“We highlight for pastors that abortion is the same as other sins,” says Lewis, “and that if it’s approached in a balanced way, it can be talked about from the pulpit.”
While many clergy steer clear of the subject out of compassion and concern that it might cause more suffering and shame, the silence can have a damaging effect.
The Healing Conversations booklet describes one woman’s experience, voicing what many feel: “Does my abortion on a scale of all other sins, rank so despicably high that, though forgivable, cannot be mentioned, not at the pulpit, not with prayer partners, not ever . . . not anywhere? Let me tell you that is a very lonely place to be.”
Lewis explained that in making the video it was important to have a story for people to relate to. “We filmed a story of a woman who was suffering, even though she went to church.”
In the video, she describes learning Bible verses and hearing about Jesus’ love, but somehow it didn’t seem to take hold, she didn’t really encounter it. “It wasn’t until she made a connection with the local pregnancy centre that things changed and she started her journey.”
The video cuts between the story and a pastor who speaks about the issue from his point of view. “We wanted to have a pastor who had watched that journey and was comfortable speaking about abortion in his church, a pastor who had asked the question, “How do I get help speaking about this?” and then address pastors watching the video.’
In the video, Pastor Paul Martin from Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto speaks about the need to assume that, within every congregation, there are women who have had abortions. The statistics bear this out.
“When you speak about this issue, you need to speak in the tone and compassion that represents that she is sitting there in front of you.” What was helpful to Martin was making connections with his local Pregnancy Care Centre and asking for advice about how to talk about these issues.
Lewis sees using Healing Conversations in the larger church community as a needed resource. “People need to be aware that, with one in four women being affected by abortion, they are in the room. Creating a safe place for women to share their secret and speak about things they may feel a lot of shame about, would be very relevant to any church group, especially women’s groups. This study revealed that even women involved in their churches weren’t talking about the abortion.”
The hope is that the video and the booklet will be seen by 2,000 pastors and church leaders, with the potential to impact 40,000 post-abortive women in Canada.
The booklet includes more practical suggestions. Sermon topics are outlined, with Scripture references, and there are recommendations for talking to women who have experienced an abortion. Reaching this number of women can ripple through their wider circle. Often those close to them, like friends who may have driven them to the appointment, the father of the child, mothers, fathers and entire families may have been affected in one way or another and carry burdens of their own.
Lewis sees a time when women who have experienced abortion and healing will become more vocal. “Some women who have felt healing and freedom are ready to speak about it. It will be these women who know whole freedom and forgiveness that will bring a change in the culture.”