People of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

Isaiah 30:19-21

These words are a lifeline to a woman who hears them at a Project Rachel retreat after suffering, sometimes as long as decades, from the grief of abortion. Project Rachel offers an encounter with Christ for women grieving an abortion. 

Look at her smiling face! Few realize the woman who aborted a child or children is hurting inside. So is the father. 

I saw it myself outside an abortion center where I was praying in Denver. A young woman was driving out of the Planned Parenthood parking lot after an abortion. A look of devastating grief crossed her face before she made the turn to go home alone. No boyfriend beside her. No baby inside her. Her expression was haunting and poignant. But even I didn’t realize then her future could be poisoned by grief and shame for decades to come. 

Kathy is almost 75. She was 40 years old when she aborted her last child. She has a loving and supportive husband of 55 years, who has helped her deal with the grief of what is often a swift and thoughtless decision. 

“We had our children and we were done,” she said, so the last unexpected pregnancy was not wanted. “But I wish you could take it back.” 

She was a Methodist at the time of the abortion, but a Catholic friend drew her into the Catholic Church seven years ago because she could see the abortion was “eating me alive,” Kathy said. Then three years ago she participated in a Project Rachel retreat. For the first time in decades, “I was able to share it. I realized, ‘I’m not alone.’” 

At the retreat, in which they read Scripture, she described what she experienced as a meeting with her deceased child. Kathy named the child, and “It was like he was saying, ‘I forgive you. See you later.” And the healing started.

“Women are hurt by abortion whether they know it or not,” Tyler Bishop Joseph Strickland said in an interview with the Catholic East Texas. “We are all precious in the eyes of God. We are all sinners. God continues to value the women and men hurt by abortion. Project Rachel addresses the other victim in abortion,” the bishop said, which is the mother or father of the aborted child. 

And that’s why laywoman Fonda Luersman was asked to start Project Rachel in the Diocese of Tyler. On Saturday Feb. 19th at the Sanctity of Life Action Committee meeting, the Project Rachel Coordinator announced the Healing After Abortion Project Rachel Ministry was officially launched. The project in Tyler achieves this goal through one-day retreats, opportunities to go to confession, one-on-one meetings with therapists and participation in support groups. Plus there is a helpline one can call during normal business hours to see which option is best.

Luersman says the one-day retreats give women the opportunity to take the abortion experience “off the shelf and open the box in a safe environment.” There are hand-picked therapists and Catholic priests on the retreat as well as women with similar experiences. The first retreat will be offered this Spring. 

“These are life changing retreats. Retreatants come to know God’s love and mercy in a powerful way,” Luersman said. 

But if women call the confidential helpline, Luersman will tell them about the help that is available and let them decide what is best for them. They don’t need to worry about the cost of the retreat, she said.

“Almost 50 percent of the abortions in this country are repeats,” according to Psychologist Dr. Theresa Burke, founder of the world’s largest abortion healing retreat, Rachel’s Vineyard. “Repetition is one of the greatest indicators of (unhealed) trauma. When we engage in healing, we can cut the abortion rate in half.”

“Ninety percent of women don’t know where to go for abortion healing. Project Rachel is a place to come and receive healing whether the abortion was 40 years ago or one year ago,” Luersman said.

There are two reactions to unresolved grief of abortion, according to Psychologist Dr. Theresa Burke. One involves people who are super alarmed and screaming at pro-lifers because pro-life activity triggers the pain of their abortions. The other response is to become numb and detached. 

They say, “I was fine after my abortion,” Burke explained. “A lot of people can go through life like that until some other event, perhaps the birth of a wanted child, and then everything splits open for them. They can have postpartum depression and psychosis because the child they’re holding is a trigger.”

Shockingly, unresolved abortion grief can follow women to their deathbed. Dr. Burke said nurses will report they have a whole floor of people who are struggling with post-abortion trauma, “who cannot go into death peacefully.” Rachel’s Vineyard sends teams into the hospitals and nursing homes to people who are old and dying “because this is something that they might have been able to run from for their whole lives, but then they fear judgment by God, and they have all this anxiety, and it’s not a pleasant time at all. So we show people that their children are waiting for them in heaven, and that nothing, as the Holy Father (Pope John Paul II) says, is definitely lost, and that your children are living in the Lord.” (Evangelium Vitae, 99) 

The culture doesn’t like to talk about the side effects of abortion, Luersman said, which include depression, loss of self esteem, guilt, remorse, alcohol and drug abuse, breast cancer and post traumatic stress syndrome. Women who have had an abortion are at 81 percent higher risk for mental health problems compared to women who have not had an abortion, according to research done by Professor Priscilla Coleman, who spoke before the UK’s Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) in 2018. Men suffer almost identical effects.

Fonda Luersman announcing the Project Rachel Ministry the Diocese of Tyler at the Sanctity of Life Action Committee Meeting Feb. 19, 2022.

This was really brought home to me when I met Pennie Vandenbroek, a pro-life activist. She had just converted to Catholicism in 1996 when she was sent to jail in Los Angeles for three months for praying outside an abortion center as part of Operation Rescue.

When asked by other inmates why she was there, she would answer, “For praying outside an abortion clinic.” The first woman she met in the holding room, responded, “You’ll hate me. I had nine abortions.” Vandenbroek’s response, “I’m so very sorry to hear that!” resulted in the woman bursting into tears. And then she asked to pray with the woman. 

The power of her kindness helped bring healing to many women in jail who had suffered previous abortions. Word got around the jail, and many women wanted to take her aside and talk to her about their abortion experience. “God gave me the graces I needed to speak with each one. These encounters were many; it was exhausting,” Vandenbroek said.

In fact, in Vandenbroek’s jail time, a pattern emerged. These women were mostly incarcerated for prostitution, theft, drugs and alcohol. Vandenbroek began to realize that the drug and alcohol abuse in their lives had originated post abortion as a coping mechanism following the death of their child. The prostitution and theft paid for their habits. “They still grieved their abortions. They had never dealt with it before our conversations,” Vandenbroek said.

One of Vandenbroek’s friends in jail was named Joannie, a mother of five children. At a low point in her life, when pregnant with her sixth child, she felt she just couldn’t face having another baby. Her doctor offered abortion as a solution. The guilt of that devastating experience led her to drugs and her morals declined. She had been in and out of jail several times before meeting Vandenbroek. Separated from her husband, who still loved her, and her five children, Joannie was grateful to have an understanding person to talk to, someone who could offer hope that she could be forgiven and have a new life in Christ. 

Vandenbroek has become a prayer warrior for Project Rachel in Tyler. She still prays for the women she met in jail. 

The Rachel’s Vineyard retreat is used in a lot of U.S. dioceses as part of the Project Rachel Ministry. The difference between the two ministries, Project Rachel and Rachel’s Vineyard, is that Project Rachel has a helpline, and it gives women a host of choices beyond a retreat, said Mary McClusky, assistant director for Project Rachel Ministry Development, at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. As mentioned before, these services include visits with therapists, priests and support groups.

Founded by Dr. Burke, Rachel’s Vineyard might be one of the choices or a similar retreat.  “It truly is a unique process, and it probably comes out of my unique background because before I went into psychology I had a Masters degree in theatre,” Dr. Burke said in an interview with Pro-Life Magazine. 

Over the years she learned people suffering from trauma do not respond well to talk therapy, but sensory based treatment is the ideal way to deal with trauma victims.  “Meditation and prayer stimulates the frontal cortex that helps people integrate their cognitive and their emotional experience,” she concluded. Scripture is a very powerful healer.

Healing after Abortion Ministry Director Eileen Kuhlmann conducts Rachel’s Vineyard retreats in Dallas. Women come to the retreat believing they hate themselves and God can never forgive them. “Some come with stories where they need to forgive their family member or partner who forced them to have an abortion, so they could keep a roof over their head,” Kuhlmann said.

But the worst cases are the victims of chemical abortions. “This shame and guilt is more profound because it took place in their own home,” Kuhlmann said. Afterwards their own bathroom becomes a trigger for them, as that is where the abortion took place. At the retreat, they are given sensory tools to address this pain — rocks which they carry inside. They light a candle for the child and Kuhlmann says, “Your child wants to be reclaimed by you. They want to be named.” That’s where Kathy received her healing. 

The world lies to women about abortion. When they realize what has taken place, “it is the heart of moral injury because there’s betrayal in many ways” Burke said. There’s betrayal by her partner who won’t support the child he helped create. “You are assaulted by the body’s natural response to trauma,” including grief, depression, mental health issues and the “level of denial that has to be sustained.” Plus there is damage to one’s “maternal identity,” Burke said, adding, “And there is betrayal by the medical industry that says this (abortion) is health care.” 

“Abortion is the issue of our time,” Bishop Strickland said. He reiterated that the woman is the other victim in abortion even if she doesn’t know it. “So many false messages surround the abortion question,” he said. There are lies that the child in the womb is a blob of tissue, or just a clump of cells. Instead, science shows us the wonder of the sperm and the egg coming together to make a new image of God — a human being. “That’s God’s handwriting,” the bishop said, adding, “The truth presented in love can change hearts.”

To reach the Project Rachel helpline call or text (903) 539-2941 or email fonda.projectrachel@protonmail.com

Project Joseph is an Abortion Healing Ministry for men. For more information visit projectjosephdallas.org  

To find Project Rachel’s Ministry Online, go to HopeAfterAbortion.org

To get into a Project Rachel retreat or receive counseling, call or text Fonda Luersman at (903) 539-2941 or email fonda.projectrachel@protonmail.com

To support Project Rachel in the Diocese of Tyler, please send checks to: Diocese of Tyler, attention Project Rachel, 1015 E SE Loop 323, Tyler, TX 75701. Please put the words Project Rachel on the check.

By Susan Fox

Susan Fox is a former investigative reporter, who worked for several daily newspapers and a newswire in the 1980s and 90s, including the San Francisco Examiner and the San Diego Union, under her maiden name Susan Burkhardt. She won many awards for her work then, which was in the area of finance, economics and business reporting. In 2019, she received a Master’s in Marriage and Family from the pontifical school ITI Catholic University in Trumau, Austria. Her Catholic blog, https://christsfaithfulwitness.blogspot.com, has over 4.7 million page views since 2012.