Elisabeth wasn’t always a post-abortion counselor at a women’s prison. At first she counseled at a pregnancy resource center, but she began to notice things during her work with pregnant women. She noticed that often if a woman wasn’t interested in receiving an ultrasound that they probably wouldn’t choose to carry their baby to term. She also noticed that the weight of a mother’s decisions concerning their unborn child weighed upon her, and she often felt responsible when someone chose to have an abortion.
But what really caught her attention was when a woman who had previously chosen an abortion would show up at her door, pregnant again.
“They wanted to replace the child,” Elisabeth muses aloud. “They were guilt-ridden.”
I had been sitting across from Elisabeth in Bible study for a few months when I asked to interview her. I was always impressed by her wise approach to difficult scripture passages and situations. Even today, I have bits of her wisdom tucked into my memory. But when we met over coffee for our interview, I wanted to learn more from her about her experience of a post-abortion counselor—what she did and why she did it.
When the Unknown Becomes Known
Elisabeth began post-abortion counseling with a colleague named Judy, working first out of a pregnancy resource center and then from Judy’s home. “Without Judy, it would not have happened,” she emphasizes.
The spaces were comfortable for the women and familiar to Elisabeth and Judy, but later they decided to see if the prisons would allow them to provide post-abortion counseling services on-site. At first Judy and Elisabeth only received excuses from the prison that kept them away, but after about nine months one prison finally agreed to meet with them.
When Elisabeth first drove to the prison, she suppressed the fear and uncertainty she felt. Fences with barbed wire surrounded the compound. She had never been to a prison before, and everything about it was cold and unfamiliar.
After arriving, Elisabeth was promptly stamped and frisked, and the doors shut behind her with a conclusive “clang.” She arrived voluntarily, but she entered and left only on the prison’s terms.
“Do you have any questions for me?” the assistant warden asked.
“What kind of people are here?”
The assistant warden responded thoughtfully, “Well, drug addicts . . . alcoholics . . . thieves . . . murderers . . .”
“So you wanted to know what kind of people came to our meeting, right?” Elisabeth asks me. “When the group started and the people came, I quickly realized they’re people just like me. Sometimes you see really young girls—like college girls—sometimes they look really young and vulnerable. You know . . . you have all kinds of people.”
Their histories, education, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds are all varied.
“They’re just like me,” she reiterates. Later, she’ll tell me that knowing these women has changed the way she sees others: “What I first saw is not necessarily what God sees.”
Loss is Named
When there’s a lull in our conversation, Elisabeth pulls out a large manila envelope, filled with Bible study materials, letters, and meeting materials. She opens up the Bible study text and hands it to me, pointing out that questions that are asked when women are first introduced to the book:
“Do you find yourself struggling to turn off the feelings connected to your abortion, perhaps telling yourself over and over to forget about it?”
“When abortion is mentioned in public, do you find that you react physically, e.g., tightening your stomach muscles, clenching your jaw, or holding your breath?”
“When talking about your abortion, are you overcome with sorrow, anger, or guilt?”
The list continues and Elisabeth is still talking, but I lose focus of what she’s saying. If women are answering “yes” to many of these questions after having an abortion, if some women post-abortion experience pain, grief, and loss, then why doesn’t it seem that way? Why do I more often see elective abortion associated with triumph and relief?
“So this is . . . look at this,” Elisabeth says, interrupting my reverie and handing me two letters. One is hand-written and the other is typed.
The first is addressed to a little girl, whose name the mother picked out after her abortion. Even though it happened years before, the mother explains that she still thinks about her daughter everyday and wonders who she would be. Would she look like mom or dad? What would her personality be like? At the end, the writer simply signs: “I love you, Mommy.”
In the second letter, a mother grieves the inability to hold and care for her baby boy and to experience motherhood with him. She describes what it might be like to see the little boy in heaven, what it might be like to run to him and hold him in her arms for the very first time: remorse and anticipation brought together by hope.
These women have names and stories. Some of their aborted children have been named. Their post-abortive experiences are nuanced. But their shame and grief rise up through their written histories to mark their readers.
I’ve been marked.
Abortion in the Church
The last document in the manila envelope is a play script, which shares the testimony of a woman who had an abortion titled The Silent Cradle. Similar to the other letters I read, the writer expressed deep regret and sadness that followed her even though her life seemed ordinary. This woman—named Liz in the script—married, had children, and attended church, but she had only told her husband about her abortion: “By then, we were involved in a fine church with supportive friends and eventually I began to realize that to be completely free I needed to share my story.”
She had named her son Daniel.
Elisabeth explains that I might be surprised that there are women in churches who have had an abortion but fear telling anyone. “They think, ‘I’m going to be found out.’ They try to hide it. And many times they think Jesus can’t forgive them. They’re worried once they are found out and then the church will reject them.”
“Are you more aware of how people discuss abortion in churches?” I wonder aloud.
Elisabeth explains that often church attendees may be unaware that the person they’re talking to could have had an abortion. “Are they conveying love and mercy to the sinner in their speech? This change in attitude might attract some post-abortion women in believing that Jesus will forgive them after all.”
Finding Healing after an Abortion
The aim of Elisabeth’s ministry is not to pour a steady stream of salt into the post-abortive wound. Elisabeth wants the women who attend to find healing after an abortion, and she ultimately hopes they’ll find forgiveness and healing through the gospel.
When I ask Elisabeth how she responds to women who share their deepest struggles with her, her response is swift. “Oh, I’m not surprised. But I have hope that they will receive the gospel.”
Often at her meetings, she will work through a predicament with those attending, asking them to imagine that someone is standing before a judge who has committed murder. The judge is just and must make a decision for that person standing before him. What punishment should this person receive? Responses range from life in prison to the death penalty, but then Elisabeth complicates the scenario. But what if the judge is just and loving? What if the judge loves the murderer standing before him?
The answers this time are less sure. A lesser sentence? Well, but what about justice for the victim or the victim’s family? There are answers, but none are quite satisfactory to solve the puzzle proposed.
“What if I told you that the judge gave the death penalty, but then told the murderer that he would endure the sentence for him?” she asks. The responses are usually the same. Why should the judge suffer for the murderer’s actions? Surely, the judge would not endure the punishment for the sake of this murderer.
In the midst of this uncertainty, the gospel is preached: “And yet he does. And yet, he has.”
 Forgiven and Set Free by Linda Cochrane (Baker books, 2015).
 The Silent Cradle was transformed into a dramatic play by Claire Lunde and was based on the testimony of the protagonist in the play.
Cover image by Ryan Loughlin