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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sue Lani Madsen: Beyond abortion

Sue Lani Madsen. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Modern medicine recognizes a wide range of syndromes and disorders. Some are obscure, like the complex regional pain syndrome plaguing a neighbor. Some were once considered normal but are now labeled a disability, like obesity. And after almost two decades of war, society has become all too familiar with the acronym PTSD to refer to post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the case of post-abortion stress syndrome, politics has superseded medicine. Formal recognition for PASS has been vigorously opposed by the pro-abortion lobby lest it poke a hole in the “abortion is no big deal” narrative of the left. And PASS has admittedly been over emphasized by some anti-abortion groups using it to scare women facing unplanned pregnancies with unreasonably high statistics on its prevalence and acuity.

The problem is there are no reliable statistics. Both women and men suffer from degrees of post-abortion stress, but it’s not possible to accurately measure the frequency of something which is not named. Common sense tells us it’s real. Everyone has experienced regret over even relatively minor decisions and understands that regret can turn into a heavy burden.

Help is available for those who find themselves struggling with the symptoms of this special kind of PTSD. Path of Life has been serving the Spokane area since the 1980s. “All of our leaders are post-abortive and we’re not judging you,” said Sheri Olsen of Path of Life. “We understand the post-abortion experience is a grief process, and it’s important to give both men and women safe space to grieve that loss.” Path of Life offers an eight week group program using the Bible as a resource, although being a Christian isn’t necessary to join a group.

Rachel’s Vineyard of Spokane, a local chapter of the national organization, grew out of a Catholic outreach to women who have experienced abortion – as many as one in three women in the United States, according to some estimates. “If we can get one message across, we want people to know this is a place for healing and not for politics. We all have regrets in our lives, regret come with perspective,” said Julie Olson of Rachel’s Vineyard.

The three day intensive retreats welcome all women who have had abortions as well as partners, parents, siblings and children affected by an abortion choice. According to Olson, most of their participants are 40 years old or more and have anniversary dates haunting them every year. The retreats provide a safe, non-judgmental place to tell their story. “So often people say they felt they had no choice, and no one will just listen. Our process acknowledges that we are all loved, and no sin is too great for God’s forgiveness.”

PASS is generally identified by symptoms of guilt, anxiety, numbness or depression, flashbacks and occasionally suicidal thoughts. All of these are closely identified with PTSD, a normal reaction to physical or emotional trauma. Suppressed trauma plays out in self-defeating behaviors including perfectionism, alcoholism, over-eating and a pattern of broken relationships.

Julie Olson recalled a woman in her 80s who attended a retreat and confessed regrets that while her pregnancy would have lasted 9 months, the abortion had lasted a lifetime. She had experienced six bad marriages, repeatedly setting herself up to fail. Olson recommended “Forbidden Grief” by Theresa Burke and David C. Reardon as a resource for those who feel isolated by their abortion experience or know someone who is struggling.

Olson also emphasized the power of our words. “All of us know women who have had abortions, whether we know it or not. How we talk matters,” she said. It’s the in your face #ShoutYourAbortion campaign, or a thoughtless comment at a neighborhood coffee klatsch questioning how anyone could ever abort their baby that condemn those who are living with PASS to isolation and silence.

Spokane’s Walk for Life on Saturday morning in Riverfront Park will include survivors of PASS. Julie Olson said volunteers will be ready to block, if necessary, any protestors waving graphic posters. “Yes, that’s what it looks like, but it re-traumatizes those who are post-abortive.”

We no longer condemn the war weary soldier with PTSD to silence. Neither should we impose silence on those struggling with PASS. “Hope, help and forgiveness is available, and it’s free. Our focus at Path of Life is healing,” said Sheri Olsen.