Catholics launch assistance project for after abortion Lead priest says 1 in 3 women have post-traumatic syndrome

January 19, 1992|By Sheridan Lyons

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore will launch today at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen a program to offer spiritual and emotional counseling to women traumatized by abortion.

A steering committee for Project Rachel is being selected under a project director named by Archbishop William H. Keeler. The director, the Rev. Blair Paul Raum, 46-year-old pastor of St. Patrick's Church on South Broadway, is a certified counselor who said he works outside the church as a family therapist.

He said yesterday that the archbishop would formally announce the project at the annual Respect Life Mass at 3 p.m. at the North Charles Street cathedral.

In an interview at St. Patrick's, Father Raum said "a very conservative estimate" is that 30 percent of women who have abortions will suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, similar to the experiences of Vietnam War veterans, within 10 years of the procedure.

"With 30 million abortions since 1973, that's 10 million women. There's a lot of folks out there," he said.

He acknowledged that the American Psychiatric Association does not recognize post-abortion stress syndrome, but said he believed the illness will be recognized as more women experience it and seek help.

James A. Guest, president of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, disagreed with that assessment last night, saying that the issue has been studied by the APA, the surgeon general and others "and there's simply no credible evidence that this syndrome exists."

"It looks like a group that's vehemently opposed to abortion in the first place has invented a syndrome that doesn't exist and attached a percentage to it that's totally unsupported."

But Father Raum said that studies showing women suffer no ill effects after abortions have focused only on the first year after the procedure. He added that "generally in the first years, she experiences a great deal of relief, because usually the abortion is had as the result of a crisis pregnancy."

Next comes a period of denial, Father Raum said. "A very powerful defense, and she can move on and function very well."

But, he said, "somewhere within that 10-year period, something breaks the denial: seeing a child that would be the same age; the anniversary of the due date; . . . the sound of a vacuum cleaner [if it was a suction abortion] and all this suppressed emotion begins to surface."

The women begin showing signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome the way soldiers do, Father Raum said, through reliving the experience and suffering from sleeplessness and guilt that they survived while another died.

As a counselor, he said, he has seen 18 to 20 cases of post-abortion trauma in the past three or four years. He recalled, "Some women come and say, 'I've been thinking about my abortion lately and it's really bothering me.' Others may not say it directly but are having problems with their marriages . . . and the root cause is that he wanted her to have an abortion.

"This is an issue at the very heart of being a woman," the priest added.

He offered the example of a married woman who had had two abortions, six and seven years ago -- the first because of marital problems that couldn't take the additional strain of a child, and the second because she and her husband were both in school.

The woman experienced increasing tension with her husband, from whom she now is separated.

Then one Sunday during the Christmas season she was in church -- which she had all but stopped attending. Father Raum said, "It was Christmas, a special season focused on the birth of a baby. She began to think about her children, the abortions . . . and her denial began to break and she began to feel a great deal of emotional distress.

"She decided to seek help with what she was feeling and a reconciliation with God, with the realization that what she had done was wrong." The woman and he fasted and prayed, he said, and she celebrated the sacrament of reconciliation. She later planted a tree in memory of her aborted children.

Project Rachel -- named in part for the biblical figure who mourned her children -- began in 1984 in Milwaukee, he said.

The Catholic anti-abortion stance often makes a woman feel alienated from the church just when she may need spiritual comfort the most, Father Raum said yesterday. And belonging to a strongly anti-abortion denomination can be a factor in the post-traumatic stress syndrome.

But contrary to notions about damnation and excommunication, he said, "a good confession would forgive that sin [abortion]."

Although Baltimore's Project Rachel will be a Catholic project at first, it will welcome clients of any faith. They will be referred either to a counselor or a priest.

Once the steering committee is appointed, he said, he plans to arrange for a toll-free telephone number to take confidential calls.

"For any woman who calls the line, we would attempt to address her need," he said. "And we are looking down the line to expand beyond the Catholic Church, to offer more."

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