In his memoirs, Treasure in Clay, Bishop Fulton Sheen (1895–1979) tells of giving instructions in the Catholic Faith to a young woman. During the lesson on confession, the young woman suddenly jumped from her chair and yelled at Bishop Sheen that she would never become Catholic because of what he had told her about confession. Sheen waited for her to finish speaking, then commented that her reaction was in no way proportionate to what he had just said about confession. “Have you had an abortion?” he asked her. The young woman’s shoulders slumped. Yes. Yes, she had.
I have heard the claim that Bishop Sheen could “read souls”—that is, that he was given a special grace from God to know things about a person he couldn’t know unless God specially revealed it. Whether or not Bishop Sheen had that spiritual gift, he didn’t need it here. All he needed was a keen grasp of psychology to know that this young woman was protecting herself from a reality she couldn’t acknowledge.
Recently I read a blog post that reminded me of Bishop Sheen’s exchange. Secular feminist and abortion-rights activist Michelle Kinsey Bruns wrote for the blog Feministing about her encounter with a group of teenagers headed home from the 2013 March for Life.
Bruns was riding on a train when she learned that one of the cars had been reserved for a group of students that would board the train in Washington, D.C. It was the day after the March for Life, so she suspected that the students would be pro-life teens headed home from the March. When she saw their Catholic school sweatshirts and pro-life signs, she knew she was right. She entered their car, called them to attention, and then proceeded to tell them her abortion story because she wanted them to “hear, for perhaps the first time in their lives, a positive, no-regrets, post-abortion narrative.”
The story she told though wasn’t at all positive. It was the story of an abused teen desperately seeking a way out of terrible circumstances. Bruns put down her shaking voice to adrenaline and nerves, but by her account her voice started to shake at the very point she was confessing, “And that abortion saved my life—” What she did admit to regretting was that in that moment on the Amtrak, before a group of more than 50 teenagers who gave her the courtesy of listening quietly, she forgot the bulk of her canned pro-abortion talking points.
Bruns sets the story of her abortion within a bitter narrative of her life as a Catholic school student, convinced by middle-school age of a need for abortion rights, but oppressed by a nun who didn’t want to hear her opinion. She resented not being allowed to make a persuasive speech in favor of abortion. She then projects onto these teens all of her own feelings about her Catholic school years, assuming that these “exploited” teens are at the March merely to get out of diagramming sentences.
Even as Bruns holds these kids in contempt, she feels compelled to tell them her story. Most years she goes to the March to counter-protest, and she was upset that a business trip made it seem unlikely she could do so this year. Learning the teens would be on the train, with chaperones she accuses of being “exploitative,” she can’t pass up the opportunity to exploit the teens herself by turning them into a captive audience:
I swallowed my weird guilt for not being in D.C.—like those naïve kids and their exploitative handlers were getting away with it if I wasn’t there telling them they were wrong—by telling myself I’d attend in 2014. As long as there are field-trip-loving Catholic-school kids, there will always be a March for Life.
I got my chance to counterprotest much sooner than I thought.
Remember Bruns’ objective: “to let them hear, for perhaps the first time in their lives, a positive, no-regrets, post-abortion narrative.” If her experience was positive and she was without regret, why is she compelled to accost children, stifle their chaperone with an assertion that she is “a private citizen, who exercises my rights,” and force these children to listen to her story when all they were doing was returning home after exercising their own free-speech rights? What was it about these young people that evidently compelled her to invade their space and make a spectacle of herself on a train?
All I could think was that, like Bishop Sheen’s student, Michelle Kinsey Bruns is haunted in her own way by her abortion. She does not acknowledge that, has instead submerged herself in a life of activism for abortion rights, but the haunting grief is there, leaking through her story and into her voice. “I’ve done enough justifying of my life to strangers this week” (emphasis added).
Groups like the Silent No More Awareness Campaign provide a great service in giving post-abortive women an opportunity to speak out against abortion. But we must not forget that not all post-abortive women become pro-life activists; many become pro-abortion activists. When we are tempted to become angry at the pro-abortion rhetoric, perhaps we ought to take a moment and listen for unacknowledged grief lying beneath the surface.