Local Ministries

Project Rachel gives women who had abortions a way to forgive themselves

Dawn Wilson, a member of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, holds a photo taken the day she had her first abortion in 1982. As she clutched the picture, she meditated in front of both a stained-glass window depicting the Annunciation and the first Station — that of Jesus being condemned to death, contemplating how the sacraments have healed her. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MARC ANDERSON

by Marc and Julie Anderson

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Exactly what she needed.

That’s how .Hope (not her real name) described her retreat two years ago.

That’s because the retreat helped her to forgive herself for decisions she made long ago.

It was the late 1970s. Hope was away at college.

She was 19 when she learned she was pregnant.

Confiding in a peer, she walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic for an abortion less than two weeks later.

“Total panic and fear drove that [decision]. . . . I remember being so numb about it. I didn’t talk all the way home,” she said, even though home was an hour from the clinic.

Six months later, she found herself pregnant again by the same boyfriend. So, she had a second abortion.

For decades, Hope tried to push the abortions out of her mind. But there was one place the guilt always found her.

“It always bothered me when I went into church,” she said.

And for 40 years, at least once a year, she confessed the abortions.

“I’d never felt forgiven,” she said.

Hope attempted going to confession some 40 times for the abortion she had, but she never felt forgiven. PHOTO BY JOSH APPLEGATE/UNSPLASH

Active in her parish, Hope dedicated herself to pro-life ministry, always acting “in an anonymous way to convince people that abortion is wrong.”

In 2019, she met Debra Niesen, consultant for the archdiocese’s pro-life office.

Niesen was distributing tickets to “Unplanned,” which tells the story of Abby Johnson. She went from Planned Parenthood Employee of the Year to pro-life advocate.

Hope had not met Niesen previously, but Niesen’s kindness disarmed her, allowing her to share her pain.

“When our eyes met, I knew she was someone who would understand,” said Hope. “I was right. She was very empathetic and compassionate.”

Niesen returned to her office and immediately emailed Hope information about Project Rachel. But Hope put off acting on it for six months.

Founded in 1984 in Milwaukee by Vicki Thorn, Project Rachel has since spread to more than 150 dioceses across the country, including the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. Its mission is “to provide care for those suffering in the aftermath of abortion” by offering “pastoral counseling, support groups, retreats and referrals to licensed mental health professionals.”

In March 2020, Hope found herself as the only participant at a weekend retreat with two facilitators and a priest.

“The whole entire weekend I was there, they did nothing but comfort me and walk me through [the pain]. . . .  I cried, I wept and I grieved,” Hope said, adding that a priest celebrated Mass for her babies, whom she named Hope and Grace.

Later, Hope said the weekend was “exactly what I needed.”

“I knew I was healed after that, and I knew I was forgiven,” she said.

“I saw and felt the mercy of God that weekend,” she continued, “and I hope that other women [and men] can experience healing, mercy and forgiveness like I did.”

Hope never felt forgiven of the abortion she had while at college — until she attended a Project Rachel retreat two years ago. PHOTO BY ROSIE SUN/UNSPLASH

Unlike Hope, who called Project Rachel seeking healing, Dawn Wilson, a parishioner at Holy Name of Jesus in Kansas City, Kansas, called Project Rachel for another reason.

In 1982, Wilson was 19.

Living in Rhode Island away from her “perfect Catholic family” in Massachusetts, she and her boyfriend learned she was pregnant.

At the time, the couple didn’t seek counsel from any family members, not even those who were members of the clergy. Instead, the pair sought an abortion.

Wilson even walked to and from the abortion, a fact that has played over and over in her mind, especially since the boyfriend (now her ex-husband) snapped a photo of her as she walked away from him on her way to the abortion clinic.

Recently, she found that picture and realized it’s the only one she has of her and her first baby whom she later named Charles.

“It snowed that day,” she said, clutching the photo, her voice trembling and her eyes filling with tears.

Dawn Wilson remembers the day she walked to have an abortion, an experience that left her with lasting emotional and physical damage. PHOTO BY SERGEI SOLO/UNSPLASH

The abortion, Wilson said, cost $200. The price, however, proved much higher.

Not only did Wilson lose Charles, but the abortion injured her physically, leading to several miscarriages. Later, while expecting her son Jason, now 35, she was classified as a high-risk patient and was on bed rest for the pregnancy’s duration.

In addition to the damage to her physical health, Wilson said she suffered psychologically and spiritually more than she ever imagined.

“It never goes away,” Wilson said of the pain.

When Wilson was 33, she finally mentioned her abortion in confession and attempted to return to Mass, but her attendance was often sporadic.

That is until this year.

In January, she finally started attending Mass regularly. Not only that, but she called Project Rachel, offering to serve as a volunteer in whatever way the ministry can use her.    

Last month, Wilson researched abortion statistics and learned in 1982, the year of her abortion, there were 1.57 million abortions in the United States alone. So, she said there are millions of women suffering, aching and struggling with the pain of their abortions weighing heavily on their hearts and souls.

“Giving up my silence is the best thing I could ever give up for Lent,” she said. “I’m giving up my silence for the other women out there who are thinking about abortion and the ones who had an abortion.”

Dawn Wilson has broken her silence after 40 years in the hopes that telling her story will help other women heal. For more information on Project Rachel, go online to: projectrachelkc.com. For information on the “Value Them Both” campaign that seeks to restore the Kansas Constitution to the pre- 2019 Kansas Supreme Court ruling and protect common- sense restrictions on the abortion industry, go online to: valuethemboth.com.

About the author

Marc & Julie Anderson

Freelancers Marc and Julie Anderson are long-time contributors to the Leaven. Married in 1996, for several years the high school sweethearts edited The Crown, the former newspaper of Christ the King Parish in Topeka which Julie has attended since its founding in 1977. In 2000, the Leaven offered the couple their first assignment. Since then, the Andersons’ work has also been featured in a variety of other Catholic and prolife media outlets. The couple has received numerous journalism awards from the Knights of Columbus, National Right to Life and the Catholic Press Association including three for their work on “Think It’s Not Happening Near You? Think Again,” a piece about human trafficking. A lifelong Catholic, Julie graduated from Most Pure Heart of Mary Grade School and Hayden Catholic High School in Topeka. Marc was received into the Catholic Church in 1993 at St. Paul Parish – Newman Center at Wichita State University. The two hold degrees from Washburn University in Topeka. Their only son, William James, was stillborn in 1997.

Leave a Comment

1 Comment

  • Thanks for your great article. My friend had her first baby on the day abortion became legal. She told me that as she looked at her beautiful baby she cried.
    Forgiveness is such a difficult thing. But, all of us who have not had an abortion as well as those who have, must seek forgiveness. No one has the right to judge the heart of another – only God can do that. And, God loves a repentant heart! He can heal and make all things new!
    Thanks Julie and Mark for helping in God’s work of Divine Mercy. Genney