When Karen Ellison was 22 years old, she walked into a pregnancy resource center in Virginia Beach, Virgina, as a student intern, but also, as one who had experienced the pain and lingering effects of an elective abortion. As she began to lead a Bible study for post-abortive women, God led on her journey of healing that resulted years later in the development of Deeper Still, a retreat-based ministry focused on bringing healing and freedom to abortion-wounded hearts.
The Dobbs case and its resulting national attention on the topic of abortion are very likely emotional triggers for the millions of women and men who have participated in an abortion, says Ellison. Below, she shares her experiences and helps us consider the ways in which individuals in our churches and communities might still be in need of healing from past abortions, as well as the importance of this work to the future of the pro-life movement.
Jill Waggoner: Based on your experience, what effects do those who have participated in an abortion struggle with?
Karen Eillison: It manifests differently for different people. Clearly, people experience what I call “true moral guilt.” When we break God’s laws, we are guilty of a moral violation. You have shed innocent blood, even though people don’t recognize that’s what they did. They just know that they aren’t pregnant anymore and don’t want to know the details. Some people will recoil against the statement that abortion is murder and be defensive, shielding themselves from that truth.
However, when the Holy Spirit works and they realize this was their child, they [become convicted]. There’s a moral guilt that you can’t get rid of on your own. At that point, many try to self-atone. Self-atonement shows up in lots of different ways, but many try to be perfect. They decide they’re going to be the perfect wife and the perfect mom, or they are going do amazing things in their career or in serving the church. They have to do something to deal with the self-hatred they often feel.
Shame is the other main effect I see, coupled with guilt, and it manifests in a different ways, as well. Shame causes some people to shrink back and have no confidence. Another way shame manifests is through an attempt to cover it with a false bravado or anger that says, “I’m going to shout my abortion.” A lot of shame, self-hatred, and an attempt to not be defeated by these feelings is under that posture.
Grief is a huge effect of abortion, and it’s often undefined. People don’t know what they’re grieving because they never allowed themselves to call the child within them a baby. It’s a vague, lingering cloud that some people refer to as depression, and it can truly be. It causes people to believe that nothing good is ever going to happen to them, and they can’t get past this feeling.
Healing, God’s way, allows you to define what is going on in you. You can define that moral guilt and recognize that you do need atonement for this. You reject the shame because you don’t have to wear it anymore when you have been forgiven by the blood of Jesus. You can you call the aborted child, your child, and you legitimately have a loss. Your grief is legitimate. A compassionate response to people who have experienced abortion is to say: you don’t have to carry your grief alone.
Those are the ways internal brokenness manifests. When people don’t know how to go to the Lord in confession or how to bring those things to their church body, people will try to anesthetize their pain. Perfectionism is one way, as I mentioned, but we also see substance abuse, addictions, promiscuity (that’s searching for someone to love me), and superficial relationships. People are often empty, angry, and sorrowful.
JW: Why should Christians care about this?
KE: Our nation is abortion-wounded. We have a curse of innocent bloodshed. Sixty-two percent of women who have had an abortion are religiously affiliated, according to Guttmacher. There is a huge population of Christians who are abortion-wounded, and they are not talking about it. We have to reach out with [a message of] healing.
My own healing has always been a part of this ministry. I’ve been shocked since Dobbs at how little I’ve been hearing from Christian leaders on the need for healing. There’s been a lot of right emphasis on pregnancy care centers and helping moms, proving that we care for them beyond the pregnancy, and that is 100% true. But, I think people in the church wrongly think the damage is done and there’s nothing else to do for those who participated in elective abortions. That’s not true. We have to move to helping them heal.
Many people with an abortion-wounded heart will feel ashamed, shrink back, and can’t talk about their abortion even though many men and women will say, “I know I’m forgiven.” They equate forgiveness with healing, and those are not the same things. Forgiveness says your debt has been canceled, but that doesn’t mean you’re healed. Forgiveness means you’re not responsible for that debt anymore through Christ, but your heart has still been wounded. Healing is usually some type of a process the Lord takes you through.
JW: In addition to a ministry of healing, what do those who carry the scars of abortion need from the church?
KE: I address this question at length in my book, Healing the Hurt that Won’t Heal: Freedom for the Abortion-Wounded and Help for the Church They Fear.
Pastors and church leaders carry a tremendous shepherding responsibility. We need to hear from them. Women and men in the pew need to hear the truth about [all of us] being made in the image of God. We need that teaching in order to have the legitimate conviction from the Holy Spirit that these are babies made in the imago Dei.
We also need to hear from our pastors that the blood of Jesus is stronger than abortion-wounded hearts. You can be thoroughly forgiven because of the blood of Jesus. The blood of Jesus, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the body of Christ can bring healing.
Some pastors are afraid to address this topic. They have been told that if you open this Pandora’s box, you’re just going to do damage and hurt women more. So pastors tip-toe around it and don’t press in. But we need to develop both a culture of life and a culture of healing. If you develop a culture of healing in your church, people will come to you with their brokenness and sin. Determine to be a safe space. Churches need to say: Jesus has the ability and desire to heal you, and this is a church you can come to. We are going to walk through this healing with you.
JW: How has the Dobbs case and the national attention on the topic of abortion affected the people you serve?
KE: The subject of abortion is not going to go away, although I do hope abortion itself is going to go away. There was a time I couldn’t even say the word “abortion.” An abortion-wounded person often cringes or aches every time you hear the word or hear a news report. There is often a sick feeling in your stomach and a desire to run away. There is a trigger that is going on [because of the national conversation]. Our prayer should be: help people to know that they need healing from you, Lord.
For example, at our retreats, our participants are mostly men and women in their 50s and 60s who have been running from their abortion for 20–30 years. People run for a long time. If you are still feeling these affects decades later, it’s not going to go away. Let’s pray that God is surfacing it to use it for good. The enemy will try to use it to bring condemnation, but God wants to bring healing and freedom in Christ.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.