Grieving Over Contraception and Sterilization

Interview With Theresa Burke of Rachel's Vineyard

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KING OF PRUSSIA, Pennsylvania, JULY 16, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Debates over the use of the "morning-after" pill have often focused on the physical health of women.



Less discussed is the mental, emotional and spiritual health of women who use the drug, which can cause early abortions.

One specialist who does deal with the problem is psychologist Theresa Burke, the founder of Rachel's Vineyard Ministries. She reports that many women suffer pain and regret from use of contraception and sterilization in her book "The Contraception of Grief: The Genesis of Anguish Conceived by Abortifacients and Sterilization" (published by Priests for Life).

Burke shared with ZENIT some hidden effects of contraception and sterilization.

Q: What compelled you to write about grief associated with the use of abortifacients and sterilization? When did this trend first come to your attention?

Burke: For the past 20 years, I have been involved in the study and treatment of pregnancy loss and unresolved grief.

I never expected the subject of contraception linked to deep and hidden emotional pain to repeatedly surface during our weekends for healing after abortion.

Indeed, many abortions were associated with a failure in contraception. Any woman who leaves an abortion clinic is released with an arsenal of birth control pills. The behavior that led to the pregnancy is never addressed, but she is armed with the resources to prevent another pregnancy … or so she thinks.

Besides these obvious reasons for grief, I was rather astounded that a growing number of women, including non-Catholics, were coming forward to say that they were also experiencing profound feelings of grief and loss because of contraceptive use which resulted in spontaneous abortions.

The subject was also being brought up by those who came to assist on our retreats, and had a moment of powerful spiritual revelation regarding a deep and unnamed grief they held buried within their soul.

I have encountered this unique grief on many different occasions. I'd have to say that among the many hidden sources of shame and grief in the Church today, perhaps none go as unnoticed, unmentioned and ignored as the emotional pain from the use of contraception.

Subsequently, when the realization dawns that a child, or several children, have been lost through various methods of birth control, there can be serious emotional consequences.

Initially, my focus was only abortion, not contraception. However, I saw our role as helping women face and grieve the reality hidden in their hearts. If their soul was in pain, who was I to say that it was not real?

I gave them permission to speak the truth that was hidden and to grieve the pain that was surfacing. I also witnessed the liberation and freedom, the openness to life, the joy and vitality that followed that experience.

Janet Morana, the associate director of Priests for Life, also encouraged me to write about this.

Janet felt that the pain she suffered from contraception was profound and she knew there were many others who also shared in this grief. She felt that few in society recognized or validated this hurt and that like abortion, pregnancy loss from contraception, is also a forbidden grief.

When Rachel's Vineyard became a ministry of Priests for Life, it was one of the first new issues I began to investigate.

Q: Briefly, how do some forms of birth control act as abortifacients? Why do so few people know about these facts?

Burke: Some forms of birth control do more than just prevent pregnancy.

The birth control pill, the IUD, and other hormonal contraceptives such as the morning-after pill -- "emergency contraception" -- Depo-Provera and Norplant can sometimes cause an abortion of human life that has already been conceived.

Dr. Walter L. Larimore and Dr. Joseph B. Stanford point out that the principal mechanism of oral contraceptives is to inhibit ovulation, but this mechanism does not always work.

They state, "When breakthrough ovulation occurs, then secondary mechanisms operate to prevent pregnancy. These secondary mechanisms may occur either before or after fertilization.

"The principles of informed consent suggest that patients who may object to the destruction of their fertilized eggs should be made aware of this information so that they can give fully informed consent for the use of oral contraceptives."

But most people never hear this fact. There is widespread ignorance on this subject and a lot of misinformation.

Although the Church holds the doctrinal truth in all its fullness, clergy rarely preach about it. The majority of Catholic couples practice some form of birth control despite the Church's official pronouncements against the use of contraception in 1968.

A 1992 Gallup poll showed that 80% of U.S. Catholics disagreed with the statement "Using artificial means of birth control is wrong." A 1996 study conducted by Father Thomas Sweetser for the Milwaukee-based Parish Evaluation Project found only 9% of Catholics considered birth control to be immoral.

There is clearly a disconnection between Church teaching and practice. As a culture, many view what they do in the bedroom as a private affair with no connection to practices of faith and morality.

Q: What have you seen to be the overall effects of contraception and sterilization on relationships and faith?

Burke: When God's presence and spirit are expelled from the sexual union, it invites a distortion of the gift. There is a separation between one's theology and faith practices and the gift of sexuality.

This split may result in a loss of intimacy and trust. I believe this split is felt between an individual and their partner as well as between the individual and God. The mystery is removed and the capacity to join with God as co-creators of life is ended.

The spark of the divine that we share with God in our capacity to give life is extinguished and the experience of marital intimacy can become engulfed in darkness, rather than a divine miracle of grace, love, excitement and pleasure.

Q: What are some hidden effects of abortifacient contraceptives and sterilization?

Burke: With abortifacients, some women experience guilt, grief and anger that their wombs were made an unwelcome environment for the developing child at its earliest time of life.

Many women, who realize they have spent years denying the gift of life because of their dependence on the chemical or surgical methods of contraception, feel a genuine sense of loss and grief.

Surgical measures may give rise to an unexpected anger and sadness that may suddenly cause profound marital problems after tubes are tied and vasectomies are performed. The procedure that a couple hoped would provide sexual freedom and enjoyment can frequently be experienced as a loss of passion, alienation, mistrust and a profound sense of rejection.

Q: What usually causes people to realize that past use of contraceptive and surgical measures may be the source of grief or discord in their lives?

Burke: I believe that for some it is a special grace -- a moment of illumination. It is an awareness that comes to them in prayer. I have seen others who gain insight because they are specifically focused on healing the losses of the womb, which often happens at programs like Rachel's Vineyard.

Others who are spending a fortune on fertility drugs and treatments may feel acute grief when they recall with bitterness and regret how they spent years in their younger lives trying to prevent pregnancy. Still others may realize hidden feelings when they read a book about natural family planning and learn the science behind contraception.

For some, it's when they learn about the "theology of the body" and they begin a process of conversion, recognizing how they were closed off to the gift of life and saw children as a burden rather than a blessing. I know Christopher West's presentations have also opened this door of reflection and feeling for many couples.

Q: What can be done to begin the healing of those afflicted with this grief?

Burke: Those who have been wounded by abortifacients can find healing and reconciliation. The truth about the dignity of the human person and the gift of sexuality is a message of good news and liberation -- not one of condemnation and judgment.

We must convey the truth of Christ with love to the modern world. The more we have surrendered to the authority of God, the more we can be instruments of his love and mercy, and a living witness to the Gospel of life.

For those seeking to reconcile theses wounds, Rachel's Vineyard is a good place to start. It provides a safe environment to search the fabric of our lives, the innermost depths of the soul, and to acknowledge the pain that comes when the gift of our sexuality has not been revered as a sacred and holy act.

Mourning and grieving are necessary milestones we travel so our lives may continue in the fullness that Christ calls us to. When this process of recognizing sin and repentance has been completed, there is rebirth and resurrection.

Encountering Christ will expose the lie of contraception and bring upon us deep conviction and blessing to protect the dignity of human life.