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"When a subsequent child is born for that male, it can become more of an issue," Harvath says. "Because as they look at that child, as they hold that child, they say, 'This is my second child; this isn't my first child,' in remembrance of that abortion."
On a recent Saturday outside the Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois, about fifteen minutes from downtown St. Louis, more than 50 people cluster on the sidewalk. They recite Scripture and clutch signs with gory pictures of fetuses juxtaposed against smiling portraits of young children. Anxious young women offer fistfuls of pamphlets, and two men with digital cameras circle every car that stops on or near the lot, snapping shots of the license plates and the people inside, while a public-safety officer stands coolly by, arms crossed.
All of the groups standing outside the clinic are religiously affiliated. One woman waves a large Project Rachel sign over her head like a flag, screaming at a young black woman who's entering the building with her head down and sunglasses on: "You don't have to kill your baby!"
Rebecca Turner is an ordained Southern Baptist minister and, for the last nine years, the executive director of Faith Aloud, a pro-choice abortion counseling hot line that connects callers with clergy for advice and a sympathetic ear. She is familiar with Project Rachel and sees the so-called healing retreats it offers as a sort of boot camp, training post-abortive women and men to join the anti-abortion army.
"They always begin by getting the women to admit — in this case, for the men, that they have been party to — admit that they have murdered their own child. And of course they are told that they have to feel shame and guilt for that," says Turner. "[Men are told they should] never have allowed it to happen. And that they have serious sins to confess."
The idea? "The only way you're going to get forgiven by God is if you join forces with us, if you get on the picket line, or write letters, or whatever it is, to take some action, and that's how God's going to forgive you."
Father Kevin Schroeder, a St. Louis priest who has worked with Project Rachel participants, acknowledges that he often assigns pro-life activism as penance, a way for "people to feel like they're giving something back from what they took away when they made that decision."
"It can be anything from praying to going to stand outside an abortion clinic," Schroeder says. "It's kind of up to them in what they feel most comfortable and most capable of fulfilling."
Participants in Projects Rachel and Joseph are also told about post-abortion syndrome, a controversial diagnosis that the Church assigns to many of them, although no medical expert would prescribe medication for it.
Though not found in any authoritative medical-health text, post-abortion syndrome is one of the pro-life side's go-to arguments. The idea was introduced in the early '80s, soon after Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was first officially recognized. Pro-life activists say the trauma of having a child removed from the body is akin to the psychological effects soldiers faced after the Vietnam War, complete with lingering depression and suicidal tendencies lurking in the shadowy parts of the psyche.
The American Psychological Association took on post-abortion syndrome in 1989 and formed a task force that examined all English-language studies that dealt with the topic, hoping to answer definitively whether it was real. In 2008, they revived the task force to review the data.
Both times they came to the same conclusion.
Their August 2008 report stated that, based on existing studies, increased suicide and depression rates are not medical risks of abortion. It was rare, the study said, that a woman would experience a "severe negative reaction after a legal, non-restrictive first-trimester abortion."
The task force found that studies conducted on the subject were inherently flawed. Some attributed depression to the abortion experience, when the subject had suffered mental-health problems before; some failed to provide a control group of women who carried an unwanted pregnancy to term; others included findings on women who aborted unwanted pregnancies alongside findings on women who had terminated a wanted pregnancy for medical reasons, when the situations were clearly not comparable.
The task force did acknowledge that although some women felt sadness or a sense of loss after an abortion, they did not find "evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and a mental-health problem was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors."
An April 2010 appellate court decision used the report's findings to overturn a 2005 law passed by the South Dakota state legislature that would require pre-abortion counselors to warn that "increased suicide and ideation of suicide" was a known medical risk of abortion. The court called the warning "false and misleading."
Despite this, Project Rachel's Lauver calls post-abortion syndrome a "very real issue, a real syndrome," and Harvath, Project Rachel's clinical director, says that any post-abortive man or woman who claims to be unaffected by post-abortion syndrome symptoms is not telling the truth.
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