Photo by Brad Smith
When Vicki Thorn founded Project Rachel in Milwaukee in 1984,
she was inspired by a self-destructive friend who had given
one child up for adoption and aborted another. The friend
said, "I can live with the adoption; I can't live with the
Thorn soon became "an expert in a field that didn't exist,"
she explains. Today over 140 U.S. dioceses have started this
post-abortion healing ministry, and it's spreading around
The first training day in Milwaukee was attended by about
60 priests and a few local reporters. "When I started Rachel,
I thought it would be a nice little local diocesan project
until the next day when it was in all the media," notes Thorn.
"I started getting calls from people in other dioceses because
we'd all been talking about [post-abortion ministry] for years."
Today she travels nationally and internationally to speak
about her ministry.
Last September, Milwaukee's Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland,
O.S.B., presented Vicki Thorn with the 2001 Vatican II Award
for Distinguished Service to Society for her dedication to
helping women and men who have been affected by abortion.
The previous year the Catholic Press Association acknowledged
her accomplishments by presenting her with the Herald of Charity
St. Anthony Messenger interviewed Vicki Thorn last
July at the Archbishop Cousins Catholic Center in Milwaukee,
where she has a rent-free office provided by the archdiocese.
She notes that the article published in this magazine in April
1986 about Project Rachel is still used to provide information.
Network of Professionals
When Vicki Thorn became Respect Life director for the Archdiocese
of Milwaukee in 1977, she says she "discovered that the U.S.
bishops had called for the development of post-abortion healing"
in their first Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities,
issued in 1975. This plan was in response to the January 22,
1973, legalization of abortion in this country.
Thorn praises Milwaukee's Archbishop Weakland, who encouraged
her when she told him of her hope to develop some type of
post-abortion ministry. "To this day, his support has been
stunning," she emphasizes. "He gives us our office, and he's
been there to help us financially."
When she started Project Rachel, Vicki Thorn was a young
wife and mother with a B.A. in psychology from the University
of Minnesota. Today her credentials also include being a trauma
counselor and a facilitator in bereavement loss and prenatal
Thorn says she had no experts to call upon when she developed
Project Rachel. She believed post-abortion healing ministry
needed to offer anonymity, have a strong spiritual element
and include a psychotherapeutic component. The name Project
Rachel was inspired by Scripture: "Rachel mourns her children,
she refuses to be consoled because her children are no more"
Today Project Rachel is a diocesan-based ministry that includes
a network of specially trained clergy, spiritual directors
and therapists who provide compassionate one-on-one care to
people who struggle with the aftermath of abortion. (Some
dioceses offer additional components such as retreats and
support groups.) That includes women who have had abortions,
fathers of aborted babies, grandparents, siblings and others.
People seeking information can call their diocese, check their
telephone book under "Project Rachel" or contact The National
Office of Post-abortion Reconciliation and Healing, Inc. (800-5WE-CARE).
In 1990 Vicki Thorn founded The National Office of Post-abortion
Reconciliation and Healing (NOPRAH) as an oversight organization
to coordinate Project Rachel and other post-abortion services.
Since the office is only open part-time, many people leave
telephone messages. "The voice mail is always on," notes Thorn,
"and we always get back with people, usually within 24 hours."
Others locate Project Rachel through its Web site (www.
Marquette.edu/rachels). Thorn says the national office
receives 300-400 phone calls and about 200 e-mails each month.
Some of those e-mails come from people who live in other
countries. Some of the e-mail comes from women who have recently
had abortions. "They aren't even ready to heal yet, but we've
got to keep them out of 'suicide alley' because they are potentially
suicidal," says Thorn.
Vicki Thorn is executive director of NOPRAH. She and another
part-time employee work in the office, with help from a volunteer.
NOPRAH operates on a "shoestring budget," she explains. The
organization is independent, not an agency of the U.S. Conference
of Catholic Bishops.
Although this independence restricts funding, it allows NOPRAH
to be ecumenical. NOPRAH every two years sponsors an international
post-abortion healing conference, where participants can attend
workshops and learn from each other.
Thorn says there is more awareness today about the long-term
negative effects of abortion than when she began her ministry.
Yet there is still "huge denial in the psychotherapeutic community"
regarding links between abortion and harmful behaviors such
as depression, eating disorders and suicidal tendencies.
Although every woman who has had an abortion is "a mother
who has lost a child," the circumstances can affect the way
a woman grieves. For example, a woman who has had an abortion
because a doctor told her something was wrong with the baby
"will be a wreck immediately....The woman who has a late-term
abortion will probably grieve right away, too, because she
Regarding RU-486, known as the "abortion pill," Thorn says,
"We have some potential for serious post-traumatic stress
disorder there.... You can't be sitting at home, have all
this blood, and then pass the baby, and think you're not going
to be traumatized by it!"
Thorn refers to women who have had abortions as "aborted
women." She says they need to understand some of the things
that can trigger painful emotions. For example, an aborted
woman might believe that God can't forgive her. Attending
a wedding or graduation of someone who is the same age her
aborted baby would have been can cause anguish. Early menopause
for a woman with no living children is another reminder.
Most aborted women who contact Project Rachel "want to start
with a priest," says Thorn. These women feel the urge for
forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Some believe
they have committed an unforgivable sin and think they are
excommunicated (see "Ask
The woman is given the names of several priests nearby who
have been trained in this healing ministry. If a woman has
a special problem such as depression or an eating disorder,
she may be referred to a priest who is also a therapist. Thorn
tells women, "Trust the Holy Spirit to get you to the right
In order to protect the priests and the women, "The priest
list is highly confidential," explains Thorn. For example,
if it is known that a specific parish priest is trained in
Project Rachel, people might think that every woman making
an appointment with him has had an abortion. In addition,
some people might mistakenly think that a priest involved
in Project Rachel is pro-abortion.
Thorn believes aborted women feel isolated and have a strong
drive to heal: "They think they're crazy because where in
the media do you see that there's a problem afterward?" She
tells them, "If you give God permission to heal you, God is
going to honor your request." When they are healed, these
women "are such a gift to the Church because they understand
the Church's teaching on abortion. They may even come to understand
the Church's teaching on contraception."
Many women were pressured into having abortions, either directly
or indirectly, she explains. Thus, it's important that they
make the decision to seek healing on their own, without pressure.
And that may be many years after an abortion. "The day that
she's ready to heal, God is going to put somebody or some
book or some Web site there," she says. "It's about bereavement.
It's about grieving. It's about establishing a relationship
with that lost child. The real gift of our faith tradition
is the Communion of Saints, because you can talk about that
child as an intercessor for the family."
Priests Make House Calls
Vicki Thorn wrote an article in The Priest (January
2001), explaining the long-term effects of abortion on a woman:
"Even in her healing, she is forever and always a mother who
has lost a child in a traumatic and unnatural fashion."
Thorn recalls a telephone conversation with an elderly woman
who needed spiritual healing from an abortion she had years
earlier. Since the woman was somewhat homebound, Thorn found
a priest who made a house call. "I've had that happen several
times," she recalls.
"The priests who are part of this ministry are also affirmed
in their priesthood," she says. "They see the power of the
Sacrament [of Reconciliation] through these women."
She recalls one priest who had been a bureaucrat since his
ordination. After he became involved in Project Rachel, he
said, "This is the first time in my life I've done what I
was ordained to do."
Another priest found a reason for continuing his vocation.
He "was literally set to leave the priesthood," recalls Thorn.
"He had his letter written to the bishop." The next day an
aborted woman called and met with the priest a few times.
"By the time he was done helping her heal, he tore up his
When priests attend training sessions, an additional benefit
is networking with therapists whose services can be recommended
to parishioners who need counseling for other problems such
as marriage or bereavement.
Thorn's experience has been that about 10 percent of priests
in a diocese attend these trainings, except in some dioceses
where bishops have mandatory clergy days so all priests are
To reduce some of the time she spends away from her family
and her office, Thorn says she tries to "piggyback presentations
in nearby dioceses whenever possible....I think I have personally
trained 4,000-5,000 people across the country."
Another Project Rachel trainer who gives presentations is
Father Blair Raum, a Baltimore priest who is director of diocesan
outreach for NOPRAH. In a Catholic News Service article, he
emphasizes the need for priests not to pass judgment or make
women who have had abortions feel unwelcome in the Church.
Some steps toward healing include identifying the aborted
child as a boy or a girl, giving the child a name, establishing
a memorial, writing a letter and receiving the Sacrament of
Mothers of aborted babies are not the only ones who are traumatized.
"One of the phone calls I received was from a father who e-mailed
200 sites, and I was the only one who helped," Thorn explains.
"The men are excluded. They're told they have no say. They
have no right to be sad. And then they're sad and can't figure
out why....The fathers who don't want the abortion are immediately
She recalls the aborted father who told her he was a Christian
but not affiliated with any particular denomination. After
several conversations about religion, the man said, "If you're
any indication, maybe I ought to investigate the Catholic
Church." Thorn located a priest near where the man lived who
could "be present to him as an aborted father."
When Vicki Thorn gives presentations on college campuses,
she encounters students who are troubled because they have
discovered that a sibling was aborted. "Abortion is a very
scary thing for a child to know because it means that your
parent has the capacity to destroy someone," she explains.
Many of these young people contact Project Rachel through
the Web site. "I corresponded with one young woman whose mother
had an abortion when the girl was a toddler....It left the
girl with post-traumatic stress disorder," she says. The young
woman returned to the trailer court where she was raised,
unpacked some items for her aborted brother and made a memorial
shrine for him.
Grandparents of aborted babies are also devastated, Thorn
explains. Some feel responsible because they encouraged the
abortion; others didn't know their daughters were pregnant.
When Vicki Thorn, 52, is not working on Project Rachel, she
says that her "six kids keep me pretty busy." That includes
working on wedding plans for the oldest child.
The Thorn family lives near Marquette University, where Vicki's
husband, Bill, is an associate professor of journalism. Vicki
notes that their home is "rarely tidy by virtue of eight people
living there with two dogs, a bunny, a guinea pig, a hamster,
three cats and two birds. People like to come because it's
a very comfortable house."
She explains that she and Bill met "at the Kiss of Peace
during Mass at the University of Minnesota's Newman Center.
We both had an electric shock go up our armsit's the
only time it's ever happened to either one of us."
Vicki likes to make gifts for her loved ones: A few years
ago she sewed bathrobes for each family member for Christmas.
And she enjoys reading "huge amounts" of fiction and nonfiction.
"I read a lot of eclectic stuff."
Helping others runs in the family. Vicki says that her parents
"were very generous with their time." When her father died,
she discovered that "he had a whole network of people that
he checked on" on a regular basis. And now Vicki hears her
daughters talk about continuing her ministry.
But Vicki Thorn is too busy planning for the future to think
about retirement. "One of the things I dream about is starting
an organization of clergy from other denominations," she says.
Thorn explains that no other mainline religions have a similar
Many of the people who contact Project Rachel are not Catholic.
Even though they are told the ministry is open to anyone who
is experiencing abortion aftermath, Thorn believes programs
based in their own faith tradition would be more beneficial.
She explains that many of her dreams can't be implemented
due to lack of funds and no time to do fund-raising. She would
like to activate an additional toll-free number. It would
be a "rollover number that would put the caller into the diocese
they're calling from....We could use that in national ads.
"One of my dreams is to run an ad in USA Today for
fathers in the sports and business sections," she continues.
"I see what could be done, in terms of vision. But we don't
have the resources. That's the hard part."
Additional funding would also allow Thorn to expand the staff.
"There's so much that could be done and needs to be done because
there's still this huge lie out there that abortion is a good
Vicki Thorn describes some of the "God appointments" she
has experienced. One time an inquisitive woman sitting next
to her on a plane kept prying into why she was going to Florida.
When Thorn told the stranger she would be speaking to priests
and therapists about post-abortion healing, the woman got
teary-eyed and said, "Oh, that's so important. I had my abortion
17 years ago." The woman added that she was meeting a friend
in Florida who had had four abortions.
During that flight, Thorn explained post-abortion healing
to this woman, who likely passed the information along to
Other God appointments occur whenever EWTN repeats a program
about Thorn's ministry, she notes. Each time the show airs,
Thorn receives phone calls from viewers for information about
post-abortion healing. Many women explain that they were unexpectedly
at home channel-surfing instead of at work.
"When she's ready, God is going to put into her life the
next point for help," says Thorn. Her voice trembles when
she reflects upon the positive feedback she has received from
aborted women who express gratitude that someone cared about
them: "You know you've made a difference in somebody's life."
Thorn realizes her ministry "has changed the face of the
abortion issue in this country and abroad. I guess that's
worthwhile," she says humbly. But she refuses to take too
much credit, insisting that "God is in charge. I'm along for
For information about Project Rachel, contact your diocesan
office or The National Office of Post-abortion Reconciliation
and Healing, Inc., P.O. Box 07477, Milwaukee, WI 53207-0477.
National referral line: 800-5WE- CARE. Business line: 414-483-4141.
Web site: www.Marquette.edu/rachels.