'Many women in Church have had an abortion but it's the last place they can talk about it'

Just because we don't talk about it, doesn't mean that abortion isn't something that affects Christian women. One in three women will have an abortion by the time they are 45 according to national statistics. That means that there are inevitably women in church who will have had an abortion – and it isn't just something that happens before they came to faith.

"There are many, many women sitting in churches who've had abortions, but just feel it's absolutely the last place they can talk about it," says Jenny Baines, who has worked with women facing unplanned pregnancies and seeking post-abortion counselling for more than 20 years. Now she's turning her attention to the Church, where abortion is a 'silent issue' that goes undiscussed and undealt with.

The Church's traditional emphasis on protecting the unborn child, as well as the language used by some pro-life campaigners, can often alienate women for whom it is a difficult issue. In response to the need she sees in the Church, Baines, together with CARE, is launching Open. It's a resource that's currently being developed to equip churches and church leaders to engage with this issue theologically, and she is currently travelling around the UK speaking at different churches and events. But it's also seeking to help support women in the Church who have had an abortion.

A journey of grace

Baines describes her own story as a "journey of grace". Having initially taken a "militant" pro-life stance, her own experiences of loss and grief – including her husband Derek's death eight years ago – have given her a greater appreciation for the challenges that others face. But although her approach may have softened over the years, she is clear that she still doesn't believe abortion is ever the best decision a woman can make.

She says she hadn't thought much about abortion until she was in hospital with her second miscarriage of three. At the time, women who had miscarriages were put in the same hospital ward as those who were having abortions.

She saw a young woman who had come for an abortion and seemed to "breeze in and out of the ward". "I just felt this kind of compassion as she left the ward... I believe the Holy Spirit actually sowed that seed in my heart. I just prayed that one day she would have someone to talk that over with."

She wondered what had brought her to make that decision and questioned her own response to her miscarriage too. "Why was I so distressed when my babies were only at about 10 weeks' gestation? What is that about?" she says, adding, "I think it's the brutal breaking of the bond between mother and baby, whether that be through miscarriage or abortion."

That initial sense of compassion led to many years working with Care Confidential, a Christian charity that offered pregnancy advice and post-abortion counselling. And after years of working with women in the community – some Christians, many not, she felt increasingly that God was leading her to help the Church engage with this issue.

Why do we need to talk about it?

Four years ago Baines did a master's in theology, with a dissertation on the theological and pastoral issues surrounding abortion. In her research, she was surprised both by the number of Christian women who had chosen to have abortions, and by how little the issue was discussed in churches.

When speaking at churches, she continues to find that it's a very real problem for people. "I very rarely speak in churches when I don't have someone come up to me afterwards [to tell me] that they have had an abortion and haven't shared it before."

It's not just women who are affected. She has also had men come to speak to her about the sense of guilt they carry about encouraging a girlfriend to have an abortion.

She admits that she was surprised by the number of women who made the decision to have an abortion as Christians, but says she knows women who were "ardent pro-lifers until they found themselves in that situation and it was a bit different."

The silence around abortion is influenced both by attitudes in society and the Church. Society tells us that abortion is so common we don't need to talk about it. The Church tends to think that 'this isn't an issue that affects people here'. And women are left feeling isolated, believing that they are the only ones struggling with it. 

For many Christians there's also the sense of a secret shame. Some Christian women feel they have let God down, and the shame they feel is intensified by their faith. "They understand about forgiveness, and forgiveness for everybody else, but still feel it's the one thing they can't talk about."

And of course the Church hasn't always responded well in such circumstances. She describes situations where women who have heard the subject discussed in church haven't been back since because of the condemnation they felt, and others who have faced painful rejection for becoming pregnant while unmarried.

The effect that this silence has on the women involved is probably the biggest motivation for tackling the issue. It can become a spiritual block, which when dealt with, allows people to move forward in their relationship with God.

She describes one woman who was very involved in her church but had an abortion about 30 years ago and as a result felt so unworthy that she would never host anyone at her home. The healing that she has experienced has totally transformed her life.

The problem for church leaders

As part of her master's research, Baines found that 99 per cent of church leaders she surveyed thought abortion was a theological issue, but very few had ever taught on it.

Those she interviewed said they feared coming across as judgmental, and while she acknowledges that this could be difficult for some ministers who try to address the subject from the pulpit, she says the real problem is not so much how some speak about it, but that so few people address it at all.

"I think there is a willingness to engage... But with the best will in the world lot of ministers just don't know what they would do if women came forward."

As a former church minister's wife, she is sympathetic towards the difficulties church leaders face around this issue. For those who appreciate that abortion is something that should be discussed, there is still the problem of how to do it – without upsetting, alienating or infuriating members of the congregation.

How do you create a compassionate environment while perhaps still disagreeing with the decision in principle? How can you welcome and support women who are unmarried and pregnant without sending the message that this is what you would recommend for everyone in the congregation?

These are still important issues for the Church – they haven't gone away because much of society would say that abortions are an unfortunate necessity or even an important part of women's equality.

So how should we talk about it?

Baines' emphasis is on responding to people with grace and compassion. When speaking at churches she uses pictures of the Madonna and child and the Pietà, as a reminder that God knows what it is to lose a child, and uses her own story as a way to reflect on why she cares about the unborn child.

She is also convinced that demonstrating about abortion isn't the right way to go about things. She tells the story – unfortunately a familiar one – of a women at a church in the US, who had an abortion because she was with an abusive partner. As she approached the clinic, she faced Christians with tracts and holding pictures of foetuses.

"What is that achieving?... I understand about giving women information about the baby, but I think most people know that now... That's what people very often associate church with – the condemnation. So I personally would never want to be associated with that."

And while such campaigners would argue that they are fighting for the unborn child, she says: "I think it's when we come alongside women... if we help women we'll be helping the baby. If I was holding a banner saying 'Abortion is murder', would somebody ever come to see me?"

Even so, it's not long before you have to confront the issue of whether abortion is a 'sin'. "I would never talk about 'sin' as such. I think it's things that we do that maybe aren't God's best for us... We have all done things that maybe we regret, and I think many women at the time really felt they had no choice."

Again, it comes back to our approach: "God does set boundaries, but we have to have compassion... I always do say what I believe – I don't ever want to be seen as condoning an abortion – but I'm not going to condemn someone who felt they had no choice, and I've not been in that situation."

As a ministry, Open has grown out of both a personal response to the issue, and a recognition of the need in the Church. "I think it is to do with how God uses broken people," she says, "And I think since my grief with the miscarriages, and after losing Derek, I somehow feel that there's an anointing in brokenness."

Find out more at: care.org.uk/weareopen