Broken Babies
The Unspoken Pain of Abortion

Theresa Burke
with David C. Reardon
Forbidden Grief: Chapter 14
Reproduced with Permission

I remember meeting Marita my freshman year in college. She was cute, 1 like a cheerleader, and had the same dynamic, enthusiastic, "rah rah" personality. Marita had boundless energy. She was fun to be around and had a self-assured style. At the same time, she was still very much a little girl. She missed her parents, made frequent phone calls to her siblings, and had a roomful of cherished childhood dolls carefully displayed on her bed pillows and bookshelves.

The first night we met, Marita told me she would remember my name because Theresa was the name of her favorite doll, now a priceless antique. It had been passed down from her great-great-grandmother and was given to Marita when she was a little girl. Marita handed me the doll, a porcelain collector's dream, gussied up in an ivory silk dress and intricate lace pantaloons. Marita and I became friends instantly and used to share library activities like "scoping" for cute guys behind bookshelves.

One night at a drunken fraternity party, Marita found herself having sex with her boyfriend. The details were quite foggy. She didn't remember taking her clothes off, but woke up naked next to the young sophomore. When Marita discovered she was pregnant, she had an abortion immediately and never told a soul, except her boyfriend and her roommate.

When Marita told me about her abortion years later, she explained that her roommate Ruth had taken her to the clinic. Ruth had had an abortion as a senior in high school and told Marita it was no big deal. Abortion was common on campus. Lots of girls had them.

After the abortion, Marita's personality changed. She became irritable and began drinking all the time. She skipped classes on a regular basis, preferring to sleep in and snooze off each hung-over depression. Her attitude was cynical and negative, and she wasn't much fun to be around. At that time, I didn't understand what Marita was going through. But there were signs.

One night we gathered at Marita's dorm for a party. We were drinking beers when Marita's boyfriend jumped up and shouted, "It's time for Baby Soccer!" There was a grand applause, reminiscent of the inauguration of gladiator games. Marita brought out several doll heads that had been decapitated from their torsos, rolling them along with her hockey stick for the grand entrance. Everyone started kicking the baby heads around the room in a frenzy of glee and hysterics. They all cheered while gulping drinks and devouring chips.

As the pastime continued, the aggression toward the baby heads became more severe. One girl picked up a doll head and started gouging out its eyes with a dart. Everyone cackled with delight. Ruth began ripping out shreds of another doll's hair while burning its plastic cheeks with her cigarette. This sparked her boyfriend's imagination. He grabbed another doll from the shelf and put the hot ember of his cigarette between the doll's legs, then ripped them off, leaving only a melted and scarred-looking vagina hole. Ruth threw her doll head on the floor, stamping hard on its skull. They continued to kick the baby heads around the room in a hostile display of rage fused with amusement.

I learned that this had become a favorite game in the dorm. My reaction to this symbolic abuse was a sickening feeling in my stomach. I witnessed this traumatic play, unaware at the time of the psychic release of collective tension this game was providing. Desensitized to the authenticity of the game, I laughed along with the others, silently recalling all the "baby in a blender" jokes that proliferated among my friends.

As I picked up one of the doll heads, I was overcome with a vague sense of familiarity. My heart skipped a beat when I identified the doll as "Theresa," the porcelain antique that had once been Marita's prized possession. Her face was cracked, smashed, and splintered, a jigsaw of fractured pieces—nearly unrecognizable. Where the head had been torn from the body, there were razor-sharp claws of fragmented china.

Suddenly I felt a genuine, aching grief. I feared that at any minute I might burst into tears. What had happened to this doll, "Theresa," passed down through generations of female history within Marita's family? How did this happen? What had happened to my friend?

The trauma was still very much a mystery to me - but I knew that something inside Marita had also been crushed. The desecration was reflected quite clearly in the face of her broken doll. I waited nearly a decade to discover the answer to my questions. Learning that Marita had suffered an abortion made everything crystal clear.

When the Doll Breaks

Those who study childhood trauma have documented many examples of children working through a traumatic event by recreating aspects of their trauma through games, stories, and art. Child therapists will often observe children playing with puppets and doll houses to get a sense of what is going on in their minds and families. It can be easier to express an emotional conflict by acting it out through a puppet figure than by putting oneself through subjective introspection.

As with my classmates and the game of "Baby Soccer," adults, too, can engage in symbolic reenactment of a trauma under the disguise of games, art, music, humor, and other amusements. This type of play provided an outlet for grief by replacing it with socially acceptable acts of "baby hatred."

Marita's battered doll reflected the abuse of a little girl—ravaged, disfigured, assaulted, and burned. "Baby Soccer" was a sadistic "acting out" of repressed abortion trauma. A baby haunting her unconscious had become the target to be annihilated. Her battered doll's head was a symbol of this conflict.

It is no surprise that this traumatic play so quickly became an amusement for all to enjoy. Like Marita, many of the young women and men drawn into this game had also lost children to abortion. Many others had lost sisters or brothers to abortion. "Baby Soccer" provided a symbolic means to mock, belittle, and display mastery over the babies who were never allowed to be born but who still haunted their memories.

As the group's enthusiasm for this game demonstrated, the acting out of post-abortion trauma can be contagious, as all internalize the hidden message. This is especially the case when so many have had a direct experience with abortion, either through the abortion of their own children or through the abortion of their siblings or potential classmates. One way to deal with the unresolved loss experienced by this "abortion generation" is to belittle what was lost. Sadly, this attempt to belittle and master babies through "Baby Soccer" reinforced and internalized attitudes and behaviors of aggression and hostility against babies.

If the college authorities had seen students beating up and defacing an effigy of a black person or a symbol of Jewish heritage, would they not have felt compelled to intervene against this frightful and shocking behavior? But what is said about the intolerance and contempt displayed for babies? It is unlikely that there will ever be a word uttered.

Collective guilt and trauma have the capacity to disguise massive injustice. The offensiveness of "Baby Soccer" was made socially acceptable because it concealed this display of aggression behind the mask of a "humorously irreverent" diversion, where everyone laughed.

We have all learned to snicker at sick jokes and engage in scapegoating because these things give us momentary relief from the tension of unsettled issues. In this case, we were laughing with the nervous giggle of an entire culture that has been traumatized by the abortion of tens of millions of babies. The sheer magnitude of it all is too much to grasp. So it must be trivialized, reduced to laughter and scorn, or else we will all be crushed by the horror of it all.

That is why the belittling of children is all around us. Themes of abortion-related guilt, rage, and anger are pervasive in modern music, art, and films. "Evil child" movies, like Alien and The Omen, reflect the demonization of children. The "evil baby" is our worst nightmare — something society must destroy before it destroys us. In the popular TV series South Park, the attacks on the child move into the home, where Kenny tries to kill his unborn baby brother. The jokes about abortion slipped by the censors with no reaction. In the story line Kenny tries to abort his mom's baby by making her a Morning After Pill milkshake and using a toilet plunger on her.1

These are just a few examples. I believe that many of these images in the arts and popular culture reflect how the memory of aborted children haunts our society. The natural tendency to love and esteem babies has become a painful reminder of the unresolved grief of millions of women and men. To contain and control the unspeakable truth, the natural instinct to nurture and protect children is rejected, and in its place, the "evil baby" is envisioned as an object of mockery and the target of violence.

These are the truths recorded for all to see in the broken face of Marita's cherished doll. It was a shattered face, the mirror image of Marita's own fractured self.

Intrusive Thoughts of Hurting Children

For women who have been traumatized by abortion, acts of child abuse are natural symbolic reenactments of unresolved abortion issues. For example, Rhonda was plagued with guilt and shame for having aborted five children. She believed that God wanted her to make up for her past by giving love to children who needed someone to care for them. She tried to meet this obligation by starting a full-time daycare center in her home.

While Rhonda was attempting to master her psychic trauma by giving love to children, the eight children under her care literally exhausted her. By the end of the day she frequently became irritable and anxious. Rhonda reported that she occasionally lost her temper with the toddlers and would find herself hitting or shaking them in a rage of fury and frustration. After these violent outbursts, Rhonda would shrink into a corner and cry, convinced that she was a horrible person.

By placing herself in this stressful situation with young toddlers, Rhonda had recreated her feelings of helplessness and incompetence with children, themes that were dominant in her choices to abort. Her repeated loss of control with the children confirmed her feelings of self-hatred and disgust. The resulting ritual patterns of child abuse, followed by shame, guilt, and grief, mirrored her abortion experiences with complete emotional accuracy.

Dianne, another patient seeking post-abortion counseling, also had a daycare business. She watched infants in her home. Dianne reported disturbing intrusive thoughts about pulling the babies' arms out of their sockets. She felt a compelling desire to grab the infants' little arms and disconnect their limbs. Such thoughts caused excessive anxiety and horrific grief. Each time Dianne was confronted with these traumatic thoughts, she was overcome with horror and sadness. Each intrusive episode confirmed that she was a disgusting person and filled her heart with sickening grief.

Fortunately, on the anniversary date of her abortion, Dianne finally recognized the connection between her abortion and the intrusive thoughts. In a searing moment, the truth of what was happening to her cut through her soul, and she wept with grief over her loss. Fortunately, Dianne sought out help to deal with the long-repressed trauma, and all the unwelcome intrusive thoughts have ceased.

Intrusive thoughts like Dianne's are a common experience for trauma victims. Once an intrusive thought comes, it can be very hard to put it out of one's mind. Some of the more common experiences include thoughts of crashing one's car while driving down the road, going insane, or losing control. Sometimes the notions are ridiculous or unfeasible. Often, they are deeply embarrassing, filling one with such shame that it takes great courage to seek help.

Like dreams and fantasies, intrusive thoughts often contain complex symbols of the trauma. With abortion trauma, intrusive thoughts about harming children may include images that are symbolic of the abortion procedure itself. Kathy related the following story:

I love my kids. There's nothing I wouldn't do for them. They are everything in the world to me. But I get these horrible thoughts that just mortify me. It's hard to even talk about. I might be standing at the kitchen counter making dinner and I'll think about poisoning their food. I imagine them reacting to the poison and I have to rush them to the hospital. I go crazy with guilt and shame. Then I imagine that the doctors discover I did it on purpose. They call my husband and tell him that I shouldn't have the children . . . that I tried to kill them. These thoughts just jump into my head. They are so crazy . . . I can't believe I think such thoughts. It makes me hate myself.

Kathy, who had first entered counseling for panic attacks, began reporting these types of thoughts each week, with tremendous distress. It was hard for Kathy to talk about them without crying. As we reviewed her life, I was not surprised to learn about a saline abortion in her past. She visibly shook when she talked about it. When I asked her how a saline abortion worked, she described the procedure as a poisoning of the fetus.

All of Kathy's symptoms developed after her abortion. Through these intrusive thoughts she continually relived the emotional experience of her abortion. Each episode centered on hurting or killing her living children and the shameful aftermath. Her mourning became complicated and surfaced during these disturbing fantasies.

Kathy is one of the gentlest, most soft-spoken women I have ever met. It was enormously difficult for her to experience such horrendous thoughts. I am happy to say that these impressions, which had plagued her for years, ended after she did grief work related to her abortion.

Emily had a similar case. She had an abortion twelve years before she married. During that time, she refused to allow herself to think about it or grieve her loss. This "stuffing away" of emotions worked fine until she began to have children.

Emily's first flashback to her abortion hit her violently when she had her first ultrasound while pregnant with a "wanted" child. As time went on, she would have frequent intrusive thoughts concerning her abortion when she looked at the faces of her babies. Then Emily began to experience habitual, obsessive, and scary thoughts about hurting her children. She imagined stabbing them with a knife one by one, suffocating them with pillows, and strangling them.

Emily could not figure out why this was happening to her. She was a wonderful and devoted mother, yet she could not escape intrusive thoughts about death and killing that became more elaborate and more real as time passed. She certainly had no intention of ever carrying out such deeds, but she felt appalled that she was capable of such hideous thoughts. Her destructive thoughts were like starving rabid animals, hounding, scratching, and gnawing at her conscience. They left her feeling bewildered, crazy, and ashamed. She desperately yearned to silence these dangerous beasts. Fortunately, all these symptoms were alleviated after Emily had completed the grief work related to her abortion.

In some cases, unfortunately, women fail to restrain their destructive impulses. For example, Renee Nicely of New Jersey experienced a psychotic episode the day after her abortion, which resulted in the beating death of her 3-year-old son, Shawn. She told the court psychiatrist that she "knew that abortion was wrong" and "I should be punished for the abortion." The psychiatrist who was the prosecution's expert witness testified that the killing was clearly related to Renee's psychological reaction to her abortion. Unfortunately, the victim of her rage and self-hatred was her own son.2

A similar tragedy occurred just one week after Donna Fleming's second abortion. Depressed and distraught, Donna "heard voices" in her head and tried to kill herself and her two sons by jumping off a bridge in Long Beach, California. Donna and her five-year-old son were rescued; her two-year-old died. Subsequently, Donna claimed she tried to kill herself and her other children in order to reunite her family.3

These are only a few of many cases in which a recent abortion was directly linked to women killing their young children. In many other cases, such as that of Susan Smith, who drove her two children into a lake to drown, there is a known history of abortion.4 But in almost every one of these cases, the connection between the abortion and the killing was never developed in the court record. In a few cases, defense attorneys have explained their unwillingness to explore a post-abortion trauma defense on the grounds that the abortion connection might be construed by the jury as simply more evidence that these women are indeed callous baby killers, rather than women who have been deeply traumatized by their abortions.

Numerous studies have established a strong statistical link between a history of abortion and an increased risk of subsequent child abuse.5 The clinical experience of many therapists supports the conclusion that this is, at least in many cases, a causal link. Psychiatrist Philip Ney, a clinical professor at the University of British Columbia, has done by far the most research into understanding the link between abortion and subsequent child abuse. Most of his analysis has focused on the role of abortion in disrupting bonding with later children; weakening of maternal instincts; reduced inhibitions against violence, particularly toward children; and heightened levels of anger, rage, and depression. It is probable that all these factors have contributed toward increased levels of child abuse following legalized abortion. Reenactment of abortion trauma through child abuse may be another important factor.


1 Snead, Elizabeth, "'Park': Pedophilia, abortion, uncensored," USA Today. This news report was posted online at [Back]

2 Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More, op. cit. (introduction, no. 1) 129-130. [Back]

3 A. McFedden, "The Link Between Abortion and Child Abuse," Family Resources Center News, Jan. 1998, 20. [Back]

4 Charles M. Sennott, "S.C. Tragedy Has Its Roots in Troubled Life," Boston Sunday Globe, Nov. 6, 1994, 1. [Back]

5 P. Ney, T. Fung, and A.R. Wickett,"Relationship Between Induced Abortion and Child Abuse and Neglect: Four Studies," Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal, 8(1):43-63 (Fall 1993); M. Benedict, R. White, and P. Cornely,"Maternal Perinatal Risk Factors and Child Abuse," Child Abuse and Neglect, 9:217-224 (1985); E. Lewis,"Two Hidden Predisposing Factors in Child Abuse," Child Abuse and Neglect, 3:327-330 (1979); P. Ney,"Relationship Between Abortion and Child Abuse," Canadian J. Psychiatry, 24:610-620 (1979). [Back]

Additional Resources on Post-Abortion Issues

  1. Forbidden Grief by Theresa Burke and David C. Reardon
  2. Making Abortion Rare by David C. Reardon
  3. The Jericho Plan by David C. Reardon
  4. Victims and Victors by David C. Reardon et alii
  5. Aborted Women, Silent No More by David C. Reardon
  6. Detrimental Effects of Abortion by Thomas W. Strahan

Available through Acorn Books at 1-888-412-2676
Acorn Books,
PO Box 7348
Springfield, IL. 62791

Theresa Burke, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist and founder of Rachel's Vineyard, a post-abortion training and healing ministry that annually serves thousands of women and couples throughout North America and overseas.

David C. Reardon, Ph.D., is one of the nations's leading researchers and authors on post-abortion issues and the founding director of the Elliot Institute.