By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
SPRING HILL -- Zulema Ramirez says she spent 20 years living in fear, clouded with insecurities, after she had an abortion in 1979.
Clarity and peace came to her only three years ago, when she spent a weekend in Clearwater attending a retreat sponsored by Project Rachel, a ministry supported by the Roman Catholic Church for those struggling to deal with the aftermath of abortion.
Now Ramirez, who lives in Spring Hill, is trying to bring that same brand of emotional healing to others. Starting Thursday night, she will lead an eight-week Project Rachel workshop at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, the third offered at the church in the past two years.
Ramirez said all the women she has met who have undergone abortions have, like her, suffered deep emotional scars from the experience. She said the workshop is intended to help them see that it is okay to grieve and that they can find spiritual forgiveness.
"It's to let them know that they are not alone. That there are others. And that there is hope. And that their children went back to God," Ramirez said.
As part of the workshops, participants are encouraged to name their aborted children, to write letters to them and to hold a memorial service for them.
Emma Boe, director of Project Rachel for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, said those steps are emotionally painful.
"But that also gives them closure," Boe said. "It kind of answers those questions: that your baby is in heaven with God, that your baby doesn't have any more pain, and that your baby longs for you to be in heaven."
Project Rachel was founded in 1984 in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. It has spread to more than 110 dioceses nationwide, including the Diocese of St. Petersburg, where Project Rachel has efforts going on in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Hernando and Citrus counties.
The name refers to the biblical figure Rachel who, in the book of Jeremiah, is said to weep for her children, "refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
Boe said women struggling with their abortion experience face a variety of problems, including depression and anger.
Aside from the support groups led by people like Ramirez, Project Rachel involves clergy and clinical counselors when needed. Though it is open to people of all faiths, Boe said the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation -- where someone seeks forgiveness from God for their sins -- is one of the avenues many participants take.
"I love it because I get to see miracles," Boe said. "I become very greedy for the visible grace of God at work."
Aside from the eight-week workshops, the diocese sponsors weekend retreats at the House of Prayer in Clearwater and one-day community seminars such as one coming up Nov. 22 at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Tampa.
Of course, abortion rights advocates look at Project Rachel from a different viewpoint. Many would take issue with the characterization of a fetus as a child. And some have said the Catholic Church is helping women cope with a guilt the church itself has fostered by its opposition to abortion.
"Anything that truly helps women is fine," said Wendy Grassi, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. "It sounds to me like it's planting the seeds of grief and making them feel badly about something they shouldn't feel badly about."
Grassi said Planned Parenthood offers counseling options before, during and after abortions. Few women seek help after the abortion, she said.
"I believe it is because they have made up their mind to do it, and they did it," she said. "It's a choice that should be respected and not turned into something to be ashamed of."
Project Rachel supporters said many women struggling to deal with their abortion experiences are reluctant, even fearful of returning for counseling to the abortion clinics where their ordeal began.
"If they didn't feel anything, they probably wouldn't call us," Boe said. "A lot of times they know something is wrong, but they don't know how to deal with it."
It is what Ramirez and Boe refer to as "forbidden grief," which is also the title of a book on post-abortion counseling.
They said forbidden grief is an idea planted by the abortion rights movement that says women who have undergone abortions have nothing to grieve because nothing was lost.
Of course, Ramirez, Project Rachel and the larger Catholic Church say that a human life -- a baby with a soul -- is lost with every abortion.
Ramirez said that if someone had told her before her abortion that her baby had a heartbeat and that the emotional pain would remain with her for the rest of her life, she would have not had an abortion. What's more, Ramirez said, other women would make the same choice.
"There would be no abortion," she said.
Grassi, with Planned Parenthood, said the evidence doesn't support that idea.
"The evidence is that women who have made the decision (to have an abortion) are happy -- not happy, but content -- with the decision. Most women who have come for an abortion have firmly made up their mind," Grassi said.
If there is grief, it comes from the situation women found themselves in when they chose an abortion, she said.
"It's a tough decision. I think so many women wish their circumstances were different," Grassi said. "Remorse? No. Maybe there are some. But it's rare. It's hardly worth a whole project."
Although women are obviously the focus, Project Rachel is open also to men and to parents with ties to a woman who had an abortion.
Boe said that probably 10 percent of the participants in the diocese's Project Rachel activities are men. Some are married. Some are single. And their stories vary. Some may have encouraged the abortion or vehemently opposed it. Some didn't know about it until after the fact, Boe said.
"It's always wonderful when we do have men on the retreats because they give the male voice of compassion and sorrow to women who may still feel angry toward men who have pushed or coerced them to have an abortion," Boe said.
So far, the workshops at St. Frances Cabrini have been small.
With mentions in the church bulletins at the local Catholic churches, two women showed up for the first workshop last year, three came for one that began in January and five women have signed up so far for this latest round.
Imelda LaRocco, who is assisting Ramirez in leading the workshop, said some women walk away from the church after having an abortion because they believe they can't be forgiven.
"I want them to know that God's mercy is greater than any sin that any of us can commit," LaRocco said.
Ramirez, 41, said she started leading the workshops because she wants others to experience the forgiveness -- and freedom -- she has found.
"Sometimes it's hard for you to forgive yourself. Sometimes that it is the hardest part," she said. "I was a coward. I didn't have the courage to stand up for my baby. I have grown. I know better now."
-- Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more
For information about the Project Rachel workshop, which begins Thursday night at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, call 686-9954, ext. 301.
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