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What Kate Michelman and Pope St. John Paul II Taught Me


AP Photo/Okello Dunkley

Susan E. Wills - published on 08/30/14

The "only proper response to another human person is love." (John Paul II)

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Kate Michelman retired in 2004 from a 19-year career as head of NARAL (formerly the National Abortion Rights Action League). Before that she was Executive Director of Planned Parenthood in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She devoted her very capable brain and very high energy to abortion advocacy for most of her adult life.

And I owe her an apology. I’m making it publicly because I’m guilty of having done the same stupid and uncharitable thing that used to drive me nuts when other pro-life people were doing it. I’ll get to that in a moment. 

Ms. Michelman has been very public about what motivated her to dedicate most of her working life to abortion advocacy. In 1969, she explains, her first husband walked out on her and their three daughters (all under age five). She suddenly had no income, no support, no car, and baby #4 on the way. She had to rely on food stamps to feed her children until she was able to get on her feet, and this embarrassed her greatly. Certainly, her situation was dire, one that could make any mother feel desperate.

For the record, I do not believe that the trauma of being abandoned and plunged into poverty justifies killing one’s unborn child any more than it could justify killing one of her already-born daughters.

And I wasn’t judgmental about her abortion—I’ve never judged women who’ve had abortions, for several reasons.

(1) There, but for the grace of God, go I.

(2) In an emotional crisis, high levels of stress-induced cortisol can overwhelm the ability to reason and make good decisions. A wonderful Project Rachel priest once told me that in his decades of counseling women, he’d met only one or two who chose abortion with a rational intent. (The rationalizations come later when the woman needs to justify the abortion to herself, to try to assuage her feelings of guilt and remorse.)

(3) The people on whom pregnant women ought to be able to rely for support through the pregnancy and beyond (husband, boyfriend, parents, aunts/uncles, older siblings) either decline to help—or the young woman is afraid to tell them—hoping to shield them from heartache, sometimes under pressure to be a role model for younger siblings, and sometimes to avoid parental anger and condemnation.

(4) Probably in a majority of cases, the father of the baby signals—through words, silence or a lack of enthusiasm—that he doesn’t want to take responsibility for the child, which is another way of telling her, “You are good enough for casual sex, but you are not worth spending my life with.” And, to be fair, many dads strongly oppose aborting their child and suffer immensely from abortion loss.   

However, the trauma of being abandoned and impoverished with three little girls to support wasn’t the reason Ms. Michelman identified for making abortion advocacy her career. Instead, she cites her humiliation in not being able to rid herself of the unwanted baby privately, as women got the “right” to do just 4 years later under Roe v. Wade. What galled her was being required—in order to qualify for a “therapeutic” abortion—to seek the approval of a hospital board (consisting of four male MDs) who asked intrusive questions, and then having to obtain her estranged husband’s written consent for the procedure.

Some have questioned the veracity of this story because there was no such thing as a “therapeutic” abortion under Pennsylvania law in 1969. In the 1960s and right up until the Roe decision in 1973, doctors were criminally prosecuted in Pennsylvania for performing abortions.

But her critics overlook the proximity of Pennsylvania to New York where women were able to obtain “therapeutic” abortions before that state liberalized its abortion law in 1970. For a time some NY doctors were interpreting “therapeutic” fairly loosely (as in, does she have enough money to make it worthwhile). By the 1960s, hospitals were wary of criminal prosecution and lawsuits, so they instituted review boards to determine if the abortion-minded woman was suicidal. Only if they could establish that, would she have been allowed to undergo a “legal” abortion and they avoid criminal prosecution. They may likely have sought her husband’s written consent to protect themselves from a civil lawsuit. So much for the the Hippocratic oath.  

I knew all this soon after I quit practicing law and decided to be a full-time pro-life advocate. But while I never “blamed” her or thought less of her for having had an abortion under her very difficult circumstances, I drew the line at abortion advocacy. I believed that anyone who actively promoted children’s deaths by abortion was fighting for the wrong team, if you get my drift.

Advocating abortion necessarily involves lies. HUGE LIES (and we all know who’s their Daddy). It requires lying about the nature of abortion, about the nature of human life before birth and the humanity of the child, about natural human rights, our Constitution and laws, about what abortion does to women—physically, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically.

Abortion advocates strive and largely succeed in making vulnerable girls and young women think that abortion is like any other “necessary” medical procedure and a quick & easy solution to the problem of a “crisis” pregnancy, one that will bring only relief. One with no moral dimension or risks. Heck, it’s your right!

I saw her and the others as enemies because through their advocacy and lies, they led others to grave sin, led others to become responsible for the death of their child, led so many young women to unimaginable suffering, grief and remorse, robbed them of their happiness, knowing that many develop destructive addictive behaviors to deaden their pain and many even punish themselves through self-abusive behaviors—such as anorexia, bulimia and cutting.

So, Kate Michelman the Abortion Advocate had become an enemy to me and to the Church for which I worked. It wasn’t “personal,” as they say, but I’d call her out on every lie, every opinion I disagreed with.

The last time I saw her was at a Congressional Committee Hearing in late 2003 or early 2004, shortly before she retired from NARAL. I suppose she’d already announced that she was stepping down. She looked on the verge of a nervous breakdown—rail-thin, sunken eyes, sleep-deprived. Instead of feeling compassion for her, I speculated that her years of abortion advocacy, trying to affirm the rightness of her personal decision, had finally taken their toll. This would not have been far-fetched because she did say that the 1973 Roe decision was a “benediction” for her, blessing and ratifying her abortion decision.

I had ceased to think of her as a human being; she was Abortion Advocate, no more, no less. And since her 2004 retirement, I’ve given her barely a thought (although years ago I started praying for other abortion advocates as I became a little bit better person).

A few days ago, I stumbled on an old news story praising Ms. Michelman for her work and offering a glimpse into her personal life. Then I read a few more stories linked in the original and here’s what I learned:

That day—when I thought that her distraught appearance was the end result of running an abortion clinic and 19 years of national abortion advocacy, and I came that close to thinking “Serves you right”—Ms. Michelman looked awful because she’d been devoting herself to the care of one of her daughters and her husband. The daughter, who worked with horses and whose employer didn’t provide insurance, was paralyzed when thrown from a horse. Ms. Michelman cashed in all her assets except their home to cover the surgeries and long hospital stay (close to $1 million). Nursing care at a good facility was prohibitively expensive, so Ms. Michelman eventually decided to care for her at home with some help from visiting nurses.

The year after her daughter’s catastrophic injuries, her long-time second husband, Fred Michelman, who had Parkinson’s disease, suffered a very serious fall in their driveway. And Kate was caring for him as well.

Although insurance covered “most” of his expenses, when bills are astronomical, the out-of-pocket portion is enough to put one deeply in debt. Facing a similar, though far less drastic situation this past year, I was finally able to empathize with her. And that led me to examine my own behavior.

How many of us have noted that people in the abortion industry treat human babies not as persons but as objects unworthy of their concern? There I was, objectifying Ms. Michelman. She was the Enemy who had to be exposed and held up to ridicule for every false statement. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or read caustic comments directed at people who are working to advance the culture of death. We have a duty to vigorously oppose what they are doing, but an equally great duty to accord them the respect due all human beings. 

I now wonder how I could have presumed to write her off when it’s clear that God had not given up on her? I’m not suggesting that God has been punishing her for the way she misused the talents he gave her in promoting abortion. He doesn’t work that way. But when tragedy strikes, we have an opportunity to be transformed with his help, to bear suffering courageously, to love sacrificially, to spend ourselves in caring for others, becoming a little more Christ-like in the process.

And it seems as if she has seized the opportunity she was given to spare no effort in caring for her daughter and for her husband until his death. Her public career has been an affront to God, but her private life, before and after her abortion anyway, may well have been saintly. Fortunately, for all of us, God’s mercy is without end. Let’s try to keep in mind what he told St. Faustina Kowalska: “the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy” (Diary, no. 1182). And add Kate Michelman to you prayer list because God wants us all to join him in heaven. 

Susan E. Wills is Spirituality Editor of Aleteia’s English edition.

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