Healing for the Perpetrators: The Psychological Damage from Different Types of Killing
by Sarah Terzo
Violence harms not only its victims but in some cases also harms its perpetrators. Consistent Life Network Vice President Rachel MacNair has written extensively on how those who kill (in war, in abortion clinics, in execution chambers) are psychologically damaged by their actions, a situation she calls “Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS).” Recent accounts by a woman involved in abortions and men who killed people with drone strikes offer further—and noticeably similar—examples of the psychological harm caused by killing.
The pro-life group Live Action ran an article about a former Planned Parenthood worker who left the abortion industry. The woman, identified only as Gail, gave a heartbreaking account of what she witnessed at Planned Parenthood.
After describing how the fetal remains from abortions were put in little dishes to be examined, she says:
I would look at that dish, and the little arms and legs…and I always wondered who they would have grown up to be. I would pray for them, and try not to vomit because it smelled bad and was so gross. Then, all the abortion products of the day went into a biohazard bag all clumped together, and into a deep freezer. It would be collected, and I think sent off to be incinerated.
Gail was traumatized by the tiny body parts she saw. But she was also troubled by the fact that other workers at the clinic did not seem to share her feelings of horror—specifically her concerns about when the unborn babies could feel pain: “One doctor said, ‘I don’t know why its [sic] a big deal. It’s good money!’ Another doctor would pump her breast milk for her newborn baby in between killing other peoples’ babies. I never knew how she could do that!”
Finally, one day, she had had enough: “Once, I saw tiny fully developed hands in the little pyrex dish. Tiny, tiny hands perfectly formed…that was one of the last straws for me…I gave up my whole belief system for money. I was paid $70,000 and they offered more when I quit!”
Despite Planned Parenthood offering her more money, Gail left the clinic. Later, she described the emotional toll assisting in abortions took on her:
I used to be really happy, loved life, saw beauty everywhere before I started working there. Then, I started working at Planned Parenthood, and I was always sad, always tired, and really depressed. …How I felt coming home each day from the abortion center was like a soldier who had come back from war. The emptiness. That’s how I felt. Empty. I don’t believe we were created to see so much death.
Gail compared herself to a soldier on the battlefield. And, indeed, there are some striking similarities between her story and one of a drone operator who left the military.
Former drone operator Brandon Bryant describes the horror of his first kill:
So we’re looking at this thing, these people, and it was like almost instantaneous that someone was like, “Confirmed weapons. Here’s the nine line. You’re cleared. You’re cleared hot.” And we fire the missile. And the safety observer is counting down. He counts down to zero, and he says, “Splash!”
And I watched this man bleed out. The missile had taken off one of his legs right above the knee. And I watched him bleed out of his femoral artery. And he’s rolling on the ground, and I can—I imagined his last moments.
I didn’t know what to feel. I just knew that I had ended something that I had no right to end….It was like my image of myself was cracking and breaking apart.
And the safety observer laughs, and he slaps me on the back, and he says, “You should have seen how you jumped when I said, ‘Splash.’”
Bryant too saw the graphic aftermath of violence against a human being. He saw the violence and knew that he was one of the perpetrators. Bryant recalls the terrible damage the missile inflicted on his target, with part of the man’s leg blown away. This description echoes Gail’s words about dismembered body parts. Both the killings Bryant carried out and the abortions Gail participated in were bloody and gruesome. Neither Gail nor Bryant could deny the fact that they had killed (or helped kill) human beings.
Another parallel between the two accounts is the presence of other perpetrators who seemed immune to the horror. In Gail’s case, it was the two doctors, one of whom casually pumped breast milk for her own child in between killing other people’s children. For Bryant, it was another member of the military who turned the drone strike into a joke. Both these people were so hardened by the violence they were inflicting on others that they horrified Gail and Bryant. The abortionists and the safety observer may have repressed their consciences to the point where they no longer had normal human feelings. Gail and Bryant had not yet reached that stage. To Bryant and Gail, the killing hadn’t yet become normalized. When they saw the hard-heartedness of the people they worked with, they glimpsed what would happen to them if they continued killing.
Seeing the carnage inflicted on their victims led to terrible feelings of guilt and trauma in Gail and Bryant, and this prompted them to quit. Perhaps seeing the complete lack of remorse and human feeling in their colleagues was another factor in their decision to leave.
The emotional trauma of another drone operator provides another parallel with Gail’s experience. Former drone operator Stephen Lewis, who quit after one kill, says:
It makes any kind of relationship difficult. I can’t—I can’t communicate properly with my friends. I have to preface it with “I’m sorry, guys. I can’t hang out with you tonight. There’s too much going on right now.” It’s, in effect, killed every single relationship that I’ve had afterwards.
Unfortunately, Lewis does not appear to find the Department of Veterans Affairs to be a source of help for his psychological distress:
I’ve been to the VA, but it seems useless. It seems useless for me. It’s been six months. They’ve said, “Hey, you need an MRI.” It’s been six months without an MRI. It’s “Hey, you need medication to manage this pain.” It’s been six months without medication to manage pain. If they’re not going to take care of you, then why should you even go?
One can only hope that Lewis is able to find help for his emotional trauma.
There is a place former abortion workers can go for support after they leave the industry. Former Planned Parenthood manager Abby Johnson set up the organization And Then There Were None which holds healing retreats for abortion workers who have left the industry. They are able to find healing and a sense of camaraderie that would otherwise be elusive. One former clinic worker, Shelley Guillory, RN, describes why And Then There Were None is so important to her:
A lot of people tend to look at us as bad guys. We’re not bad guys. We’re human. We’re doing a job. For a lot of us to come out of the industry, we’re embarrassed. We don’t feel comfortable or safe speaking to anybody. It puts us in a very, very dark place. For a lot of us, we go into deep depressions. You’d be very surprised [at] the suicide rate that is very prevalent among abortion workers once they come out because sometimes you feel alienated. But with [And Then There Were None], we don’t have that feeling. We are loved even when we don’t love ourselves.
Former Planned Parenthood manager Sue Thayer also says:
I would say my favorite thing about [being involved with And Then There Were None] really, is just being able to be with other people who have had similar experiences and you can say anything, really, and they’re not shocked. Whereas some of the stuff that we did, or said to clients, if we say that out in public, you know, people either wouldn’t believe it or really think you’re a horrible person. But when all of us are together, it’s like “yup, we all did that.” So that’s really the only place that I’ve ever been that you can really be open about our experiences.
Those of us who value life and seek to relieve human suffering need to advocate for the victims of violence, but we also must promote healing for the perpetrators who change their minds. Compassion for all who are hurt by violence, whether guilty or innocent, is part of the Consistent Life Ethic.
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