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'You Carried Me' Abortion survivor to share story of faith and forgiveness at Celebrate Life Banquet

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Melissa Ohden shares her abortion story in a 2012 commercial sponsored by the Susan B. Anthony List.

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By Kim Grizzard

Sunday, October 1, 2017

There is nothing in Melissa Ohden’s appearance that would make her a polarizing figure. The Iowa wife and mother of two is a green-eyed brunette with girl-next-door looks and a childhood that would seem to match.

Yet the circumstances of her birth have placed Ohden in the center of a cultural, political and religious debate. To some, her existence is an answer to prayer. To others, it is an affront to their ideologies.

For Ohden, tearful notes of support and hate mail come in the same bag. It has been that way for nearly a decade, ever since she began telling the story of how she survived what was intended to be an abortion.

“I think people would be surprised if they realized how much backlash (abortion) survivors in particular face in this world simply by living,” Ohden, 40, said in a telephone interview last week. “By and large, most people are supportive. But today I did get a piece of hate mail from someone who said, ‘The Lord hates you for getting involved in other people’s business.’

“They do that because something has hurt them,” she said. “It’s not me. It’s the message.”

Ohden, a pro-life public speaker, will share that message in Greenville on Thursday at Carolina Pregnancy Center’s Celebrate Life Banquet. She also will share a message of forgiveness that inspired her to write “You Carried Me,” a memoir about the search for biological parents who never knew their child was alive.

Ohden was estimated to have spent 31 weeks in her mother’s womb before she was born on Aug. 29, 1977, at St. Luke’s hospital in Sioux City, Iowa. Her medical records show that days earlier, Ohden’s 19-year-old birth mother had undergone a saline-infused abortion that was “unsuccessful.”

“There is no medical reason (for the failed abortion) that the doctors can pinpoint,” Ohden said. “It’s not like we can look through the notes and go, ‘Oh, that’s where the mistake was made.’ From a medical standpoint nobody can understand, and I’m OK with that because of my faith.”

Ohden was born weighing less than 3 pounds and suffering respiratory distress. She spent weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit before being adopted by a young couple in a farming community 100 miles away.

While the story of her adoption was a familiar one in Ohden’s childhood, the reality of the abortion attempt was not. Ohden was 14 when she learned the truth.

In her book, Ohden chronicles how the revelation ignited a sense of betrayal, along with rebellious teenage choices that followed: eating disorders, binge drinking and sex. Wanting to avoid an unplanned pregnancy of her own, she went to a Planned Parenthood clinic for birth control, not realizing that the facility also served as an abortion clinic. During one visit to the clinic, Ohden encountered a pro-life group outside.

“‘You don’t have to do this! We can help you!’ an older man in a gray fedora called out,” Ohden writes of the incident in her book. “... ‘Thank you,’ I managed to stammer as I tried to stuff the rosary into my glove box. ‘But I know about abortion. I’m an abortion survivor. My birth mother aborted me and I lived.’”

As she drove away, the man pointed to the group of people praying on the sidewalk and said, “You should be here, not there!”

That sentence, spoken by a stranger, challenged Ohden. Still, she struggled to find a way to become involved in a movement that would allow her to express her pro-life views without compromising her feminist philosophy. In 2006, she joined Feminists for Life.

“The first wave of feminists were pro-life,” Ohden said. “They understood that abortion was not something that was setting women free.

“I truly believe that abortion is a reflection that we haven’t met the needs of women in our society,” she said. “What I say to people is: ‘Tell me of an instance of a societal problem where we say ending the life of another human being is the solution because I can’t think of one except abortion.’”

In 2008, Ohden gave birth to her daughter, Olivia, in the same hospital where Ohden’s mother had gone for an abortion. That same year, Ohden began her career as a pro-life speaker, a role she did not immediately embrace.

“When I first came forward, people said, ‘You need to be prepared to quit your (social work) job,’” she recalled. “I was thinking I don’t want to do that. I love my job. I went to school for so many years to get my master’s degree. I don’t want to be a public speaker. This was not on my radar.”

But the invitations kept coming. Many of them were from organizations like Carolina Pregnancy Center, a Christian organization that offers abortion alternatives, post-abortion support and abstinence education. This fall alone, Ohden will speak at more than two dozen fundraisers for pregnancy centers and other pro-life organizations.

In 2012, she joined the Susan B. Anthony List on a bus tour in support of pro-life candidates. Later that year, she shared her story in a television commercial that focused on President Obama’s opposition to legislation to protect infants like her, born alive after an abortion. Three years later, she testified before Congress during a hearing investigating Planned Parenthood.

Also in 2012, she founded the Abortion Survivors Network, which has more than 220 members. Ohden said that while many of the survivors will not go on to share their story publicly, they take comfort in being able to talk with others who have shared their experience.

“I spent years of my life feeling really alone as a survivor and thinking I must be the only one and nobody would ever understand, so it was a really really lonely place to be,” Ohden said. “When I found out (abortion survivor) Gianna Jensen existed, that kind of lit up my life, just to simply know that I was not the only one.

“We live in a culture that tries to silence stories like ours,” Ohden said. “Most people really don’t know that abortions can fail and children can go on to live. ... So we do want to be able to put a face to that and provide information, but the other part of that is that we want to provide support to other survivors.”

Ohden also seeks to offer support for women who have had abortions, whom she counts among abortion’s casualties. After searching for years for information on her biological parents, Ohden met her birth mother last year. The two have forged a friendship. Although her father died before Ohden had a chance to meet him, she has established relationships with members of his family as well.

Ohden writes about her mother in her book, but she remains fiercely protective of her identity. There are no photos; not even a first name is used.

“I don’t know that I can really adequately explain to people the amount of trauma that she’s been through,” Ohden said, explaining that her birth mother, who was in college when she learned of her pregnancy, was coerced into having an abortion. “It’s incredibly heartbreaking.

“People think I’m this big, brave strong woman, and I’m the one who is reduced to tears when I talk about it,” she said. “I’m called to do these two really strange things. I’m called to put on this big, bold face when it comes to abortion. But underneath it, my heart is that I want people to know that they are loved, just like my birth mother is loved. I want them to know that they are loved and they are forgiven.”

Carolina Pregnancy Center Executive Director Laura Strabley said Ohden’s message of forgiveness was a key factor in her selection as a speaker for the annual fundraiser.

“She is so transparent about her own struggles in life that I think she removes any fear of judgment that people may feel,” Strabley said. “She has journeyed so far in her own healing journey that she really ministers to that spirit of grace and hope. I just feel like we all need hope, and we all need to know that there is a place that we can go if we feel like we’re hurting.”

In addition to working with women who are pregnant, Carolina Pregnancy Center offers services to women who seek counseling after an abortion.

Ohden sometimes hears from women who have experienced abortion. She meets them at pro-life events.

“I see the people weeping as they come face to face with somebody like me or they hear us speak,” she said, “and I know what their sobs are about.

“I have a life that highlights the devastation of abortion in many people’s lives,” Ohden said. “It is hard for people to hear. I think it’s hard for people to read sometimes in my book. But the flip side of that is that they can also see the incredible importance of making a difference in a woman’s life.”

The hope that she can make a difference is what fuels Ohden’s passion on days when she is weary of leaving her family behind to travel to speak at another event or days when mail seems especially hurtful.

“I live in such an incredible place of blessing, of peace, doing what I do every single day, even when I have to be on the road, when I get hate mail, all of those things,” she said. “I don’t question for a second that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”

Carolina Pregnancy Center’s Celebrate Life Banquet will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Greenville Convention Center, 303 S.W. Greenville Blvd. This year’s theme is “Miracles Happen.” Individual tickets are $35. Call 757-0003 or e-mail events@carolinapregnancycenter.org for more information.

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