When Vicki Thorn died in April 2022—suddenly, at the age of 72—the pro-life community lost one of its genuine pioneers. As the founder of Project Rachel, the healing ministry of the Catholic Church in the United States, Vicki helped women and men bearing the unhealed emotional, psychological, and spiritual wounds of past abortions to receive God’s forgiveness and overcome trauma. The outpouring of tributes following her death expressed the immense gratitude prolifers feel for her ministry, as well as their desire to expand it.
“Vicki’s life and work,” said Archbishop Jerome Listecki of her home diocese in Milwaukee, stand as “an unwavering and unconditional defense of life at all stages, and to the mercy of God’s love.” Pro-life Wisconsin honored her as a woman who brought more people harmed by abortion “to a place of healing than any human being that has walked the earth.” The University of Notre Dame, which had awarded Vicki its prestigious Evangelium Vitae Medal, praised her as a “witness to the unconditional love and mercy that lies at the heart of the Culture of Life.” And the Pontifical Academy for Life, of which Vicki was a member, declared, “On behalf of all the Academicians we thank Vicki for her life witness. May she rest in peace.”1
Were Vicki Thorn known only for Project Rachel, her reputation as a pro-life trailblazer would be secure. But Vicki was also a faithful and dynamic Catholic; a spiritual guide and counselor; an active opponent of prejudice; a supporter of interfaith relations; a gifted teacher and speaker; and a wife and mother of six, who strove for personal holiness and inspired others to do the same.
No one knew that better than William Thorn, Vicki’s husband of fifty years. Now a professor emeritus of Journalism at Marquette University, he spoke with me at length about Vicki.
A Small Town with a Big Heart
To understand Vicki, William told me, one has to begin with her childhood in Little Falls, Minnesota. The Catholic high school she attended there, run by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, educated young Catholic women who lived nearby, but also served as a boarding school for female students from abroad. Vicki befriended many of them, broadening her knowledge of other cultures. That experience, combined with what the Sisters taught her about service to the poor and marginalized, affirmation of the unique worth of every person, and faith in a personal and loving God, gave Vicki a “very Franciscan outlook,” said William.
Vicki drew strength from her Catholic beliefs, especially when she was confronted with an unexpected crisis in high school. A fellow student confided to Vicki that she had become pregnant twice; though her firstborn had been welcomed by adoptive parents, her second child was aborted. Vicki’s friend was in anguish as she described the wrenching events leading up to the abortion—which included abuse and coercion—and ended with a heart-breaking lament: “I can live with the adoption, but I can’t live with the abortion.”2
Vicki never forgot those words, but finding help for her friend was a challenge in the pre-Roe era, and Vicki’s friend feared she would be shunned if she spoke more openly about her abortion. Vicki comforted her as best she could, prayed with her, and encouraged her to seek peace through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as Confession). As vital as Confession was, however, Vicki soon learned it was just the beginning of a healing process that could take years to complete. She also came to believe that her Church needed to do much more for the women, men, and families whose lives had been shattered by abortion.
Marriage and a New Mission
After Vicki graduated, she attended the University of Minnesota, where she met her future husband—“at noon Mass at the campus Newman center,” William recalls affectionately. William obtained his Ph.D. in mass communication, while Vicki majored in psychology—largely because of her high school friend’s harrowing abortion. Consoling her friend had been a life-changing event, leading Vicki to become a certified trauma counselor and spiritual director.
The newlyweds moved to Milwaukee, where William began teaching at Marquette and Vicki became the Respect Life Director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Her arrival there coincided with the early aftermath of Roe v. Wade. When the American bishops issued their 1975 pastoral plan for pro-life activities, largely in response to Roe, Vicki was impressed by their three-pronged approach. They advocated “womb-to-tomb” education about the sanctity of human life; promoted pro-life legislation; and offered pastoral care for anyone vulnerable to abortion or wounded by one. At first the bishops were only able to implement their first two goals: The last and most innovative, concerning pastoral care for abortion’s aftermath, was delayed because of its novelty and complexity. Vicki saw this as an opportunity for her to help the bishops fulfill their third goal. Pro-life scholar Mary FioRito, one of Vicki’s best friends, describes what happened next:
At her kitchen table in Wisconsin, Vicki drew up the outline for a groundbreaking program of accompaniment and healing for those impacted by abortion. As she did with everything else in her life, Vicki asked God’s guidance in naming the program. Opening the Bible, her eyes fell on a passage from the book of Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord; in Ramah is heard the sound of sobbing, bitter weeping! Rachel mourns for her children, for her children—they are no more!” (Jer 31:15) Vicki now had the name for her program: Project Rachel.
The passage was appropriate in more ways than one. Not only did it powerfully capture the anguish of a woman who has lost her child, but it also offered forgiveness, and a path to peace and restoration. The verse continues, “Thus says the Lord: Cease your cries of weeping, hold back your tears! . . .There is hope for your future” (Jer 31:16-17).3
Vicki knew from the outset that, if Project Rachel were to succeed, it had to be a major team effort. That meant involving a wide array of experts and above all priests, whose role of bringing God’s mercy and reconciliation through the Sacrament of Penance was indispensable.4
With the approval of her ordinary, in the fall of 1984, Vicki hosted the first Project Rachel training session, gathering priests, canon lawyers, spiritual directors, and medical professionals. Vicki encouraged the journalists present to take notes, but asked them to hold their stories until she had everything in place to make Project Rachel accessible. But a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel who had a friend still suffering from abortion wanted to publicize the good news sooner. The next morning, Vicki was awakened by media wanting to interview her about the Journal-Sentinel’s front-page article.
Vicki spent the next few days speaking to the media about every aspect of her new ministry. This was the moment when Project Rachel erupted onto the pro-life scene, but Vicki’s vision—so new, so bold and so challenging— left both sides of the abortion divide unprepared and a little unnerved.
Lydia LoCoco, who worked as an intern in Vicki’s Respect Life Office, described Project Rachel’s birth as a “lightning strike.” Many Catholics “won’t believe this,” she told me, but back then “it was quite scandalous to even mention that someone had an abortion, much less advance the concept that in every abortion there are two victims.”5
The abortion debate, then as now, was intense. But what Vicki did, said Lydia, “is turn everything on its head so that people could discuss the subject and approach it with tenderness.”
That meant being “non-judgmental and compassionate,” added William, without compromising the Church’s pro-life teachings. In Vicki’s mind, there was never any conflict between the two, and she saw her approach as fully Catholic. Yet that’s not how everyone received it.
“Vicki met opposition to Project Rachel almost as soon as she began,” William recalled, “and some of it came from within the Church.” Certain Catholics thought Vicki’s ministry would make it easier for women to have abortions, since being “non-judgmental,” in their eyes, meant being morally lax. Others feared her ministry would elevate women at the expense of their unborn children, and still more felt that Vicki was trying to create special privileges for Catholics involved in grave sin.
Of course, these criticisms and apprehensions were unfounded. Project Rachel was created to address the acute, enduring pain of abortion for mothers (and fathers)—not to minimize it. It never placed mothers above their unborn children, but believed the loss of or harm to either was a direct assault upon human life and dignity. Precisely because of its compassionate approach toward serious sin, Project Rachel created more, not less, pro-life passion, especially among those it saved from the destructive consequences of abortion.6 Still, pockets of disapproval followed Vicki, sometimes even in Church.
The week Project Rachel was announced, a number of people stopped Vicki at Mass, chastising her for welcoming women who’d had an abortion. As jarring and offensive as their criticism was, Vicki never allowed it to shake her; for she knew that mercy, forgiveness, and restoration are at the heart of the Gospel, and that was what Project Rachel was all about.
If some prolifers didn’t understand Vicki, abortion-rights advocates were even more perplexed. In their minds, anyone opposing “choice” was by definition cold-hearted and condemnatory, so people like Vicki Thorn weren’t supposed to exist. Yet there she was, on television, in newspapers and at conferences, week after week, proclaiming Project Rachel’s unconditional love for anyone who had had an abortion, and offering its services for those in need.
The abortion industry didn’t know how to respond. At first, they tried to ignore Project Rachel, hoping it would fade away. When it didn’t, they tried to claim that abortions didn’t harm women, but that was rebutted by first-hand testimonies and medical evidence.7 Some even accused the women supported by Project Rachel of not telling the truth about their suffering—and simply repeating whatever they were told to say. That this baseless allegation continues to be made reveals how far pro-choice activists are willing to go to defend abortion and disparage its victims.
Undeterred, Vicki pressed on, gaining an increasing number of supporters. Among them was Olivia Gans Turner, who was one of the first women to join forces with Vicki in the 1980s after enduring her own devastating abortion. Today Turner directs American Victims of Abortion, which complements Project Rachel on a host of fronts, especially by providing expert testimony for pro-life legislation. When I asked Olivia about the attacks against the integrity of pro-life women trying to overcome their abortions, she replied:
I have spoken in all 50 states, and 17 countries abroad and I have never met a woman who, when she spoke to me sorrowfully about her abortion, was not speaking solely and directly from her own heart and her own life.
It is patronizing, ugly, and sad that there are those who still want to create a different narrative and disregard the testimonies of women who have courageously described what abortion did to them and how much they mourn the loss of their unborn child.
But when you have a culture as profoundly damaged as ours, Olivia continued, “you produce generations of people who try to make something that never can make sense seem reasonable. Vicki understood this and devoted her life to repairing that damage.”
Project Rachel’s Growth and Influence
Meanwhile, the new ministry continued to clear hurdles and make strides. After Vicki formalized Project Rachel as an official ministry of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, its name was trademarked. Project Rachel proved so effective that, following a multitude of requests, Vicki helped establish similar programs in many dioceses throughout America. In 1990, she founded the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing to facilitate this process. By 2010, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had transferred its trademark to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which adopted the entire ministry and updated its name. “Project Rachel Ministry” (PRM) is now the official diocesan-based post-abortion healing ministry of the Catholic Church in the United States.
To supplement diocesan outreach, the USCCB has set up a website and a national helpline for those suffering the aftermath of an abortion.8 After speaking to a specially trained diocesan representative confidentially, the caller in need is then referred to a priest or licensed health professional for individual consultation or enrolled in group healing such as a support group or retreat. While each diocese varies in how it implements PRM, according to the local bishop’s directives, there are constants they all share: sacramental reconciliation and a network of services offering an integrated approach to post-abortive healing.
Consistent with Vicki’s vision, there is no time limit on when or how often women and men can come to Project Rachel Ministry, nor is the PRM limited to Catholics. “Project Rachel Ministry is open to people of all faiths or no faith at all,” Mary McClusky, who helps direct PRM for the USCCB, told me. While a diocesan ministry always offers an authentically Catholic approach for those seeking one, and while the guidelines for the sacraments are maintained, there is a great deal of common ground between Catholics and non-Catholics, she said. Many healing opportunities address the grief and trauma experienced after abortion, and these are applicable to people of all beliefs. In addition, psychological counseling, under the guidance of PRM, can and has brought about spiritual renewal among many non-Catholics, and even inspired non-believers to embrace faith.
Project Rachel’s mission has also drawn major interest from other parts of the globe. During her life, Vicki traveled extensively to spread the message of diocesan abortion healing ministry, especially in countries and cultures with high abortion rates. It was often a struggle to break through, but the seeds she planted are now bearing fruit. Countries as distant as Romania and as repressive as China now have budding post-abortive ministries, thanks to Vicki’s determination.9
What Vicki started in her modest Wisconsin kitchen has resonated in ways that no one could have imagined. She always attributed Project Rachel’s astonishing success to prayer, the grace of God, and the sheer power of truth.
Trusting the Science and God’s Wondrous Creation
After counseling women traumatized by abortion for years, and seeing how connected they are to every pregnancy and relationship, she felt compelled to study the subject in depth and speak about it as often as she could. Vicki delivered many talks on the “Biology of the Theology of the Body” (drawn from Pope St. John Paul’s insights into the “Theology of the Body”) to adults, and a slightly revised version for students in high school and college entitled “What They Didn’t Teach You in Sex-Ed.” Blending scientific data with the classic insights of theology, Vicki explained how men and women are inherently different, yet built to complement one another. She spoke about the biochemistry of sex, the upheaval of the sexual revolution, and the science of attraction.10 “One of Vicki’s real gifts was an ability to read complex scientific material and make it perfectly understandable to audiences of many ages,” said William. Among the facts she relayed to her audiences:
• Physically, psychologically, and emotionally, men and women are designed to bond with one partner, in long-term marital relationships, not with frequent, impermanent partners.
• When a woman and man conceive a child, their bodies undergo profound biochemical changes and their cells become part of one another, as well as their child’s, linking them for life in a unique and inextricable way.
• When women use artificial contraception, it can easily change what kind of men they are attracted to. As a result, when they stop taking the pill, or begin taking it after a relationship begins, it can radically alter the affection they have for their partner, provoking estrangement, heartbreak, and bewilderment.11
Vicki’s engaging talks made a world of difference to those that heard them. “I find that people are most receptive to the information and that knowing how complexly we are made and how we are truly changed in every act of intimacy reconfigures some of the lies of society,” she said.12
Women were enlightened by her insights, but men even more so. Most expectant fathers, Vicki noted, have no idea that they, and not only their pregnant wives, undergo bodily changes that prepare them for fatherhood. In 2014, a groundbreaking study for the American Journal of Human Biology indicated that expectant dads undergo significant hormonal changes during a pregnancy, including a reduction in their testosterone levels, making them less aggressive and better caretakers.13 By 2020, the New York Times reported that “globally, study after study” has found similar results, and commented:
While news of this drop in testosterone is often greeted with groans of resignation from men—choose fatherhood and choose the road to emasculation, they think— some studies have suggested that the lower a man’s testosterone, the more likely he is to release key reward and bonding hormones, namely oxytocin and dopamine, when interacting with his child. Caring for your child, therefore produces not only a strong bond but a neurochemical reward, inducing feelings of happiness, contentment and warmth—a welcome trade-off.
The Times also reported that brain changes of expectant fathers “mirrored those previously seen in new moms: certain areas within parts of the brain linked to attachment, nurturing, empathy and the ability to interpret and react appropriately to a baby’s behavior.”14
All of which Vicki conveyed when speaking about men, marriage, and child-rearing. “Learning that they have biological knowledge of the pregnancy of their partner and that their body is also changed by pregnancy opens their hearts to the marvel of creating new life,” she said. Men are astonished to learn that “they are being hard wired to respond to ovulation as well as fatherhood,” which “gives them a sense that the responsibility of fatherhood is not to be taken lightly.”15
That the discoveries of modern science echo the truths of the Bible only strengthened Vicki’s passion for proclaiming her Church’s teachings. “It is the role of the Catholic Church to speak the truth of sexuality as God intended it,” she affirmed, and it is a truth she lived out in her personal life. One of her happiest moments was when she, her husband, and all six of their children visited the Vatican to meet St. John Paul II, who blessed them and thanked Vicki abundantly for her “special work.”16
Vicki would often say that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made by God.” But when we disrupt His divine plan, and place our desires above His, negative consequences are bound to follow. In contrast, when we respect our bodies and follow God’s wondrous design for them, it strengthens society at large. Everyone benefits.
Project Rachel and the Post-Roe Era
Vicki Thorn did not live to see the dramatic overturning of Roe v. Wade, a goal she ardently desired, yet she is surely celebrating that decision now in the presence of the Lord.17 At the same time, everyone who knew Vicki believes she would have said that the post-Roe era will demand even more from the pro-life movement. With the advent of new and diverse laws in the individual states—some life-affirming, others quite deadly—pregnant women will continue to feel pressure to make a momentous decision, and the prolife community has to be there for them in every way possible—spiritually, emotionally, economically, and socially—guiding them towards life.18
In doing so, we should follow Vicki’s example of never succumbing to harsh or judgmental language, and of trying to empathize with our opponents, even as we firmly uphold our pro-life convictions. This is not a contradiction, and Olivia Gans Turner explains why:
The tragedy of legalized abortion has been to create multiple generations of women who have been led to believe that abortion is vitally important to their safety and wellbeing in the face of an unexpected or complicated pregnancy. The abortion industry has successfully forced a message that abortion is safe and has no consequences. The result has been decades of self-inflicted wounds that have also taken the lives of our children. So the recent Supreme Court decision has served to rip away the tragic scars and unresolved trauma that is part of every abortion decision.
Vicki was deeply aware that abortion memories never really leave women unscathed. She would have been the first to be calling for an open discussion about the injury that has been done in virtually every family and to millions of women and girls. She would have pointed out that the response to the shouting we now see in the streets calls for even more compassion.
The catastrophic effect of Roe v. Wade, said Olivia, was to separate a mother from her child—in the most violent way possible—and to tell women this was a requirement for success, safety, and their very lives. “For almost fifty years Americans have been told that their children are not worthy of protection and that has meant, by default, that neither are their mothers All of which means we have a great deal of work ahead to heal the wounds left behind by Roe.”
The Untold Legacy of Vicki Thorn
If there is an overarching and reoccurring theme to Vicki’s life, it is that she left an impact on everyone she knew, and transformed even more people she did not know, or never expected to meet.
Two stories recounted by her husband illustrate the point. The first involves a friend of Vicki’s who, after an eventful life as a young man, had turned his life around for the better. He was driving through Wisconsin one night and stopped at a bar to get a bite to eat. A woman who was sitting nearby noticed he was wearing a pin with tiny feet on it, and began to poke fun at him, not knowing what it symbolized. So he explained, “I wear this in memory of my child who I lost through an abortion, and as a reminder to help prevent an abortion whenever I can.”
The woman’s expression began to change. She choked up, then began to weep uncontrollably. Longingly she asked, “Where were you two weeks ago?” She had just had an abortion, and the nightmare of it all, which she had been trying to suppress, suddenly came rushing back. Moments later, Vicki received a call. It was 3:30 a.m. Her friend told her he had a woman grieving from abortion, and asked Vicki to speak with her, “and she did,” said William. “Having been a counselor for twenty-five years, she knew exactly what to say, and remained on the line until Vicki convinced her that Project Rachel would be there to help her recover every step of the way—which it did.”
The second story occurred shortly before Vicki’s death. Sitting in a restaurant with her husband, she was reflecting on having recently scaled back some of her activities because of her age, and wondered whether all her hard work would really make a difference. At that moment, as if the Holy Spirit wanted to send a message, a group of college-age students walked in. Among them was a young woman who stared at Vicki before sitting down with her friend. After a few minutes, the young woman came over to Vicki’s table and said, “Excuse me, are you Vicki Thorn?”
Vicki affirmed that indeed she was, and the young woman told her, “I just want you to know that you changed my life.”
The two went over to a separate table to speak privately for a few moments. When Vicki returned, William asked who the woman was. Smiling, Vicki replied, “I have no idea, but she seems awfully happy and thanked me for Project Rachel!” These were not unusual occurrences. Mary FioRito said that Vicki referred to them as “God moments.” Perhaps the most frequent of them were the occasions when women whom Vicki did not know came up to her and simply hugged her. These women had been engulfed by guilt over their abortions, but restored through Project Rachel.
“Vicki knew that healing—total healing—is possible,” said Lydia LoCoco. “And she became an instrument to offer that healing, through the all-encompassing mercy of Jesus Christ.”
1. For these tributes, and many more, see “Pro-life Advocates Mourn Vicki Thorn, Founder of Project Rachel Healing Ministry” by Shannon Mullen, Catholic News Agency, April 21, 2022; “Vicki Thorn Dies; Founded Post-Abortion Healing Ministry Project Rachel,” Catholic News Service, April 22, 2022; and “The Milwaukee Woman Who ‘Single-Handedly Created a Post-Abortion Ministry’ for the Catholic Church Has Died” by Sophie Carson,” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, April 24, 2022.
2. Vicki recounted many of these events in “Ethics and Culture Cast,” produced by the University of Notre Dame and available online at https://share.fireside.fm/episode/oLpI9plr+0I-cBmb0 (Episode 57, August 26, 2021.)
3. See “Remembering Vicki Thorn and the Legacy She Left” by Mary FioRito, Our Sunday Visitor, April 25, 2022.
4. Vicki expressed her admiration for priests frequently, and thanked them for their selfless work with Project Rachel: See “Priests Touch Lives in Ways Most Never Know” by Vicki Thorn, The Compass (Official Publication for the Diocese of Green Bay), July 21, 2009.
5. A mother and her unborn child are certainly the primary victims of an abortion, but fathers can suffer acute pain as well. Vicki and Project Rachel made it a point to emphasize this, hosting numerous conferences for men who had lost their unborn child through abortion. On this topic, see Vicki’s conversation with pro-life activist Jason Jones, who lost one of his children to an abortion, on EWTN’s “Life on the Rock” program, January 19, 2012, available on YouTube.
6. For two moving accounts of post-abortive women who were healed through Project Rachel and became dedicated prolifers, see “Project Rachel Marks 30 Years of Counseling,” The Catholic Herald (of Milwaukee), October 9, 2014; and “Hope and Healing After Abortion,” Catholic Digest, January 24, 2015.
7. See “Analysis of 22 Studies Confirms: Abortion Harms Women’s Mental Health,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, press release, September 2, 2011. See also “The Abortion and Mental Health Controversy” by David C. Reardon, Sage Open Medicine online, Volume 6, 2018, which, after citing an exhaustive amount of research on the subject, asserts, “The claim that abortion trauma is a ‘myth’ advanced purely for the purposes of anti-abortion propaganda is itself nothing more than proabortion propaganda.”
8. See the USCCB’s website on Project Rachel Ministry at: https://www.usccb.org/topics/projectrachel-ministry as well as the associated “HopeAfterAbortion.com” website.
9. For Vicki’s impact on post-abortion ministry throughout the world, see “Thorn Leaves Behind Legacy of Healing” by Karen Mahoney, The Catholic Herald (of Milwaukee) online, April 21, 2022. The article also notes that Vicki was the author of the Italian book Progetto Rachele, il volto della compassionate (“Project Rachel: The Face of Compassion”), commissioned and published by the Vatican.
10. Many of Vicki’s lectures are on audio or video: See the collection available at: OFWCMEDIA.com.
11. See “Researcher Uncovers the Dark World of the Pill” by Lilian Qinones, The Catholic Herald (of Madison) online, March 6, 2013.
12. See the text of Vicki’s talk “A Christian Vision of Sexuality,” available online at: http://www.laici.va
13. See “Expectant Dads May Also Have Hormonal Changes” by Kathleen Doheny, HealthDay News
online, December 17, 2014.
14. See “How Men’s Bodies Change When They Become Fathers” by Anna Machin, New York Times, June 24, 2021.
15. From Vicki’s talk “A Christian Vision of Sexuality,” noted in endnote 12.
16. In addition to Vicki’s being a life-long Catholic, strongly supportive of the papacy and Catholic teaching, Vicki’s husband told me that their marriage was influenced by the lives of many blesseds and saints, especially Blessed Anna-Maria Taigi (1769-1837), a model Catholic wife and mother of seven children.
17. See “Vicki Thorn Retires,” by Karen Mahoney, Catholic Herald (of Milwaukee) online, December 2020, where Vicki made the prophetic comment: “I am seeing more people who are adamantly prolife, and I don’t know how to say this, but they are determined to make a change and I think they are willing to do what needs to be done to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
18. Vicki’s husband William and her close friend Mary FioRito told me that Vicki was an advocate of the “seamless garment” and “consistent ethic of life,” often associated with the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. But both emphasized that Vicki believed that this ethic, properly understood, embraced all of the Church’s teachings, including those regarding human sexuality and Vatican II’s Call to Holiness. For more on this often-debated topic, see my column “Sex and the Seamless Garment,” First Things online, May 7, 2012; and Mary FioRito’s important essay, “The Consistent Ethic: Context and Controversy,” Chicago Studies, Spring/Summer, 2019.
William Doino Jr., a contributor to Inside the Vatican and First Things, among many other publications, writes often about religion, history, and politics.