Donate to RNS

A devout Catholic, she opposed abortion. Now she performs them.

Like many Catholics, Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio prioritized the needs of the fetus. A trip to an abortion clinic forced her to consider the needs of the woman.

Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio, center, participates in a panel about abortion during the Religion News Association conference March 25, 2022, in Bethesda, Maryland. RNS photo by Kit Doyle

(RNS) — The picketers outside the family planning clinic were loud and jeering. They shouted epithets as women walked toward the front door. They called them whores.

Jennifer Villavicencio was one of those women. She remembers thinking, “I’m on your side. I believe what you believe. I’m anti-abortion.”

Back then, in 2006, Villavicencio wasn’t seeking an abortion — only emergency contraceptive pills, sometimes called morning-after pills or Plan B.

She was already on birth control, engaged to her longtime boyfriend, and a committed and devout Catholic.

It made no difference. To the anti-abortion activists outside the clinic, she was a slut, a potential murderer or both.

Villavicencio, now an obstetrician–gynecologist, was stunned.

Jennifer Villavicencio at her first communion. Photo courtesy of Villavicencio

Jennifer Villavicencio at her First Communion. Photo courtesy of Villavicencio

A first-generation Cuban American, Villavicencio grew up in Miami attending Catholic church and later Catholic schools. From the time she was in the second grade, she remembers nuns at St. Thomas the Apostle saying abortion was one of the gravest sins a person could commit.

Like other Catholics, she believed human life must be protected from the moment of conception. During her church’s “40 Days of Life” campaigns, she stood on Miami’s Route 1 hoisting signs that read “Save babies.” At her Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, she read aloud essays on opposing abortion to her Catholic high school classmates.

“I really felt I was doing the right thing and moving justice forward in the world by protecting women and children,” said Villavicencio, 35.

That day at the clinic, though, her religious values ran up against reality. She was taking birth control pills but felt she needed one more measure of protection: the morning-after pill. Yet once inside the clinic, she saw no difference between herself and the women who had come to the clinic to terminate their pregnancies. They all had valid reasons for being there. She saw they deserved as much respect — if not more — than the developing fetus.

And so began a journey that led her to change her mind about abortion.

Villavicencio’s experience is common, and will remain so. But in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the constitutional right to legal abortion, an estimated 33 million women of reproductive age will lose some or all access to the procedure in the state where they live. Unlike Villavicencio, those who change their minds may not be able to act on their newfound convictions.

The Rev. Rob Schenck, an evangelical pastor who once prominently opposed abortion and now supports abortion rights, came to a similar conclusion. He saw how many Christians, firm in their opposition to abortion, have stereotyped views of a pregnant woman seeking an abortion.

They may have imagined a middle-class white woman who takes a casual view of abortion, or worse, is indifferent to the consequences of what she is doing, he said. Once reasoned with, she could then carry her pregnancy to term and that everybody involved will live happily ever after, he said. 

Rob Schenck preaches in a scene from "The Armor of Light." Photo by Jeff Hutchens, courtesy of Fork Films

The Rev. Rob Schenck preaches in a scene from “The Armor of Light.” Photo by Jeff Hutchens, courtesy of Fork Films

“But the Christian obligation is to live with people in their reality — not force them to live with us in our reality,” said Schenck. “That’s how we understand Christ.”

After listening to the stories of two women in desperate circumstances, Schenck reconsidered his opposition to abortion, reasoning that keeping abortion legal was a more moral — indeed a more Christian — outcome.

Changing her mind on abortion was not something Villavicencio ever envisioned. She was deeply committed to living by the Catholic values espoused by her parents and her church.

At age 13, her parents got her a “promise ring,” and she pledged to remain abstinent until marriage. She dated a boy throughout high school and they became engaged. Once in college, Villavicencio and her boyfriend each asked permission from their parents to have sex.

“We prayed about it, thought about it and made a decision together,” Villavicencio said.

An A student with plans to go to medical school, Villavicencio didn’t want to risk getting pregnant. She got on birth control. But once on it, she also panicked.

“In reality, I didn’t need Plan B,” Villavicencio said. “I was still having a lot of guilt internalized around sexual activity. I was scared. This medication was out there and I wanted to be as safe as I possibly could.”

She walked out of the clinic that day still thinking of herself as a good “pro-life Catholic.” But like the 56% of U.S. Catholics who say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, she eventually came to embrace abortion rights.

RELATED: Survey: White evangelicals oppose abortion; all other religious groups support it

In medical school at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, she studied the science of reproduction, embryology and pregnancy. She learned science is not always black and white; it’s full of gray areas. By the time she was in medical school, she had broken up with her fiance and stopped going to Mass.

But it was on one of her residency rounds at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, that her change of heart was complete. That night, a pregnant woman carrying a baby with severe abnormalities needed an abortion. The baby would not have survived long after birth and the woman, with the support of her parents, didn’t want to carry it to term.

Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio is a obstetrician–gynecologist in Maryland. Photo courtesy of Villavicencio

Dr. Jennifer Villavicencio is an obstetrician–gynecologist in Maryland. Photo courtesy of Villavicencio

Villavicencio helped her induce labor. Then the woman asked to hold her baby, and Villavicencio wrapped the baby and gave it to the woman.

“She looked down and then looked up at me and said to me, ‘Look, how beautiful my daughter is!’ That was a lightning bolt moment for me. I was standing in front of a woman who clearly could grapple with the complexity of the decision she made. She deeply loved her daughter and had ended her pregnancy. She was able to hold those two things at the same time. She knew more about her life and the love she had than anyone else.”

After completing the procedure that night, she decided to apply for a fellowship in family planning at the University of Michigan (where she also earned a master’s degree in public policy). She now works as an obstetrician–gynecologist at two Maryland hospitals, in addition to a Planned Parenthood clinic.

Her experience is similar to that of other physicians.

Diane Horvath, another Maryland abortion provider, also attended Catholic schools growing up. She too was taught that abortion was a sin. And she too said it was her encounters with women in wrenching circumstances that made her reconsider the procedure.

“People who have abortions are the same people who have births and miscarriages,” said Horvath, who is married and has a daughter. “Even people who swear they would never need an abortion find themselves in a position where they do need one. I want people to know, you can come in free of judgment. If you need an abortion, I’m here to help you. You’ll be treated with kindness and compassion.”

Horvath, 43, no longer attends church. But she believes it’s precisely her willingness to step into other people’s shoes and to offer medical care that is a deeply Catholic act.

“The message I got from my parents was, if you see injustice, if you see hurting, you have to be God’s hands in the world,” said Horvath. “You have to act.”

Up until last month, Horvath traveled to Alabama periodically to offer her services at an independent clinic there. Alabama swiftly banned abortion after the Supreme Court’s ruling on June 24. Anyone in the state who performs an abortion would face up to 99 years in prison.

Villavicencio does not attend church either. But both support Catholics for Choice, a nonprofit organization that advocates for reproductive choice. Villavicencio sits on its board.

They are acutely aware of the dangers of providing abortion services in the post-Roe era, and they take precautions. They don’t drive the same route to work and they avoid clothes that might identify them as physicians. Horvath says she pays an online privacy management company to scrape any identifying information about her from the web.

Both women are willing to put up with the dangers, they said, because they regard their work as a calling.

“I’m called by my conscience and everything I was taught as a child growing up by my parents and my faith,” said Villavicencio. “This is the work I need to be doing. I’m deeply committed to it.”

RELATED: My pro-life mom worked at Planned Parenthood — her legacy shapes my pro-choice hope


Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!