WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’re listening in on my conversation with Claire Culwell, the author of Survivor: An Abortion Survivor’s Surprising Story of Choosing Forgiveness and Finding Redemption.
CLAIRE CULWELL, GUEST: I think that the church has played a a huge part in how women and families believe, honestly believe that they need abortion in order to live their life and to be happy. You could walk on a college campus and ask people where the local Planned Parenthood, people will know where to direct you. But you ask them where their church funded and community funded Pregnancy Resource Center is, or a church that can help a woman in an unplanned pregnancy, nobody knows.
WS: Over the course of my journalistic career, I’ve interviewed many people in the pro-life movement—some of them on this podcast. I’ve interviewed women who have had abortions, men who pressured women into having abortions, health care professions who have performed abortions.
But I think today’s guest is the first person I’ve ever interviewed who has survived an abortion.
Claire Culwell knew she was adopted from an early age. She was raised in a loving, Christian home. But when she was a young adult she began a journey to find her birth mother, and when she did, she learned something that even now she says was the shock of her life. Her birth mother, Tonya, confessed to Claire that she had tried to abort her, but had failed. The abortion had terminated the life of Claire’s twin, but Claire herself had survived.
It turns out that Claire is not alone. There are hundreds of known abortion survivors who have been identified by pro-life groups, but the true number is likely far greater. And they provide both a great resource for the pro-life movement, because their stories—like Claire’s, as you will hear—are often compelling. But they also provide opportunities for ministry. Abortion survivors often need extra measures of grace and community to overcome the feeling of being unwanted even by their own mothers. Claire Culwell talks openly and movingly about these wounds, and their consequences.
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WS: Well, let's just start off with kind of the basics of your story, which is remarkable in and of itself. First of all, you knew from a fairly young age that you were adopted, your parents were actively involved in Christian ministry, your adoptive parents were actively involved in Christian ministry. Tell us about those early days and and how you came to know that you were adopted.
CC: Absolutely. I'm adopted from Oklahoma. And I was adopted by a wonderful Christian couple that lived in Texas. My dad was born and raised here. And my mom was an Army brat. And so she kind of moved around a lot. But they settled down in Austin, Texas. And, gosh, my parents are incredible. They they did they worked for CRU, which was Campus Crusade for Christ, for over 40 years, and now they're doing ministry on their own. But yeah, my sister and I are both adopted. And I don't actually remember finding out that I was adopted, it was just kind of something that we always knew was part of our story. There was no shame or awkwardness in that. It was this this gift to our family that we had birth mothers, that we were adopted, that we were wanted, chosen and loved. Those were things that my parents spoke about, spoke over us our entire life. And so being adopted was was incredible. I remember actually in school, when kids would be like, gosh, I'm so sorry that you're adopted, or what was it like at the orphanage? And my sister and I both remember thinking like, What in the world? Why? Why were people saying those things? But it's because everybody had seen the movie, Annie, back then. And so that was people's perception of adoption. But for us, we just kind of responded like, what do you mean? Being adopted is is incredible. In fact, it's our normal, we don't know any different. And we're so proud of who we are in our family because it models who we are. in Christ's family, and our parents really modeled that well for us and loved us well, and so when the time came, where we thought about meeting our birth mothers, it didn't matter what happened, or if anything would have been disappointing, or the circumstances surrounding our adoption because we knew who we were in our family, and we knew who we were, because of who Christ said we were.
WS: Well, before we jump into the meeting with your, with your birth, Mom, I wanted to just back up a bit. Your dad, as you said, was on so you're both your parents were on staff with CRU, your dad was the assistant to Josh McDowell for a number of years. In fact, Josh wrote an afterword to your book. And so I think a lot of our listeners will know Josh, in fact, I've known Josh for many years. He's been a guest on this program, as has Sean McDowell. So, so your parents weren't just on staff with CRU, but they were, they were kind of in the inner circle running around the country and even around the world. Is that is that correct?
CC: Yeah, the McDowells are our close family, friends of ours. We have have seen them many times. And actually, when my sister and I were thinking about meeting our birth mothers, that's who we called and talked to, because they have adopted children as well. And so they had met their birth mothers. And so yeah, lots of lots of personal connections there but my parents were on staff and my dad worked for Josh McDowell for a couple years.
WS: Yeah. Well, let's talk about the the meeting of your birth mother because your experience and your sister's experience were different. Your sister a couple of years younger than you, and those couple of years made a real difference in, in the adoption experience you had. And correct me, clarify. I'm not using the right language here, but your adoption was a closed adoption, your younger sister's adoption was an open adoption. And that meant that the contact with the birth parents was kind of, followed different rules. Can you say more about that?
CC: Yes, you're right. So my, mine was closed, which means until I was 18 years old, I had no option to know any information or to meet my birth mother. Where my sister, having an open adoption meant that that communication line between the birth mother and and us was open. Although even though it was open, though, my sister actually didn't ever talk to her birth mother until she was 17. And so my sister met her birth mother just a couple, well let's see, maybe maybe a year or so before I met mine. And she had this incredible reunion with her birth mother. So you're right. I thought, Okay. Everything's gonna be the same. Same for me. And yet, it wasn't. But my sister.
WS: So talk about your early experiences with meeting your birth mother, Tanya.
CC: My first meeting with my birth mother was after I had called my adoption agency on the phone. And actually, my birth mother's caseworker answered the phone that day, she had been her caseworker 20 years before that, and ended up reuniting us which is, which was pretty neat. But my birth mother was was 13 years old. And so when I met my birth mother, she was she was still very young, in her mid 30s. And she brought her family and I brought my family and we had this incredible reunion. We met in Dallas, because she lives in Oklahoma, and I live in Austin. And it was an in between spot, we met in the home of the woman who when my mom brought me home from the hospital helped my mom make my first bottle. And so really just a special time together. I brought pictures, like a stack of pictures just to show her how grateful I was, how, how wonderful my life had been, I was 21 years old at this point when I met my birth mother. And so our initial meeting was incredible. And we decided we wanted to continue our relationship. And so we set a second meeting up and that is when my life changed forever.
WS: Well, your life changed, by the way, I want to pause there Just a minute, Claire because the caseworker that reunited you. She was a special person in your life as well. Am I remembering right that your adoption was one of her very first cases, and that she had kept a picture of you all these years in her office? Is that is that accurate? I'm remembering that right?
CC: She had, when I called her. I told her who I was. And I told her I wanted to hopefully meet my birth mother or nothing. If nothing else, at least have someone thank her for me. And she said, Oh my goodness, Claire, I know exactly who you are. I actually knew your birth mother. 21 years ago, I was her caseworker. And you're a very special baby. Your birth mother loved you very much. But she wasn't able to stay with you at the hospital. And so she said that she would visit me at the hospital; for that for the two months that I was in the hospital, this this woman, Debbie, my birth mother's caseworker would visit me and so she did. She had my picture on her desk for 21 years. And you have your little casts on your feed and this harness on your hips and you were this tiny, tiny baby and I remember her just saying you know what? Your birth mother loved you so much. And thinking back, you know, come to find out she knew something that I didn't; the something that I'm about to share with the listeners today. And so she knew just how miraculous My life was and my story was in the possibility that I was about to find out this earth shattering news about myself, but she prefaced it with ‘your birth mother loved you so much’. Well, that helped me respond to my birth mother when I found out.
WS: Right. Well, that that is such a powerful word. And yeah, and that and that earth shattering news came in your second meeting, because you, in fact, you know, I think with all good intentions, thank your birth mother for choosing life for you. And that was when things sort of blew up, can you take the story up from there?
CC: I brought a gift for her and, in order to be able to thank her. And so I brought a ring and a necklace with my birthstone on it and a card. And on the card I just wrote, thank you for choosing life for me, because I didn't even know where to begin. How, I mean, how can you summarize in a card how grateful you are to the person who gave you your life and your family, I just had a loss for words. And so all I said was, Thank you for choosing life for me, thinking nothing of it. And the moment that I gave her this gift and this card and watched and she read the words on the card, something changed in the room. I mean, it was like an instant change, everything had been great up until this point. I thought, this is going to be our moment where we connect where I tell her all these things she's wanted to hear for 21 years. And in that moment, what I saw, what I was met with, were the most heart wrenching tears and pain in someone's eyes that I have ever seen in my life. And she said, Claire, I didn't choose life for you. And she began to describe being 13 years old and pregnant with me and scared. And her mother telling her that there was only one choice for her as a 13 year old little girl, and that was to have an abortion. And so my birth mother did. She went to a local clinic there in Oklahoma, had a D and E which is a late term dismemberment abortion, still the most commonly performed abortion procedure today at that gestational age. It literally tears the baby's body apart limb by limb. And she said nobody spoke to her in the room that day, nobody asked her what her choice would have been, how they could help her and support her. She was told to shut up about it and to go home and act like it never happened. And so she tried. And she said that things just kept, her belly kept growing, things didn't seem right. And so she went back to the doctor, and they told her oops, you were pregnant with twins. And one of your babies was aborted, but one survived. And so my birth mother was dropped off that day. Oh, I'm sorry, she went to another clinic to have a second abortion but was turned away. And then she was dropped off at the adoption agency where Debbie was, the woman who answered my phone call that day. And she lived there for a few weeks until she delivered me at 30 weeks, again, alone in a hospital room at, now she was 14 years old at this point, had just turned 14. And was was told to place her baby for adoption. And she went home and had to go back to life as it was. And I was born, as I mentioned earlier, I had casts on my feet, a harness on my hips. I was born at 30 weeks. Weighed three pounds. And so I'm sitting in this room and everything is spinning. I mean, if you can imagine like the worst case scenario of going into meeting your birth mother, that is kind of what happened to me. You know, I found out not, she didn't just not, I expected that the worst thing that would happen would be she wouldn't want to meet me. But here I am finding out that I'm I was rejected, I was unwanted. And I was even aborted. And that I had, the person who would have been closest to me for the rest of my life, my twin, was taken from me. And and during a time in, when I was probably aware of some of it. We don't know how this affected me. But I I sat in this room and I saw her tears. And so many things could have been going through my mind at that moment. But what spoke the loudest was her pain. And I thought, gosh, I wish someone had stood up for her. I wish someone had fought for her and told her that she was worth it, that she was worthy of love and support, and that she could be a mother. And I my heart broke for her and I knew in that moment that I had a choice to make myself and that was to either forgive her or to run from her. And she's told me many, many times since that day That she fully expected me to run out of the room that day. But God intervened. And I believe 100% that God gave me the parents that he gave me because he knew that there would come a day where I would find out those things about myself, these circumstances that that described me, that I was unwanted, rejected, and aborted. But that, that God would give me the tools through how I was raised to know that no one, nothing is beyond the grace and the forgiveness of Christ. And so I knew that day that I could model that to her and choose to forgive her, so that one day God could be glorified through our story. And so that's what I did. In that moment, instead of running from her, I embraced her and I told her that I forgave her, and I loved her. And and I've tried to do that every single day since then, wake up and choose to forgive my birth mother, to forgive her mother who made these choices for her, so that we can use our story for something bigger.
WS: Well, you've certainly done that Claire in many very beautiful and powerful ways, including in the telling of your story just now. But I think it's also fair to say that there were some consequences of all of that pain and all of that grief, and all of that sadness and all that guilt that that that both Tanya, your birth mother felt, and also the trauma that you experienced as well. Can you continue with your story? And tell tell us how you got from that point, I guess you could say, to the point that you are today that, you know, what, what, for example, began your involvement in the pro-life movement?
CC: Yeah, there have been, gosh, so many, so many things that have led up to where I am today. But I've got to say that, that when I met my birth mother, I, I realized that what I had believed about abortion, or thought about abortion, or or not thought about abortion, because I hadn't given it much thought up until that point, was a lie. I learned well, I used to think that the the type of person who has been affected by abortion will never be someone like me. I mean, I was raised in the church, I have this incredible family I, I know right from wrong, I know what honors the heart of God and what doesn't. And I thought, the person who has been affected by abortion will never be someone like me. It's not someone in my church, it's not someone in in my my family, my my community, my school, whatever. And when I sat face to face with my birth mother that day, I learned that not only was she the type of person who has been affected by abortion, but I was, too. And and what I what I learned as I kind of looked around and as I went home and began to navigate, like, how do I tell people this truth about myself? How do I go home and tell people, I survived something that was meant to take my life and it's the most controversial issue of our time. How do I even begin this conversation? What I learned was that the conversation was almost non-existent in communities like mine, in evangelical churches like mine. That people were so afraid to talk about these things and and to talk about grace and mercy for people who have experienced abortion, and even afraid to talk about someone like me, someone who exposes the humanity of the unborn child and talks about grace and forgiveness for the woman like my birth mother, who deeply regrets her abortion. And so I began to think like, okay, what what do you want to do with this, God? Like, I am 100% an introvert. I obviously don't want to talk about the most controversial issue of our time. Please don't make me do it. Is there is there something that you want me to do?
WS: And you met a group of people that were approaching this issue in a different way? Talk about that interaction with them.
CC: Yeah, so God. I was about to get to that because I think God just put me in the right place at the right time. And I was going to school and I had this plan for my life. I was going to be a nurse and I was going to be a home care nurse, one on one with people. And I would drive to school or work every day and I would pass this Planned Parenthood and I didn't know what that was. All I knew was what they they said on TV, that they helped women in need. I had no idea that it was our nation's largest abortion provider. And so I saw these people praying outside. And one day, I just stopped and asked them. And this was a couple months before I met my birth mother, before I found out my story. And so when I, when I learned my story, that group came to my mind, because they had told me that day when I stopped and asked them, they had told me that they were there to help the women that that thought that they had no other choice than abortion. That they were there to, you know, refer them to adoption agencies or to pregnancy resource centers that offered free ultrasounds and pregnancy testing and support and financial and material assistance. That they knew that there was so much better than abortion because God created every single human being in his image, with a purpose. And so they were there to pray for them, but also to reach out to them. And so what I, they came to mind. And so I went back to that group, after I met my birth mother, and I told them my story. And at this point, this was 2009, there were only, I think, two other abortion survivors who were outspoken about their story. And so I was the the second twin who had had come out with their story. And they just encouraged me. I mean, they they wept that day in the room as I shared my story with them, these prayer warriors that were outside on the sidewalk in front of this abortion clinic every day. But I also got to meet that day someone named Abby Johnson. And Abby had actually just left her job at that very Planned Parenthood facility two weeks before that. And she had been all over the news that week because Planned Parenthood had sued her to not let, allow her to share what she experienced inside of that Planned Parenthood, which is what made her leave, she saw an ultrasound-guided abortion and saw what the abortion instruments did to that unborn baby and she left her job. She said, I can't I can't do this anymore. This is the the actual killing of human beings created in the image of God. And so they encouraged me to begin to share my story. And so I did. I did it one time, it was the scariest thing I've ever done in my life, being an introvert. But I saw the light bulbs go off in this group of high schoolers heads during this first, first time sharing my story. I saw as they were able to recognize the humanity of the unborn child through my face. Because when you look at my face, you're looking at my twin, which means you're actually looking at that unborn child. And I saw as it encouraged them just to keep fighting and to keep reaching out in love to women, to families, to generations to know that that there's there's so much more for them than abortion. And so I said okay, God, I don't know you've you've taken me on a roller coaster my entire life. I know that I can trust you, you’ve proven yourself trustworthy. And so if you want to keep opening the doors, go ahead. I'm not going to look for it myself. But you can go ahead and open the doors. And since then, he has. And he's paved a way for millions and millions to hear this story of God's goodness.
WS: Yeah. Well, he certainly has and you developed a national and even an international speaking ministry. But then something came along that was a little unexpected in your own life. Can you talk about that chapter?
CC: I choose you know, to talk about my my story from a very hopeful and just just just focusing on the goodness of God. Because I think that's what's important. I want I want my story to reflect what God has done in my life. But it doesn't mean that that finding out you survived an abortion is something that that doesn't affect you. I mean, goodness gracious. It, I said it was earth shattering earlier and it truly was. I I learned when I went home that every day for the rest of my life, I would be walking around this country as someone who is completely rejected by society. Because my very existence defeats the narrative that women need abortion, that the unborn child isn't a human being. And so I learned that I was, I am completely rejected and unwanted and and that I am not going to be seen or heard by the majority of society because of who I am. And, and so every, every time I would step foot on these stages, there would be someone out there protesting my very existence in the audience, because it didn't work for their narrative. And that, I have to, to admit, that has been the hardest part of all of this is just knowing that that until Christ comes back one day and, and makes all things new and right, that I am an unwanted part of society, because my existence reveals the heart and the truth that God has. And so I got to a point where I was, you know, navigating this new reality, this new part of my story, who I was. and I met my now husband and I became pregnant. And so I was this, this, trying to make it person and the pro life movement, beginning to share my story in the first few years. And yet here I was, and I was I was pregnant. But I think once again, my my journey of experiencing an unplanned pregnancy, has has revealed to me just that, that God is is trustworthy, that there is no accident to him that I could practice what I preach that there was joy in my unplanned pregnancy, because God created the very life inside of me. And so I remember my first phone call was to, well, my first who I told first was my parents. And then I, I had a phone call to Abby, the the most unlikely person to call in that moment. But Abby, who ran that abortion clinic, because we had become great friends. And she said, you know what, Claire? There is no shame, there is no shame in someone, the very life that God created. And you can hold your head up high, because people will respond to your pregnancy by how you speak of it, by how you act about it. And you can choose to be joyful, you can choose to be proud because God created this life. And so I did. And I realized that that response that I got from my parents of supporting me, and from my best friend, Abby, at the time, was the response that my birth mother was looking for, that every single woman who finds themselves in an unplanned pregnancy is looking for. They're looking for people and Christians like you and I, to say, you know what? Yeah, this is hard. Yeah, this is messy. But guess what, there is grace, there is hope. There is forgiveness. And there is joy, because this is no accident to God. And I realized, and this is why I shared this in my book, one of my most, another vulnerable moment, for me just admitting what I did, is because I hope that Christians will see the importance of actually speaking about these types of things, because through our silence, we're sending women straight to abortion clinics. Because imagine, if every single woman and family had the response that I did, hold your head up high, there is joy, this is no accident, God is good, and he creates beauty from things that are hard. He creates beauty from ashes. If every single woman and family had that response, there would be absolutely no need for abortion clinics in this country.
WS: Well, you know, Claire, I've heard it sometimes said, by my friend Flip Benham on that abortion exists with the permission of the Church of Jesus Christ. And and I think that in some ways, that's what you're saying as well. That your message in in I guess, you know, obviously, your message is for anyone who wants to read your book or hear your story. But your message is particularly aimed at the church. And that is that we should, should, we should not. We live in a messy world, we live in a broken world. And as Christians, it is our responsibility not to be repelled by that messiness or that brokenness, but to step into that messiness and brokenness, and bring healing and restoration and grace into that world rather than to retreat from it. Am I, am I getting you right? Is that what you're aiming for here?
CC: Absolutely. I think that the church has played a a huge part in how women and families believe, honestly believe that they need abortion in order to live their life and to be happy. And I think that, you know, There's no question, you could walk on a college campus and ask people where the local Planned Parenthood, people will know where to direct you. But you ask them where their church funded and community funded Pregnancy Resource Center is, or a church that can help a woman in an unplanned pregnancy, nobody knows.
CC: And I think that's because Planned Parenthood, the abortion industry, is screaming from the top of their lungs, we're here for you. While the church is silent. While the church is too afraid to lose members of their congregation in order to talk about something that truly matters to the heart of God. And I think what Christians need to do is, is think about this. This is not a political issue. You just heard my story. This is a a heart issue. This is a God issue. This is a humanity issue. And we know that God created human beings in his image with a purpose. And so every single one of us should be talking about this, should be educating about this, talking to our children about this. And we should absolutely be screaming louder, if you will, than the abortion industry because God has called us to reach out to those in need to stand for truth in love. And so, yeah, my message is aimed at Christians, because when I learned that I had survived an abortion, even I, as someone who grew up in the church, that's my community of people. I didn't even know where I could go. So imagine being in an unplanned pregnancy. Every single person should know, I can go to that church and they are going to love me and walk alongside me.
WS: That brings to a close my conversation with Claire Culwell. Claire Culwell has been featured on Fox News, Focus on the Family, and many other media outlets. Claire’s new book is Survivor: An Abortion Survivor’s Surprising Story of Choosing Forgiveness and Finding Redemption. She co-wrote the book with Steve and Lois Rabey. Claire spoke to me from her home in Austin, Texas.
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