25 years later: “Remembering Thomas: Responsibility, Guilt and a Child Who Never Was”

By Dave Andrusko

We’ve been reposting former Washington Post reporter Phil McCombs’ painfully remorseful account for a number of years, courtesy of Priests for Life. I’m sure I must have written about “Remembering Thomas: Responsibility, Guilt and a Child Who Never Was” when it first ran, but 1995 is a long time ago, and I can’t find a record of what I may have said.

No matter. The point of this post is that this reflective essay, which runs only 934 words, is a timeless classic. Let me explain why.

McCombs is unabashedly honest about his role in his then-girlfriend’s abortion. Most particularly about his abject cowardice:

Whatever physical, emotional and spiritual agony the woman suffered, I was not by her side to support her. I turned my face away. My behavior was in all respects craven, immoral.

Where was he when she aborted? “[O]ut of town on business.”

Just as women who’ve aborted sometimes are sure they know whether their baby was a boy or a girl, McCombs writes, “For some instinctual reason, or just imaginatively, I’ve come to believe that it was a boy….” The name he gave “the child who never was” was Thomas.

Thomas was killed for no more pressing reason (from McCombs’ viewpoint) than “because, at the time his existence would have inconvenienced me. I’d had my fun. He didn’t fit into my plans.”

To his credit, McCombs acknowledges that his “feelings of responsibility and guilt are undiminished by the fact that the woman had full legal authority to make the decision on her own, either way, without consulting me or even informing me. In fact, she consulted in an open fashion, reflecting our shared responsibility and I could have made a strong case for having the child.”

What was his response? “Instead, I urged her along the path of death. And skipped town.”

Much of his confessional—for this is what this account is, a kind of an after-the-fact attempt at expiation—is an attempt to grapple with “feel[ing[ like a murderer, which isn’t to say that I blame anyone else, or think anyone else is a murderer.” He is wracked with grief “for little Thomas. It is an ocean of grief” that had not receded.

Making it worse are his imaginings of what life with Thomas could have been like, but will never be.

When I go up to the river on vacation this summer, he won’t be going boating with me on the lovely old wooden runabout that I can’t really afford to put in the water but can’t bring myself to discard, either.

He won’t be lying on the grass by the tent at night looking at the starry sky and saying, “What’s that one called, Dad?”

Because there was no room on the Earth for Thomas.

He’s dead.

Out of personal necessity, we can presume, McCombs must explore “the traumatic pain that many men, as well as women often feel after an abortion. A healing process of recognition, grieving and ultimately forgiveness is needed.”

A woman he obviously respects tell him

of one man, a friend, whose wife had an abortion. “He pleaded with her not to have it. He said his parents would raise the child, or they could put it up for adoption. The marriage broke up as a result of the abortion and other issues. He was really devastated by the experience.”

His essay ends with a discussion of what was then the relatively new post-abortion healing movement for women and also (on occasion) for men. Then…

She said not to be too hard on myself, that healing is about forgiveness and God forgives me.

I said sure, that’s right but some things are still hard.

Like looking in the mirror.

I wonder where Mr. McCombs is today. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. Is he any further along in the painful, draining, enervating process of trying to come to grips with what he did to a defenseless unborn child?

Four paragraphs into his essay, McCombs wrote the following: “I like prayer. It’s all I have left. And pain.”

As we approach Father’s Day, I’d like to pray for all the men who, because of cowardice or because they lacked any legal rights, are not fathers. When they look in the mirror, may they sense with complete assurance that if they asked for forgiveness from the Father, it has been lovingly granted.