Pro-abortion Nuns at Marquette: The Will to Power

In November 2, 1987 the names “Barbara Ferraro” and “Patricia Hussey” graced the marquee of the Varsity Theatre at Marquette University. Directly below their names an upcoming campus film was also advertised. It read “Ruthless People.”

The irony and humor of the combination were not lost on anyone, particularly those of us who were assembled on the sidewalk outside the theatre to demonstrate against the administration of Marquette University. Ferraro and Hussey are known as the “pro-choice nuns.” Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, they publicly advocate legalized abortion and believe abortion can be a good moral choice. The picketers, many of us active in the pro-life cause, were outraged that a Catholic university would play host to, of all things, women religious who stand in contemptuous defiance of the Catholic faith.

Ferraro and Hussey have gained notoriety as the only two of 24 women religious who refused to recant their signing of the October 7, 1984 New York Times advertisement proclaiming “A Diversity of Opinions Regarding Abortion Exists Among Committed Catholics.” Dr. Daniel Maguire, the ex-priest who teaches dissident theology at Marquette University wrote the text for the ad in terms that glorified abortion as a difficult but heroic choice.

The pro-life demonstrators walked slowly up and down in front of the theatre bearing placards which read “Pro-abortion Nuns: A Scandal” and “Is Abortion Catholic?” Journalists and TV cameramen were on the scene to report on the controversy. In a few moments the nuns’ talk would begin.

A newsman readied himself and his camera crew to interview me for the 10 o’clock news. At that moment a woman stepped up behind me holding an 8 x 10 photo of an aborted baby. When the newsman saw it an expression of sorrow came over his face and he cried, “Oh Jesus.” The photo was one of 500 fetal children I helped retrieve from a trash dumpster behind the Michigan Avenue Medical Center in Chicago. During March and April of 1987, a handful of pro-life friends and I became midnight pilgrims to a rat-infested alley where we recovered these broken human bodies. I came to know the bodies of these children well as I and a friend, Edmund Miller, spent long hours photographing their crushed limbs, torsos, and bodies.

In the mass rejection of fetal children, cut from the womb and thrown away, the world has a sorrow now it has never known before. From this sorrow I have drunk to its depths. The image of the broken bodies is printed in my mind. The image of their bodies torn apart lies forever etched into my heart. It is as though I carry the children with me wherever I go. I explained to the newsman who the child was and that I had taken the photo myself. His reaction to the fetal baby’s crushed body took me by surprise. In my months of dealing with media persons, they most often have shown themselves aloof and distant. What this reporter saw was a baby’s face emerging like a death mask amidst his dismembered arms and legs strewn in disorder about his head. The baby is the picture of a disintegrated world. This unexpected sign of suffering and death caught the reporter off guard. He was actually surprised at himself because, just for a moment, he had given the child a human response.

We live in a nation where, without exaggeration, thousands of human beings are killed each day under the law by abortion. Yet Marquette officials and the student group responsible for the invitation displayed no awareness that by giving the nuns a forum the university was cooperating in this present holocaust. Marquette apparently is not stirred by the injustice perpetrated against preborn children. How else to explain the administrators welcoming two women who support this type of killing?

The ambivalence of the university towards abortion’s reality has its own poignant symbol. The west wall of a large Marquette dormitory stands directly against an east wall of an abortion clinic. In the early morning hours young students exit the dorm for school just as women enter the abortion center a few feet away. The students seem unmoved that they live next door to a death chamber. The sidewalk counselors who regularly try to save babies there wonder how the students can tolerate eating, sleeping, and studying next to a place where human lives are destroyed.

The nuns’ speech was titled “The Changing Role of Women in the Church.” The Vice President of Student Affairs tried to assure us that the nuns were not going to promote their views on abortion. Ferraro and Hussey had submitted an outline to the student government organization. According to this outline, abortion was not a part of their talk. However, the actual lecture Ferraro and Hussey delivered the evening of November 2, 1987 was from beginning to end a pro-abortion speech. For an hour-and-a- half the nuns explained to the 300 member audience why Catholic teaching on abortion was wrong and why abortion should remain legal. The nuns had used the name of the talk and the outline as a deception to ease their way onto campus. They had apparently concealed the essence of their speech.

The speech itself was filled with the rhetoric of revolution, in which the Sisters had divided the world between the oppressed and the oppressors. Of course, Ferraro and Hussey believe they are very much on the side of the oppressed. Hunger, nuclear war, Reagan’s policies, racism, and sexism: Ferraro and Hussey are battling these evils in order to make the world a better place. But for some reason, in all their talk of liberation, the preborn are still to be cut to pieces. This is because the philosophy Ferraro and Hussey espouse is not really about liberty at all. What they articulated that autumn night at the Varsity Theatre was a sheer dogma of power which not only kills the preborn but seeks to destroy the moral life of the Catholic Church itself.

Ferraro and Hussey’s dogma of power is based on three principles. They are: first, the Church is not a hierarchy of authority but a community of equals; second, women are autonomous moral-decision makers; and third, dissent from Church teaching is necessary for the very life of the Church.

Sister Barbara explained the first principle:

The Church is a discipleship of equals. We are members and we are responsible for shaping the very life of the Church. We will not abandon the Church to let it be shaped by its administrators. We believe that Vatican H called us to be the People of God to search for the truth together. This means that the truth does not reside solely with the Pope or solely with the Magisterium. The truth and the teachings resulting from the sharing of truth results [sic] from the Pope, the bishops, theologians as well as the rest of us. Sharing our experiences and our expertise together should form and shape the teaching of the Church. What has been unfortunate though is that the teachings of the Church, particularly regarding sexuality and reproductive rights, have ignored the experience of women.

The nuns’ opposition to Catholic teaching on abortion is rooted in their particular understanding of the nature of the Church. The abortion issue for them is one of ecclesiology as well as morals. “All of us are the Church,” said Ferraro, “and our different understandings of the Church lead us to one of the fundamental conflicts that is with us at this time.” The sisters have built for themselves a new ecclesiology in which the Church’s authority in relation to faith and morals is destroyed. The destruction of Catholic authority is essential to the nuns’ dogma of power. The nuns justify abortion by first rendering the teaching authority of the Church impotent and ineffectual. This creates a void of power in which the preborn can be attacked for private reasons of convenience because truth and moral principles are obscured or done away with altogether.

The nuns define the Church as a community of people searching for the truth together. This means that Catholics in no sense possess the truth. Catholics — indeed, all people in the world — are ultimately ignorant in the area of morals. In Ferraro and Hussey’s ecclesiology faith undergoes a radical redefinition. Faith is no longer a supernaturally grounded belief or knowledge that one holds. Faith is reduced to a mere search for knowledge and apparently even for a Christian this search is never fulfilled.

In the nuns’ pro-abortion ethic the “search for truth” rhetoric is extremely important. If all the people of God can do is search for the truth but never possess it then all Catholic teaching is in a state of ambivalence and flux. No one can ever say whether abortion is right or wrong. All one can do is what he feels is best for him.

The nuns have created an epistemology of ignorance in order to give women the power to eliminate their preborn children in good conscience. The abortion industry feeds upon such ignorance. As long as abortion providers can claim moral truth is unknowable and radically subjective, they create an arena of ethical obscurity where autonomous power can rule. In this void of power, where there is no truth and no moral authority to give truth a voice rooted in God, human beings are atomized — each deciding for himself what is good and what is evil.

In contradiction to the nuns’ position, the Catholic faith is not derived from humans “sharing their experiences.” The world created by God has been imbued by Him with an inherent moral meaning and structure that is, through reason and faith, accessible to the human mind. The truth in this way has been given to us. Christ’s people are called to be faithful to the meaning of the world and human existence. Such faithfulness is constitutive of Catholic worship itself. Yes, a non-Catholic can know abortion is wrong. Non-Catholics too possess that faculty of moral reason that God bestowed on all His creation. However, rooted in the incarnation of Christ, Catholic bishops have been commissioned by God to speak in His name in matters essential to the salvation His people. The Pope and bishops bear the authoritative presence of Christ in the world and the moral life of God’s people comes under their authority to teach in persona Christi. Therefore, as regards authority, all are not equal in the Church.

This is a reality the nuns simply cannot stand. Hussey stated, “I must confront the structures that oppress me as a woman — that is the Roman Catholic Church — or the Roman Catholic institutional Church.”

According to the sisters, the Church has oppressed women for 2000 years, especially in the area of sexuality and reproductive rights. Ferraro and Hussey declared that Catholic moral teaching is wrong because it is the result of all-male thinking by the Pope and bishops who throughout the ages have never considered the experiences of women. The gist of the nuns’ argument is that if the Magisterium had considered the experiences of women or allowed women input into the formulation of moral teaching, the present Vatican view on abortion would not be “single, rigid and inflexible.” Rather, the Church would allow women to decide for themselves, according to their own experiences and circumstances, whether abortion was a good moral choice for them.

By raising the experiences of women to a theological category Ferraro and Hussey seek to tear down the authority of the Pope and bishops who say abortion is evil. By such tearing down of male authority the nuns seek power for women over the lives of their preborn children. The nuns’ hatred of Catholic male authority leads directly into the second principle in their dogma of power. Ferraro explained: “Women must be respected as fully autonomous, valuable members of our moral community. We as women must have every right to be treated as competent moral decision makers in our society and in our Church. We as women have a right to self-determination.”

This principle is the one most necessary in the dogma of power. At face value the words do not appear very startling, but these phrases have a special significance for the practice of abortion. The nuns have presented us with the autonomous woman. Their ethic would have the crushed bodies of fetal children be those of such a woman. This is the woman who stands alone. In her solitude she is victorious over all other persons who attempt any moral claim upon her. If there is any credence to the feminist complaint that history is marked by the hoarding of power by men over women, the world is now threatened by a power far more deadly. This power is in the hands of autonomous women who use it to determine life and death itself.

Nothing could be more antithetical to the Christian practice of covenantal sexual love between men and women, which is the kind of love by which the world and the Church is built up. When the nuns speak of women as fully autonomous moral decision makers, they speak of women in complete moral isolation from all others. This kind of isolation is the essence of abortion. Ferraro states:

We as women believe in our shared experiences, our strong voices and our collective power. We believe in our power and passion to create life and affirm life in choices for all women. We will no longer stand by in society or in the Church and be acted upon and controlled. We will make decisions that affect our own lives.

Based on this ideology Hussey declares: “Childbearing and abortion so intimately and profoundly affect a woman’s life, the legal choice whether or not to have an abortion must remain the woman’s choice.”

The power of abortion the nuns desire to give women in the Church is a power that disintegrates the human community. As far as the law is concerned, the husband of an abortion bound woman does not even exist. Fathers of preborn children are completely without authority in the abortion decision. The grandparents of fetal children also have no rights. This is sharply illustrated by the fact that even a minor daughter is not legally required to tell her parents, much less receive their consent, if she decides to kill her child.

Crushed preborn children are the casualties of the ethics of isolation. In those dark and awful nights when we pulled their bodies from a garbage dumpster we saw the fruit of power that wields itself without restraint in the voids of alienation.

Ferraro and Hussey are filled with rage at the male hierarchy. They believe these men have deliberately robbed women of sexual rights, autonomy, and sexual self-decision making. Male clerics in the Church have seized power for themselves by suppressing women — that is, by keeping women in bondage to their biology. Now women have learned to free themselves by using their own feminine biology as a weapon to gain their own arena of power. How often is the abortion ethic voiced in the slogan “Women have a right to control their own bodies”? Encased in this slogan is the autonomous woman.

What is first destroyed by the autonomous woman is her motherhood. The dogma of power cannot tolerate intrinsic human relatedness. In abortion there are no fathers, mothers, children. There are only isolated beings in a disintegrated world. In the nuns’ ethical system, women have the power to undo human relationships by actually killing their own children. Ferraro and Hussey strike at the Fathers of the Church to break down their authority in an effort to change Church teaching on abortion. In abortion, fathers too are completely impotent whether by their own volition or not.

The fathers of those 500 aborted children we pulled from the trash were completely invisible. Each tiny broken body was placed in a plastic bag with formalin solution squirted inside in precise measure by an automated machine. Cast out of the womb by the autonomous woman, her child lay in isolation at the bottom of a dumpster and, as if there had never been any fathers, only the names of the mothers appeared on the bags. After each abortion a worker at the “clinic” scribbled the names of the mother onto the bags containing the fetal remains. It seems ironic that, for whatever reason, though the women could not be bound to their children in life, they were yet linked to them in death.

Abortion is not only a life issue. It is a sexual issue. The Book of Genesis teaches that the entire order of creation is built upon a covenant of sexual union between men and women in marriage. In recent years Catholics have begun to develop a more profound understanding of how intimately male and female sexuality and its inherent relatedness is bound to and indeed constitutive of the very structure of the world and the Church. This understanding is the fruit of conflict over Church teaching on sexuality and women’s ordination.

In the third principle of the nuns’ dogma of power, dissent is asserted as necessary for the Church. It is interesting to note exactly what teachings the Ferraros and the Husseys choose to dissent from. Hussey stated:

Those who dissent from official Church teaching be it birth control, homosexuality, divorce, ordination, masturbation, or abortion — any dissent on any of these issues — we are not turning our backs on the Church. We are not walking away from the Church, but we are facing the disregard for human persons by these teachings. They do not reflect people’s experiences — particularly women’s experiences — and we are demanding changes from our Church.

The attack upon Catholic sexual life strikes at the Christian faith itself. Chastity, virginity, priestly celibacy, heterosexual love, the indissolubility of sacramental marriage, the union between intercourse and procreation, the sacredness of human life in the womb, the roles of husband and wife, mother and father — these things are inherently bound up with the Church. These are the sacred moral symbols by which a Catholic lives. By these symbols we know the mystery of God’s love in the world. To denigrate these symbols, to destroy their meaning in any way, is to foment a revolution. The nuns’ dogma of power, if victorious, would undo the Church.

Ferraro and Hussey never tire of emphasizing that it is the experience of women which must serve as the basis for Church teaching on abortion. They pit the experiences of women who have had abortions against the male Magisterium. Ferraro states:

We deal with women and women who are poor, and because of our many experiences with women who have chosen to have abortions we knew that women who were making that choice were not making it lightly. We believe that the decision to have an abortion could be a good moral decision. We believe that women need to be seen as making good moral decisions for their own lives.

The abortion experience is one of tremendous suffering. It is the worst sort of pain because most often it comes from evil willfully chosen. I have spent 12 years of my life standing outside the doors to abortion centers to try and hold back the tides of death. I have come across thousands of women seeking abortions or who have already had abortions. In my work women have come to me with their hearts heavy with the pain of remorse because once, sometimes very long ago, they killed their preborn child. Volumes of literature have been written on post-abortion syndrome, and even in the studies one finds in pro-abortion journals, such as Planned Parenthood’s Family Planning Perspectives, one sees that women’s experience with abortion is a parade of tears.

When I taught religion at a Catholic high school, I arranged for a woman from WEBA (Women Exploited by Abortion) to come and speak to our students. After the woman spoke I walked to the teachers’ lounge. Another female teacher suddenly approached me. She said she had something she wanted to discuss with me right away and asked if we could go into the ladies’ washroom. I thought surely this teacher was about to criticize me for having brought in the WEBA speaker, and I braced myself for a confrontation. But as soon as the door closed behind us in the ladies room the woman burst into tears. She told me she had had an abortion two years ago and ever since had regretted her decision.

She was married once to a man who would not sleep with her. They divorced and she took up with a boyfriend. She became pregnant with his child and they decided to have an abortion. She told me that a week afterwards she was driving her car down Lake Shore Drive and let go of the steering wheel hoping the car would crash and she would end her life. Tears poured out of the woman as we stood in the ladies room. She lamented her emptiness. No husband, no boyfriend, no child.

“I really miss that baby,” she said. “I wish I had it now.” I took the woman in my arms and held her. Who was I holding? Not a religious woman weeping because she had offended God. She was weeping at her own personal brokenness.

What is the crux of the battle Ferraro and Hussey are waging? They and others who share their views want to be loosened from the Catholic Church’s teachings on sex so that they may gain absolute power over human life and human relationships. This power is to be used to sever ourselves from each other. In this severing we will be free from human responsibility, free from suffering, free from the cross of Christ.

Against the dogma of power manifested in abortion stands the Catholic teaching that human beings are bound to each other. To be human and to be fulfilled humanly is to be bound. Men and women are bound and they are bound to their children and their children are bound to them. And before all this, men and women are bound to their sexuality and what human sexuality created by God means for the world. The nuns’ support for abortion and their desire to change Catholic teaching on abortion would do away with all this intrinsic love and commitment. Ferraro and Hussey’s dogma of power begins with an escape from the feminine service to life and ends in a disintegrated world.

This disintegrated world was etched into the broken body of that fetal child the TV newsman saw for a moment. The power that disintegrates human unity is venting itself on the most vulnerable members of the human family. The preborn are torn because the world is torn.

Pro-life work, which is the work of the Church, is a total, unbending refusal to allow the final reality of creation to reside in the body of the fetal child torn to pieces. In the alley, after chasing away the rats, we searched through the bags of garbage filled with stench and debris, looking for babies. In this act we lived a testimony to human relatedness. By the nuns’ dogma of power the preborn were cut off from their mothers, cut to bits and thrown into the trash. When we dipped our hands into the dumpster we claimed the babies back because human unity cannot be erased.

Like mothers and fathers we took the children in. Mother Church took them in as well — into the soil of St. Mary’s Cemetery in the Chicago Archdiocese. On the day of their burial I stood at the brink of the grave. I saw two men who had helped recover the children pick up a tiny coffin and place it in the ground. The hole was so deep they had to lie down on the ground to put the children inside. Now the earth too was their mother, wrapping the children in her bosom until the last day.

For all the sisters’ talk about compassion and service to the poor, their advocacy of abortion is a quest for a feminine “will to power.” In order to have such power Ferarro and Hussey and their followers must reject the Church. The Church does not reject them. Ironically, because of their pro-abortion position, because they desire to be autonomous women rather than obedient daughters, Ferraro and Hussey are to be cut off from their religious community. As regards the Church, they are essentially cut off from the body, and by their own hand. Their relationship to the Church as mother and to the Pope as father is disintegrated. In a sense the nuns’ dogma which tears fetal children apart has made even them its victims.

Creation is not in the hands of Ferraro and Hussey or the abortionists. The world is in the hands of God. The broken world we made by abortion will be put together again by Him. This I know as I stand at the foot of the babies’ grave. The dogma of power spent itself on them. But at the end of the world, in the triumph of the Christ who died, their brokenness will be healed.


  • Monica Migliorino

    Monica Migliorino Miller (Monica Migliorino at the time this article was published) is a nationally known pro-life leader, a pioneeer and veteran of pro-life activism dating back to 1976, and founder of Citizens for a pro-life Society. In addition to her pro-life leadership Miller is an associate professor of religious studies at Madonna University having earned her doctorate at Marquette University. Monica and her husband Edmund have three children. She resides in South Lyon, Michigan.

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