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A nun's long battle in the war over abortion : Sister Donna Quinn believes in a woman's right to choose. Now, the Vatican may weigh in about her crusade.

November 15, 2009|Manya A. Brachear

CHICAGO — For decades, Sister Donna Quinn has championed the rights of women to use contraception, seek ordination and end unwanted pregnancies.

The Dominican nun has picketed for abortion rights in the nation's capital, petitioned the pope to select a female archbishop and escorted women into abortion clinics.

But as the Vatican turns up its scrutiny of the nation's nuns and America's Roman Catholic bishops refuse to support universal healthcare if it covers abortion, Quinn has put her crusade on hold.

"I want to be clear that this is my decision," she said in a statement, announcing she would suspend her activity as a "peacekeeper" outside a clinic in suburban Chicago. "Respect for women's moral agency is of critical importance to me, and I look forward to continuing to dialogue with our congregation on these matters as a way of informing my actions as well as educating the community."

On Nov. 3, the Wisconsin-based Sinsinawa Dominican order announced that Quinn had been reprimanded for escorting patients into a clinic that provides abortions.

"After investigating the allegation, congregation leaders have informed Sister Donna that her actions are in violation of her profession," Sister Patricia Mulcahey, head of the Sinsinawa Dominicans, said in a statement. "They regret that her actions have created controversy and resulted in public scandal."

Quinn said the order's announcement only served to stir more controversy. A private meeting to discuss her position had been scheduled later this month, she said.

"I am disappointed that the process agreed upon was circumvented," she said.

"As a peacekeeper, my goal is to enable women to enter a reproductive health clinic in dignity and without fear of being physically assaulted. . . . I am very worried that the publicity around my presence will lead to violations of every woman's right to privacy and expose them to further violence."

The sudden rebuke highlights the tension in America's women's religious communities, now the target of two sweeping investigations by the Vatican.

Quinn's activism was no secret. But in years past, Dominican leaders have come to her defense.

The primary example was in 1984 when the Vatican instructed religious orders to dismiss nuns who refused to retract their claim that Catholics held a range of opinions on abortion rights.

Instead, the leaders talked to Vatican officials and resolved the issue with no ousters of nuns.

But that was a different era, said Sister Beth Rindler, co-coordinator of the National Coalition of American Nuns, a group of nuns who push for women's ordination, gay rights, abortion rights and an end to war.

"We're standing with her very much. We consider her one of our prophets," said Rindler, a Franciscan Sister of the Poor. "She's standing with women who she believes can make good moral decisions."

But Mary-Louise Kurey, director of the Chicago Archdiocese's Respect Life Office, said Quinn's efforts to shield women from abortion opponents posted outside clinics posed harm.

"I feel really sad because these are individuals who are trying to help women and those actions are profoundly misguided," Kurey said. "While I don't personally sidewalk counsel myself, my prayers support the efforts of those who do. . . . They do tremendous work of providing women with resources they wouldn't otherwise know about."

Quinn expressed her calling to serve the church when a visiting priest asked her seventh-grade class who wanted to be ordained. The boys chuckled when her hand went up. After graduating from high school in 1955, Quinn joined the Dominican Sisters.

In 1974, she helped start Chicago Catholic Women. Six years later, she became a leader of the National Coalition of American Nuns, an organization with a similar mission of advocating for women's rights.

Though it is unclear what consequences Quinn will face, the Rev. Daniel Ward, executive director of the Resource Center for Religious Institutes, said canon law encouraged an opportunity to amend one's ways before discipline was doled out. He has advised Mulcahey and the Dominicans on how to proceed, but could not divulge specifics.

Quinn shows no signs of changing her ways.

"I take this opportunity to urge those demonstrating against women who are patients at the Hinsdale Clinic, whom I have seen emotionally as well as physically threaten women, to cease those activities," she said. "I would never have had to serve as a peacekeeper had not they created a war against women."

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Brachear writes for the Associated Press.

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