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Conscience Magazine

Advocate Spotlight: Donna Tarney

By Donna Tarney August 6, 2023

The Advocate Spotlight features the providers, activists, and advocates fighting for reproductive freedom. We spoke with Catholic educator Donna Tarney about why she advocates for abortion rights.

Consider two women, friends of mine, who share astoundingly similar stories. Both women (let’s call them Jill and Sally) were cradle Catholics who already had children. Both women were beyond four months pregnant. Both were told that their baby boys had rare, fatal brain conditions that meant the baby would be stillborn or survive only a few minutes after birth. My friends weighed the options their caring doctors presented.
Jill and her husband decided to continue the pregnancy. Sally and her husband decided the best option was abortion. Both babies died, and both families were devastated. Jill’s local church supported her family throughout the process. Sally’s church told her she was a sinner.

In 1986, when I was 16 years old, I found out I was pregnant. A cradle Catholic, I had aunts who were nuns, one uncle who was a priest, and another who was a deacon. The year before, I had given an anti-abortion presentation in my religion class. My mother had died, and I was left with a father who repeatedly told my siblings and me that if we ever got pregnant, his home would not be our home. Talking with no one, I chose abortion. I did not tell another soul until I was in my 30s.

All over our country, situations like these play out on a daily basis. Catholics who love and live their faith, know church teachings, and truly value life face complicated pregnancies worsened by complicated lives. They struggle to discern whether to keep or end the pregnancy.

The Catholic church often provides platitudes — promises that God will be with us during suffering — but no other assistance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that abortion is a sin, and choosing abortion will incur a “latae sententiae,” often translated as “automatic excommunication,” no matter the circumstances. The child’s life, even if that life ends shortly after birth, seems to be valued over the mental and physical health of the mother and her family.

“Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order.”

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1738

The institutional church calls lots of other things sinful as well. Many Catholics, whether ordained or lay, focus on abortion while ignoring the myriad other “sins” within their own communities and families. They often forget that the catechism also mandates the civil authority to protect a person’s freedom, especially in the realm of religious and moral matters.

The hierarchy celebrated when Roe v. Wade was overturned. Perhaps they do not understand that the Supreme Court’s decision stands in direct opposition to our God-given right to exercise personal freedom. If church leaders and anti-choice Catholics want to live the Gospel, they should share their beliefs, pray for their souls, and leave the rest to God. This would be a radical step toward peace. May we all live to see that day.

Donna Tarney
Donna Tarney

(she/her) is the former executive director of Call to Action, which challenges Catholics to act for justice and build inclusive communities. Currently an annulment advocate, she earned a master of arts in religious education from Loyola University New Orleans and spent 22 years in Catholic education.

Tagged Abortion