They have been called pimps for Planned Parenthood, among other things, for their position on abortion. But Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey have not wavered.

They believe women should have the right to choose. And as nuns, they put their words in writing, adding their signatures to a full-page newspaper ad calling for greater dialogue about abortion in the Roman Catholic Church.

They are two ordinary women who did the extraordinary: They confronted the Vatican on the issue of abortion and refused to back down. Now, the two women have written about their lives before, during and after their four-year battle with the church.

The two women recently criss-crossed the country on an eight-city tour to promote their book, "No Turning Back." Their message, they said, goes beyond the abortion issue to the issue of gaining equality and self-determination in the Catholic Church.

"If people can start to share their stories with each other, break that silence and share the secrets, they'll realize their stories are not unlike other people's," Hussey, 40, said in an interview.

Hussey and Ferraro resigned from their religious order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, in 1988, a few weeks after winning their four-year fight against expulsion.

In a joint letter to their superiors, they said they resigned in part because the order's leadership had shown a lack of respect for their motivation and exercised "coercion" in their dispute with the Vatican over their signatures on the New York Times advertisement. Hussey and Ferraro have run a daytime shelter for the poor and homeless in Appalachia for the last 10 years.

Theirs is a highly personalized story. And for some, the former nuns' experience symbolizes the angst and the growing dissent among Catholic women in a denomination controlled by men.

"They are prophets in their own time," said Ruth Fitzpatrick, coordinator of the Women's Ordination Conference in Fairfax. "Of course they are being stoned, because prophets are never accepted in their home town, which is the church. They've gotten a lot of people mad, and that's what prophets do. Prophets confront the comfortable. They are just two women who are being true to themselves."

The women's views in favor of abortion rights, however, baffle other Catholics.

"Perhaps what they want is a total collapse of Catholic teaching into conformity with the secular lifestyle," said Juli Loesch-Wiley, a spokeswoman for Feminists for Life. "When Hussey and Ferraro defend in theory and practice the killing of children before birth, they are doing something that is against the humane traditions of their own church."

Ferraro and Hussey said they expected personal attacks and harsh labels when they decided to go public for abortion rights. But the idea that they do not respect life is hard for them to take.

Recently, the two women blended unnoticed into the breakfast crowd at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown during a two-week tour that had them sitting for up to nine interviews a day.

They became nuns in the 1960s. Ferraro entered a convent in 1962, a time of shaved heads, unquestioning obedience and self-flagellation. Hussey entered a convent five years later, when many nuns were being ushered into the modern world. They were allowed to choose their own careers, to get more education and to work for social change.

But while both women saw religious commitment as a way to serve God, they increasingly found themselves in showdowns with the male hierarchy.

The church's teaching -- the absolute ban on abortion -- began to unravel for Ferraro and Hussey as they came to know women who had made the choice to end pregnancies.

They met women such as the incest victim who was also a victim of a gang rape that left her pregnant. They met other women, such as the mother who confided that she had an abortion when her marriage was falling apart and she could not support any more children.

"How could I judge her?" Ferraro said in the book. "I remember thinking "there is no easy answer to this," and being surprised. The priests had always sounded so certain. They sounded certain when they thundered from the pulpit against birth control too. They never hesitated to repeat: 'Wives, be submissive to your husbands.' Some voice in my head was saying: 'Why not? Why couldn't a woman choose to practice birth control, or choose an abortion? Why was the Catholic Church so rigid on these matters?' "

Ferraro and Hussey were among 24 nuns who in 1984 signed the newspaper advertisement asserting that opposition to abortion is not "the only legitimate Catholic position." Of the 24 nuns, all but Ferraro and Hussey eventually made peace with the Vatican, though the other women maintain they did not recant.

Ferraro and Hussey agreed not to reach any agreement.

"One of the tactics of oppression was to silence people," Ferraro, 46, said this week. "They tried to silence us. One of the salvations for us is {that} we didn't remain silent.

"We're only common, ordinary people who drew on the strength of people we work with, the people who influenced us, and we've drawn on that and basically are not willing to turn back," Ferraro said.