With her blond hair and blue eyes, Wendy looks the part of the all-American daughter of the Midwest and appears to have the sunny straightforward manner one would expect of the cheerleader she once was. But today, the 23-year-old native of a small farm town in Nebraska is having an abortion, a step she feels deeply conflicted about--in no small part because of her Catholic background. Although she describes her family as just going to church on Sunday, she also says they are strong German Catholics.

"I was anti-abortion until I got pregnant," said Wendy, fingering the rosary she wore to the abortion clinic. "Look what I got for my 15 minutes of fun," she adds, gesturing to her belly.

Her decision to have an abortion, like the decisions of most women who end up terminating their pregnancies, involves many factors. But the way Wendy and other Catholic women talk about how they got pregnant, and their sense of shame about the pregnancy itself, suggest a possible explanation for a statistic that remains puzzling to researchers: Overall, Catholic women have higher abortion rates than their Protestant counterparts.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive health data, non-Hispanic Catholic women of childbearing age are 29% more likely than their Protestant counterparts to have abortions (full study*). The rate is even higher--33%--if Hispanics are factored in. Another way of looking at it: while Protestant women make up about 54% of the population, they account for only 37% of the abortions. Catholic women make up 31% of the population and account for 31% of the abortions.

Given the Catholic Church's longstanding position against abortion, one would think the abortion rate would be far lower than the population as a whole -- and yet, if anything, it seems to be higher.

This paradox puzzles Catholic leaders on both sides of the issue--like Helen Alvare, the former chief pro-life strategist and spokeswoman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice. The one explanation for which there is at least some anecdotal evidence is that Catholic women appear to experience more feelings of guilt around sex, and more shame about pregnancy outside of marriage.

* 1994-1995 national survey of 9,985 abortion patients.

Women who have guilty feelings about sex often convince themselves that they would not have sex spontaneously. One theory is that as a result, they often do not have contraception on hand when they find themselves on the verge of intercourse. The fact that the Catholic Church condemns most forms of contraception would also support this argument.

However, data on birth control use collected by the National Center for Health Statistics shows that generally, Catholics and Protestants use contraception at the same rates. That was not always true---up until about mid-1960s, there was a significant difference, but it long ago vanished. The most recent survey, taken in 1991, found that among non-Hispanic Catholics and non-Hispanic Protestants, contraceptive use was 63%. Hispanic Catholics, however, are much less likely to use contraceptives: Just 49% said they were contraceptive users.

Since nearly half of unintended pregnancies occur in women who report they were using contraception, another theory is that they are either using less-effective methods, or not using the methods properly.

"For a lot of Catholic women, pregnancy is the punishment you get for being sexual, and it's a just penalty."

Nancy Adler, a professor at the medical school at the University of California at San Francisco, notes that in a number of studies it has been clearly established that women who have higher levels of guilt about sex are also less effective users of contraception. Adler, a psychologist who studies women's abortion decisions and the aftermath of abortion, says that "for those who are raised to believe that premarital sex is a sin or contraceptives are a sin, it's really difficult to plan [to have sex] and to acknowledge to themselves that they are likely to have sex and therefore need to have contraception.

" Catholic women are more likely to have been raised in families where both sex outside of marriage and unwed pregnancy carried a stigma.

"For a lot of Catholic women, pregnancy is the punishment you get for being sexual, and it's a just penalty," said the Rev. David Selzer, an Episcopal priest in Buffalo, N.Y., who counsels women dealing with unplanned pregnancies. That analysis fits with Wendy's fatalistic comment, "Look what I got for my 15 minutes of fun."