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Catholics for Choice records

Identifier: SSC-MS-00742

Scope and Contents

The Catholics for Choice records are comprised of organizational records, including correspondence, reports, audiovisual materials, and articles, that document the organization's mission and activities. Topics include abortion and the Catholic church, women in the church, the legality of abortion, and public perception around abortion. Events covered include news appearances, legal actions, demonstrations, and ad campaigns. The collection also includes documentation regarding the reaction to "A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Activism," which appeared in the "New York Times" on October 7, 1984 and led to Patricia Hussey and Barbara Ferraro, two nuns among the signers, to resign from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1973 - 2014


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

To the extent that they own copyright, Catholics for Choice has retained copyright in their works donated to Smith College. Copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U.S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For those few instances beyond fair use, or which may regard materials in the collection not created by Catholics for Choice, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Catholics for Choice (CFC) is an organization which seeks "to serve as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman's moral and legal right to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health".

CFC was founded in 1973 by Catholics Joan Harriman, Patricia Fogarty McQuillan, and Meta Mulcahy as Catholics for a Free Choice, with the aim of promoting access to abortion in the context of Catholic tradition. It emerged from Catholics for the Elimination of All Restrictive Abortion & Contraceptive Laws, a New York lobby group that had been formed in 1970.

CFC was created as a counter to the Vatican hierarchy’s powerful lobby that influences public policy by limiting the availability of reproductive healthcare services worldwide. They believe that “the Catholic hierarchy’s ban on contraception and abortion has a disastrous impact on women’s lives, especially the lives of poor women who may rely solely on government-run programs for access to reproductive healthcare services… We believe that Catholic teachings on conscience mean that every individual must follow his or her own conscience ― and respect others’ right to do the same.”

In an early bid for publicity in 1974, on the first anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, McQuillan, the group's first president, had herself crowned pope on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York.

In August 1974, CFC President Joan Harriman asked Joseph O'Rourke, a member of the board of directors and a Jesuit priest, to travel with her to Marlboro, Massachusetts, to baptize a baby whose local priests refused to perform the rite. The baby's mother, Carol Morreale, had been interviewed regarding an abortion clinic that was proposed for Marlboro and had told a newspaper reporter that she did not advocate abortion herself but that she was in favor of free choice for others. Because of her statement in the newspaper, Morreale's local priest would not baptize her three-month-old son Nathaniel, and Humberto Sousa Medeiros, the Archbishop of Boston, said that he would not allow any other priest to perform the rite. On August 20, 1974, O'Rourke publicly baptized the baby on the steps of the Marlboro church. O'Rourke was dismissed from the Jesuit Order in September and he continued to serve as CFC board president.

In 1979, Patricia McMahon became CFC president. McMahon shifted CFC's legal status from a lobby to an educational association, opening up the group to tax-exempt status and to foundation support. One result of this was a $75,000 grant on behalf of the pro-choice Sunnen Foundation, which funded the group's first publications, the Abortion in Good Faith series.

In 1980, Frances Kissling became a member of CFC's board of directors and in 1982 was made president, which position she held until her retirement in February 2007. Kissling had operated an abortion clinic and was a founder and director of the National Abortion Federation. Kissling lobbied politicians and activists, many Catholic, to work in favor of giving women access to contraception and abortion. Kissling was responsible for pushing the CFC to pursue more political campaigns.

In 1982, CFC sponsored a briefing of Catholic members of Congress, highlighting the majority of American Catholic opinion that dissented with the Catholic Church on the topic of abortion. Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro wrote an introduction to the briefing, and endorsements were also received from Congressmen Tom Daschle and Leon Panetta.

During the 1984 presidential campaign, Ferraro was chosen as the vice-presidential running mate of Walter Mondale. Cardinal John Joseph O'Connor, Archbishop of New York, sharply criticized Ferraro's pro-choice position, and in October 1984 Kissling responded to O'Connor by placing an advertisement signed by 97 prominent Catholics, including leading theologians, lay persons, priests and nuns, in The New York Times. The advertisement, entitled "A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion", stated that "direct abortion ... can sometimes be a moral choice" and that "responsible moral decisions can only be made in an atmosphere of freedom from fear of coercion." The Catholic Church took disciplinary measures against some of the nuns who signed the statement, sparking controversy among American Catholics. Through the ad, CFC gained credibility and recognition in the Catholic community and American politics.

In 1992, CFC was classified as a non-governmental organization by the United Nations (U.N.); CFC subsequently participated in some U.N. conferences.

In April 1995, the National Catholic Reporter published a letter by Marjorie Rieley Maguire, former CFC activist and co-author of CFC's 1984 New York Times advertisement. In her letter, Maguire described CFC as "an anti-woman organization" devoted to "the promotion of abortion, the defense of every abortion decision as a good, moral choice and the related agenda of persuading society to cast off any moral constraints about sexual behavior." Maguire also charged that CFC leadership did not attend Mass.

In March 1999, CFC commenced an unsuccessful international campaign, called "See Change", which aimed to downgrade the status of the Holy See in the United Nations from Permanent Observer to NGO status, which would mean that the Holy See could not vote on U.N. policy and must be invited if it wished to address a meeting. The campaign drew support from 541 groups, including women's, family-planning and abortion groups, such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood. The campaign was begun after Vatican representatives at various UN conferences blocked consensus on certain topics related to sexual and reproductive health, such as condom distribution and safe sex education in AIDS prevention programs and family planning, birth control, and abortion. The campaign was supported by European Parliament politicians from three Dutch parties. It was also supported by Marco Pannella, historic leader of the Italian Radicals. The campaign faced difficulty in the UN from the start and, according to U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq in 1999, seemed "unlikely" to succeed.

In 2001, the CFC and other groups successfully lobbied against the naming of John M. Klink, a former representative of the Holy See at the U.N., to lead the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

In 2007, CFC's former Vice-President and Director of Communications, Jon O'Brien, was appointed President.

In 2019, CFC's former Vice-President and Domestic Program Director, Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, was named Acting President.

Based in Washington, D.C., CFC continues to work for reproductive justice with partners in the US, Latin America, and Western Europe. CFC educates women and men about their choices around abortion, contraception, HIV and AIDS, sex, and sexuality. They work to increase access to reproductive health services, including by researching new reproductive health technologies. CFC is also an advocacy organization which aims to limit the role of religion and the Catholic hierarchy in public policy and hospitals.


CFC’s website



26.667 linear feet (26 containers)

2 website

Language of Materials


Spanish; Castilian






Dutch; Flemish






Catholics for Choice (CFC) is an organization which seeks "to serve as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman's moral and legal right to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health". The Catholics for Choice records are comprised of organizational records, including correspondence, reports, audiovisual materials, and articles that document the organization's mission and activities.


This collection has been added to over time in multiple "accessions." An accession is a group of materials received from the same source at approximately the same time.


Materials in this collection remain arranged in the original order in which they were received from the donor.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

As a preservation measure, researchers must use digital copies of audiovisual materials in this collection. Please consult with Special Collections staff or email to request the creation of and access to digital copies.

Other Finding Aids

One or more content listings to individual accessions in this collection are available for download. Links can be found in the description of the individual accessions.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated by Catholics for Choice, 2015 and 2016.


A single blank folder containing a staff ID was removed from accession 2015-S-0017.

Related Materials

2 folders of records of Catholics for Free Choice up to 1986 are held at the Schlesinger Library. Frances Kissling was interviewed for the Population and Reproductive Health Oral History Project oral histories. Pat Carbine, a CFC board member, has papers in the Ms. Magazine records.

For other organizations that work on reproductive health within the Catholic religious context, see National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health records (NLIRH started as a project of CFC) and the Lawrence Lader papers.

Processing Information

The Catholics for Choice records were accessioned by Kathleen Banks Nutter in 2015, and processed by Sylvia Hickman following the processing plan and guidance of Madison White in 2021. The materials were kept in their original accessions, and were not reordered. Post-it note and adhesive labels on the folders in accession 2015-S-0017 were stapled onto the folders so that they would not fall off over time. A file-level inventory from the donor was imported for boxes 1-15 of accession 2015-S-0017. The remaining boxes, 16-18, of that accession were described at the file level by Sylvia. Accession 2015-S-0060 was described at the box level, using a paper file-level inventory from the donor as reference. A paper item-level inventory of accession 2016-S-0071, found in its box, was copied into ArchivesSpace. The finding aid was updated with a new extent, up-to-date boilerplate language, series-level and audiovisual description, and more detailed biographical and scope and contents notes.

Processing Information

Between September 2022 and February 2023, Smith College Special Collections renumbered many boxes to eliminate duplicate numbers within collections in order to improve researcher experience. A full crosswalk of old to new numbers is available.

Finding aid to the Catholics for Choice records
Legacy Finding Aid (Updated)
Kathleen Nutter Banks, Sylvia Hickman.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:23-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
  • 2021-04-14: Accession inventories added and finding aid updated.

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063