John Courtney Murray and the Abortion Debate

44 Pages Posted: 19 Oct 2005

See all articles by Susan J. Stabile

Susan J. Stabile

University of St. Thomas - School of Law (Minnesota)


This paper explores the contribution of the foremost Catholic theologian in the church in the United States - John Courtney Murray - to the issue of abortion. Although Murray never directly spoke on the question of abortion, his distinctions between morality and civil law and between matters of public and private morality contribute to our thinking about that question. Indeed, Murray's views on how the Church should respond to legislative efforts to decriminalize contraception, as well as his statements generally about religious freedom, the separation of law and morality and the distinction between public and private morality have been influential in forming arguments concerning the abortion controversy.

In the mid-1960s, Murray wrote a memorandum containing recommendations regarding how Catholics should respond to a proposal to amend Massachusetts law to decriminalize contraception. In response, Murray wrote a memo arguing against Catholic opposition to the law, despite his view that artificial contraception was immoral. Because that memorandum has been used by others in an attempt to use Murray to justify a pro-choice position, I use it as a framework for exploring Murray's thought. This paper considers to what extent Murray's statements about how the Church should respond to contraception carry over into the development of a workable position regarding abortion and evaluates arguments that have been made based on his writings. I argue that Murray has something to say to both public policymakers and the Catholic Church about their approach to abortion. More specifically, I argue that abortion is a matter of public morality, making it a matter that the state is justified in regulating, but also that prudential considerations must be taken into account in deciding whether and how the law should intervene. Separating the questions of whether abortion is a proper subject for the law to address and what constitutes a good law with respect to abortion is a necessary step in moving from confusion to productive debate.

Suggested Citation

Stabile, Susan J., John Courtney Murray and the Abortion Debate. St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 06-0028. Available at SSRN: or

Susan J. Stabile (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas - School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )

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Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
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