The discovery of a new pregnancy is one of the most exciting things that can happen to a woman. At the same time, it can also be incredibly fear-inducing. After all, having a baby is one of the most life-altering events a woman can experience, even when all the circumstances are perfect.
But we live in a fallen world, and most pregnancies and their circumstances cannot be categorized as "perfect." A marriage might be on the rocks. Employment status might be unstable. Personal safety could be an issue.
4 Saints Who Were Encouraged to Have Abortions
In these instances (and any of the many others), there are four Saints to whom we can turn when we experience difficulties surrounding pregnancies.
Their own pregnancies were so fraught that the medical professionals who cared for them all recommended abortion. As you'll see, choosing life made all the difference.
Saint Gianna Beretta Molla
A physician herself, Gianna understood the complications of the fibroid (benign tumor) discovered growing in her uterus while she was pregnant with her fourth child. In many cases, fibroids of this kind are so small and harmless that they can be left alone during a woman’s pregnancy. However, in Gianna’s case, the size and position of the fibroid posed a threat to her life, as well as the life of her child. Gianna’s doctors presented her with three options of treatment available in the 1960s.
- A complete hysterectomy was the option which posed the least risk for Gianna. In this case, the removal of the uterus would include the removal of the fibroid, but also the unborn child who would (obviously) not survive the procedure. Ethically speaking, the Church recognizes this option as a moral choice as the intention is not to harm the fetus and no direct action is taken against it. Rather, treatment is given to the mother to save her life and the child dies as a result. This choice would not have been sinful.
- The second option presented to Gianna was not moral. In the proposed scenario, Gianna could have an abortion and have the fibroid surgically removed, but retain her uterus for potential future pregnancies. This option posed more risk to mother (and child) than the first, but allowed for the possibility of more children. Gianna rejected this option completely.
- The final option was a myomectomy, the surgical removal of just the fibroid, which would be difficult to perform on a pregnant uterus. This posed the greatest amount of risk for Gianna, but the lowest risk to her child and was its only chance of survival. Despite the good that could come as a result of the surgery, it could also result in various life-threatening scenarios for both Gianna and the child including miscarriage and excessive bleeding, during both pregnancy and delivery.
Presented with two options for treatment that aligned with Catholic teaching, Gianna heroically chose the treatment which gave her child a chance at life, even though it posed the greatest risk to herself. In fact, she sensed that she was not going to survive the ordeal. To her brother she confided, “When the time comes, it will be either he or I,” and to her husband she insisted, “If you have to decide between me and the child, do not hesitate; I demand it, the child, save it.”
Gianna underwent a successful myomectomy which allowed her fourth child, a little girl, to grow to a healthy ten pounds at the time of her delivery. Days later, Gianna passed away due to an infection in her abdomen, which may or may not have occurred because of her Cesarean section. It is possible, but not proven, that Gianna’s need for the C-section was tied to the stress the uterus underwent during the myomectomy.
On May 16th, 2004, the daughter saved by Gianna’s generosity was able to attend the canonization of her own mother. The Saint’s namesake, Gianna Emmanuela is a physician like her mother and travels across the globe sharing stories of her “mommy Saint.”
“I would not be here if I was not loved so much,” the joyful Dr. Molla has concluded.
Servant of God Chiara Corbella Petrillo
A newlywed living in the 21st century, Chiara returned from her honeymoon to discover her first pregnancy. At fourteen weeks, it was detected that the baby had a genetic condition known as anencephaly (a neural tube defect which does not allow for proper brain or skull formation). Incompatible with life, most babies born with anencephaly die shortly after birth.
As is the case with many medical professionals, Chiara’s doctors recommended abortion since the child was fated to die anyway. Lovingly, Chiara and her husband chose to carry the baby to term and love her in every way they could until her natural death. Maria Grazia Letizia lived for less than an hour outside her mother’s womb, but her life was cherished by her parents and they saw to it that she was baptized before her death. At Maria’s funeral, the memorial card prepared by Chiara and her husband read, “We are born never to die,” a profound reminder of the eternal life their daughter was already living.
Months later, Chiara expected her second child. Once again, the ultrasound revealed a genetic defect incompatible with life, but one completely unrelated to the first. This baby was void of his legs and kidneys. Once more, the doctors recommended abortion to the young couple; they, in turn, refused. Davide Giovanni lived a total of thirty-eight minutes and, like his sister, was baptized before passing into eternal life.
During Chiara’s third pregnancy, the baby was developing normally. However, Chiara noticed something strange about her tongue. Testing confirmed a rare cancer. Immediately she underwent surgery to have the mass removed. Chemotherapy and radiation would have been moral means of combating the cancer (although indirectly fatal for the baby).
Desiring to protect the life of her son, Chiara delayed treatment until birth. During this time, she lost the ability to speak and swallow (and she didn’t even take pain medication in further attempts to protect her unborn son!). Thanks to the immense generosity of his mother’s love, Francesco was born healthy and strong.
Tragically, during those final months of pregnancy, Chiara’s cancer spread rapidly throughout her body, affecting her lungs, liver, one breast, and an eye before doctors declared it to be terminal. Despite all her suffering, Chiara radiated joy. She died in June 2012 wearing her wedding dress, and her cause for canonization was opened five years later on the anniversary of her death.
Servant of God Emilia Wojtyla
Described by her saintly son—John Paul II—as the “soul of home,” Emilia Wojtyla was a deeply religious woman and a loving wife and mother. As is the case with many parents, Emilia loved her children more than herself, and it was evident especially during her third pregnancy.
This particular pregnancy was taxing for Emilia and a threat to her life. Emilia’s doctor insisted she have an abortion as the labor could have resulted in Emilia’s death. This assertion left her depressed and down-hearted. Supported by her husband, they knew this baby was meant to be born. Emilia found another doctor, a man who acknowledged the immense risk but did not push for an abortion. She spent the last months of pregnancy on bedrest.
When the time came for the baby to be delivered, Emilia’s husband and eldest son went to the parish across the street to pray. This brave woman survived the delivery and instructed the midwife to open the windows. Emilia wanted the first sounds heard by her healthy newborn to be the words of the Litany of Loreto sung every evening at the parish.
Because of the suffering and grace experienced throughout the entire ordeal, Emilia predicted that her son, Karol Jr., would one day become a great man. She was right.
The cause for the canonization of Emilia Wojtyla (and her husband Karol) was opened on October 10th, 2019.
Blessed Maria Corsini Quattrocchi
Maria was a renowned professor and mom of three young children when her fourth pregnancy brought with it an unexpected diagnosis. During her fourth month, Maria started hemorrhaging. She was experiencing placenta previa, a rare condition in which the placenta (a temporary organ providing nourishment to the baby) covers the cervix. Even for modern-day medicine, this diagnosis is considered life-threatening. So in the early 1900s when Maria was diagnosed, the condition was essentially considered a death sentence.
The doctors advised Maria to abort the child and save her own life. They even tried to persuade her husband (who did not take his Faith as seriously as his wife) by assuring him of the difficulties of raising three young children on his own. Neither individual caved to the pressure. Instead, they took the matter to prayer and entrusted themselves to God through the process. They decided to allow the doctors to induce labor early and sure enough, both Maria and their daughter, Enrichetta survived.
Maria lived a long, full, and happy life with her husband and four children. Her husband’s faith was strengthened by the experience, and he contributed unceasingly to the faith life within their home. As adults, their three oldest children became professed religious (a Benedictine priest, a Benedictine nun, and a Trappist monk). Their youngest, Enrichetta, held many positions in her life, including teacher and nurse. She served those around her boldly and unceasingly (including amazing things like helping Jews, refugees, and soldiers during World War II and adopting the son of a deceased cousin).
In 2001, Maria and her husband became the first non-martyred married couple to be beatified together. An old woman, Enrichetta was alive and present at Saint Peter’s for the glorious event. She died eleven years later having followed whole-heartedly in the virtuous footsteps of her parents.
Most recently, in August 2021, Pope Francis declared Enrichetta Quattrocchi a venerable. This baby who was given no chance of survival lived such a profound life of heroic virtue, her cause for canonization is well on its way!
Portraits of Courage
Saints are often misconstrued as people born with an innate ability to make moral choices without a second thought. The truth is, saints are people who struggled through life, brought everything before the Lord for His assistance, and thus formed their soul to eventually react in such an automatically virtuous way.
Though these four women were faithful followers of Jesus at the time of their pregnancies, it does not mean they did not experience or struggle with negative emotions and thoughts regarding their pregnancies. Rather, in virtuous fashion, they “took up courage;” meaning they were not necessarily unafraid. Rather, courage is the virtue by which we move forward with the moral choice despite personal fear.
May these women serve as models and heavenly friends to whom we can turn when we, or someone we know or love, is faced with a difficult decision regarding the life of the unborn.