st-brigid-of-kildare

4 holy women who model reproductive discernment

For those facing complex and deeply personal decisions, women saints can be guides and helpers who show a way forward.
Catholic Voices

According to legends found in multiple Catholic publications, the sixth-century Irish saint, St. Brigid of Kildare, performed multiple miraculous healings. One story about St. Brigid and a miraculous healing, however, is less widely shared. This miracle, recorded by the seventh-century monk Cogitosus in his Life of St. Brigid, involves the saint restoring the virginity of a young woman:

There was a certain young woman who had taken a vow of virginity, but by human weakness had given in to youthful desire and become pregnant, her womb swelling. Brigid, drawing on the most potent strength of her matchless faith, blessed the woman so that the fetus inside her disappeared without childbirth and pain. Thus, the young woman became a virgin again and afterward did penance.

Fiona Audley, writing for the Irish Post, refers to this miracle as “Ireland’s first abortion.” While some people may dispute this characterization, one clear takeaway from this story is that Brigid, in restoring the young woman’s virginity, responded to a difficult situation with compassion and care. We don’t know if the penance the young woman undergoes afterward is because she repents of “youthful desire,” because of the loss of fetal life, or both. But clearly, Brigid’s miracle provides the young woman with freedom from pregnancy.

Brigid is not the only saint who helped women facing unplanned pregnancies. Historian Philip Freeman explains that a parallel story can be found in the Irish Life of Saint Ciarán, in which the male saint makes the sign of the cross over the womb of a nun who has been raped and causes the fetus inside her to vanish. In these legends, spiritual leaders demonstrate divine compassion by offering women wise and compassionate care during times of trauma and attending to their fears and needs within their situational contexts, whether the pregnancy was unwanted because it resulted from broken vows or rape.

Advertisement

Saint stories can surprise us, especially if our awareness of Catholic teachings on reproductive discernment is limited to sanitized versions of Mary’s “obedience.” Retelling stories of saints who assisted women in ending pregnancies, as well as saints who were willing to continue pregnancies, can offer us diverse portraits of how holy people respond to challenging moral dilemmas.

St. Hildegard

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1117) was another saint who was a caring and compassionate companion to women facing unwanted pregnancies. According to historian John M. Riddle, St. Hildegard was the first female German doctor, though she probably had little formal training. In her writings, Hildegard describes seven plants known to be herbal medicines that stimulate blood flow (often interpreted as menses). Hildegard also describes medicines known to be useful for ending a pregnancy; she does not elaborate on the reasons a person would want to do so. When describing the abortifacient hirtzswam, Hildegard explains: “It makes an abortion to a pregnant woman with a danger to her body, should she eat this plant.” Riddle puzzles over such a statement from an abbess, concluding that Hildegard used her knowledge of herbal remedies to practice compassion in her ministry. Hildegard’s holistic approach to the bodily and spiritual needs of women included wide-ranging and creative remedies drawn from medicinal plants, prayer, song, and spiritual direction.

St. Gianna Beretta Molla

Gianna Beretta Molla was a 20th-century physician, wife, and mother. She had three children in four years, then two miscarriages. In her sixth pregnancy, Gianna was diagnosed with a severe complication: She had a tumor in her uterus. Doctors recommended a complete hysterectomy, which would have led to fetal death. Gianna puzzled over her obligations to her children, born and unborn. After robust discernment, Gianna did not consent to the hysterectomy. Doctors attempted to remove the tumor without ending her pregnancy.

In April 1962, baby Gianna was born, named for her mother, who died of complications the following week. St. Gianna was canonized for making the choice that enabled her daughter to be born. As Franciscan Media puts it in their commentary on her life, “Holiness frequently comes from making difficult choices in bad situations.”

Advertisement

We should be wary, however, of using her story to promote the glorification of women’s suffering. Perhaps instead of assuming that holiness always requires sacrificing a woman’s life for an unborn life, we should interpret Gianna’s story as a model for discernment in moral dilemmas. Gianna came to understand that God’s will for her was to reject life-saving treatment, but other pregnant women facing a diagnosis of cancer can justifiably make a different decision. Gianna Beretta Molla was willing to sacrifice herself for her unborn child, after her own discernment, with the conviction that she was called to do this by God, into whose loving embrace she entered upon her death.

St. Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Perhaps the most well-known model of discernment in complex cases of reproductive health is Jesus’ mother. Some scholars reject the idea that Mary’s story could be meaningful for reproductive justice today, given that, as both a virgin and mother, she experienced the impossible. We can make use of Mary’s story, though, by highlighting the discernment she experienced when, as a poor woman in first-century Galilee, she found herself unexpectedly pregnant.

Ivone Gebara and Maria Clara Bingemer—Brazilian theologians with special concern for how theologies of Mary impact the poorest of the poor—explain that Mary was at the same time totally God’s and totally the people’s, so her circumstances were unique ones. Theologian Paul Simmons writes that Mary’s decision to go through with the pregnancy was a considered judgment, not a foregone conclusion. She responded by engaging in spiritual discernment, not by rote obedience. Furthermore, Mary did not discern alone; she sought out the company of her cousin Elizabeth. Mary’s discernment and moral agency can be touchstones for contemporary readers today, especially women trying to navigate circumstances that feel largely out of their control. Mary deliberates, reflects, prays, seeks counsel, and moves forward in faith.

Learning from the Saints

Stories of the saints can help us see that questions of what it means to be holy, to be a woman of faith, have no single or simple answer. Saints were human individuals—all sinners and uniquely flawed—who nevertheless demonstrated holiness in special ways. Telling stories about the saints can remind us of the complex resources within the Catholic tradition for thinking about what it means to respect women’s complex pregnancy discernments. When we attend to legends told about women who sought to control their reproductive capacity and even to prevent and end pregnancies, we also see that women’s complex discernments today are not entirely new. We can appreciate the importance of centering the pregnant woman’s own discernment, as well as her need for companionship and solidarity as she works to determine how to respond to God’s love amid her life’s constraints.

Advertisement

St. Brigid, pray for us.
St. Hildegard, pray for us.
St. Gianna Beretta Molla, pray for us.
St. Mary, pray for us.


Image: Wikimedia Commons/Thomas Hummel, St. Brigid in stained glass (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Advertisement

About the author

Emily Reimer-Barry

Emily Reimer-Barry is an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego.

Add comment