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Saint Gianna Beretta Molla

My last article was published on the same day as the SCOTUS ruling on the Hobby Lobby case. In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that for-profit corporations, including Hobby Lobby, are not required to provide coverage on contraception and abortifacients if these violate their religious beliefs. (Let us focus here on the fact that Hobby Lobby was opposed to abortifacients, not preventative contraceptives; the Green family accepted 16 out of 20 contraceptive items listed in the mandate and primarily opposed the morning-after pill and abortion pills. Thus when I discuss abortion later in this article, I have in mind that Hobby Lobby opposed medications that induce abortion. The issue of preventive contraceptives pertains to different corporations and therefore do not pertain directly the scope this article).

This ruling was certainly a triumph for religious freedom, but the media depicted it as a defeat for women’s rights. Despite what Twitter says, this ruling does not deny birth control to women; any female employee can take birth control, but Hobby Lobby will not pay for it. However, my purpose today is not to defend SCOTUS’ ruling; rather, I wish to speak about the false dichotomy of women’s rights versus religious freedom. One of the major claims by women, including Justice Ginsburg, who oppose the ruling is that contraceptives and abortifacients are what allow women to participate in the workplace. The Roman Catholic saint, Saint Gianna Beretta Molla demonstrates how true feminism and religion are extremely compatible, and how any dichotomy of women vs. religion actually does harm to women. She teaches us about how to be both a mother and a working woman, and about how to choose life in difficult situations.


In so very many ways, Saint Gianna represents the modern woman: she was a very well educated woman, worked as a pediatrician, ran her own medical clinic, was married, bore four children, volunteered, and enjoyed mountaineering. Saint Gianna was born in 1922 near Milan, Italy, and was raised in a devout Catholic family. Her faith played a significant role in her life; even while she pursued university studies in medicine, Saint Gianna engaged in charitable work through Catholic Action and the Saint Vincent de Paul society.[1] She graduated in 1949 from the University of Pavia with degrees in Medicine and Surgery, and within a year she opened her own medical clinic in Mesero, Italy. She also received a specialized degree in Pediatrics from the University of Milan in 1952, which allowed her to focus her work on mothers, babies, and the poor. Her life already demonstrated an incredible degree of lay sanctity, and Gianna discerned the call to continue her journey in holiness through the vocation of marriage. In 1955, she wed engineer Pietro Molla at the Basilica of Saint Martin in Magenta, Italy.


Over the course of the next four years, Saint Gianna’s vocation as a mother became realized as she bore three children, Pierluigi, Mariolina, and Laura. She continued to work as a pediatrician, thus maintaining a remarkable balance between marriage, motherhood, and work. This alone serves as a shining example to many young Christian women today, who envision themselves as working mothers, who seek holiness through marriage, who yearn both for a Christian family and a job that serves God.


Saint Gianna’s pro-life legacy, however, began in tragedy. In the fall of 1961, she experienced pains from fibroma in her uterus; she was also two months pregnant. She received three options with her diagnosis: have an abortion, remove her uterus, or remove only the fibroma.[2] In complete obedience to the Church, she refused the abortion. While the Church morally permits surgeries to save the life of the mother, even if the unintended consequence is the death of the child, Saint Gianna choose life for her baby. She underwent surgery to remove the fibroma, under the request that the surgeon do everything to save the baby. With complete trust in God, Saint Gianna emerged from the surgery with the baby still alive.


When the time of labor came, Saint Gianna prayed that her child be born free from pain. She instructed her family and doctors that, if it came to the point where either only the life of the mother or the life of the child be saved, that they work to save the baby.


Gianna Emanuela Molla was born on April 21, 1962 via C-section. April 21 was Holy Saturday of that year, and the fact that Gianna Emanuela Molla still lives today attests to a true Easter miracle of life. Gianna Beretta Molla entered into heaven on April 28, 1962, after the doctors tried everything possible to save her life in a battle against infection. She died with the words, “Jesus, I love you” on her lips. Her death caused immense grief for her husband, her children, her patients, and her community.


Gianna Beretta Molla was canonized on May 16, 2004, by Saint Pope John Paul II. The daughter who lived when Gianna died, Dr. Gianna Emanuela Molla, used her gift of life to continue in her mother’s footsteps in the medical field. She works as a geriatrician while also speaking on her mother’s legacy.


In our day and age, where Hobby Lobby’s defense of life is declared by the media as a “war on women,” Saint Gianna offers a profound witness to the sanctity of life, especially life in the womb. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg claims that “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”[3] However, we see in Saint Gianna the example of a woman who was able to thrive in her professional life without artificially controlling her reproductive life. Never did motherhood prevent Gianna from fulfilling her vocation as a doctor. Saint Gianna worked as a doctor even throughout the most painful months of her final pregnancy. She ran her own medical clinic, even when she and her husband were both working and raising three children.


Saint Gianna provides us Christian men and women with a courageous example in the aftermath of the Hobby Lobby ruling. We live in an era when women claim that contraceptives, abortifacients, and abortion are not only a right, but something that the government and employers should support through the aid of pocketbooks. Saint Gianna’s example teaches us that abortion (and, in relation to the Hobby Lobby case, pills that terminate pregnancies after conception) is not a woman’s right, but rather that a chance at life is the right of all, especially unborn children. Even when faced with the morally acceptable option of a hysterectomy, Saint Gianna chose the option that assured the life of her child. We see in Saint Gianna not only a woman who balanced marriage, work, children, and faith, but also a woman of great courage and a profound affirmation of life. Motherhood may not always be the easiest route, and, especially for women my age, it can evoke trepidation. It can be easy to argue over Facebook for Hobby Lobby’s right to deny abortifacients; it is not easy to balance career ambitions and the call of motherhood, to endure a difficult pregnancy or infertility, or to stand up for the life of an unborn child when faced with a seemingly Catch-22. Yet with the help of saints like Saint Gianna, we can take the route that is not easy.


Pray for us, Saint Gianna, that we may both fight for life in the public square and affirm it through our actions in our private lives.

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Laura Norris

Laura Norris

Laura Norris is a Catholic, freelance writer, running coach, and outdoor enthusiast. She holds a master's degree in Theological Studies and now works as a running blogger and coach as, in the words of St. Ignatius Loyola, "a woman for others" in helping others live a healthy life and achieve their goals. She and her husband live on the Eastside of Seattle and spend their time running their own businesses and hiking in the mountains.

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