Did Irish Medieval Saints Perform Abortions? Controversy Ahead of 8th Amendment Referendum
Irish citizens will go to the polls at the end of May and decide if their Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bans abortion, should be repealed or not. The topic is a heavy one, with both sides campaigning for their views and hotly debating the issue. In light of this, many have decided to examine the actions and perspectives of their ancestors and the Church.
With this in mind, The Irish Times has published an article by an author and associate professor of religion at Simpson College in Iowa, Maeve Callan, discussing the role Catholic saints had in Medieval abortions. Callan writes that the assumption that Catholicism presents abortion as one of the worst sins may not be the whole picture. Specifically,
“medieval biographies of multiple Irish Catholic saints, including beloved Brigid of Kildare, reverently record abortions among their miracles, and medieval Irish Catholic penitentialists, priestly authorities who prescribed penances for sins and were often celebrated as saints themselves, treated abortion as a relatively minor offence.”
Drawing from a 13th-century manuscript of Pseudo-Apuleius's Herbarium, depicting a pregnant woman in repose, while another holds some pennyroyal in one hand and prepares a concoction using a mortar and pestle with the other. Pennyroyal was historically used as an herbal abortifacient. ( Public Domain )
Those are some shocking claims for many people. What are the details?
In one report, Saint Cainnech of Aghaboe (Saint Canice) is said to have “blessed the belly” of a pregnant nun – making the baby disappear instantly. In another account, Saint Ciarán of Saigir rescued a nun named Bruinnech after she was abused by a local king. The report claims ,
“When the man of God returned to the monastery with the girl, she confessed that she was pregnant. Then the man of God, led by the zeal of justice, not wishing the serpent’s seed to quicken, pressed down on her womb with the sign of the cross and forced her womb to be emptied.”
Statue of Saint Canice, Catholic St.Canice Church, Kilkenny, Ireland. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
But Saint Brigid is perhaps the most well-known saint linked to abortions in Ireland. Stories say the saint met a young woman who had an unwanted pregnancy and “Brigid, exercising with the most strength of her ineffable faith, blessed her, caused the fetus to disappear without coming to birth, and without pain.” This was recorded in 650 AD, making it the oldest account of an abortion in Ireland.
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Saint Brigid. ( Public Domain )
Furthermore, Callan writes that 6th, 7th, and 8th century guidelines for the penance required after sinning puts abortion at a relatively low level – when compared to the sexual sins of a man of the cloth at least. For example, the 6th century Penitential of Vinnian provide the penance for a nun, stating that she must fast on bread and water for six months after an abortion and she cannot have wine or meat for two years. If, on the other hand, the nun gives birth to the child,
“(she shall do penance) for six years, as is the judgement in the case of a cleric, and in the seventh year she shall be joined to the altar, and then we say her crown can be restored and she may don a white robe and be pronounced a virgin.”
Hildegard von Bingen and her nuns. ( Public Domain )
Callan shows clerics were punished much more severely. A cleric who had covert sex once had to fast on bread and water for a year and abstain from wine and meat for two years. If he committed the act more than once his punishment was upped to three years on bread and water and three years more without wine and meat, and he’d lose his office. The cleric who had a child and committed infanticide spent three years with only bread and water, then three more where he couldn’t consume wine or meat for 2/3rds of the year, and he was exiled for seven years.
Detail of an historiated initial 'A'(postate) of a tonsured ex-cleric, armed with a sword and a shield and his black habit on the ground, facing an abbot. ( Public Domain )
However, some say The Irish Times article takes the information out of context. For example, Thomas Charles-Edwards, a professor emeritus of the University of Oxford, says, “In these examples the saint’s intervention is directed towards restoring the honor of the woman concerned; it does not imply that the hagiographer thought that abortion was not a great sin.”
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He goes on to say ,
“A distinction needs to be made between miraculous events and ordinary life. The evidence of saints’ lives concerns miracles as conceived by later hagiographers. It is usually bad evidence for what they actually did, better evidence for what later writers could imagine happening.”
As for the penitentials, Father Healy said , “They bear witness to the constant and consistent abhorrence of abortion in the Catholic tradition. The severity with which it was dealt did indeed vary according to circumstances and the scientific understanding of the time.”
Debate continues on this topic and the upcoming vote and it will likely heat up even more as May 25th approaches.
Top Image: Medieval manuscript depicting the legend of the nun praying a hundred and fifty times a day Ave Maria. Source: Koninklijke Bibliotheek/ CC BY SA 2.0