Did Irish saints perform abortions? Don’t believe it, scholars say

By Kevin Jones

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Celtic cross. Credit smilla4 via Flickr CC BY NC 2.O.

Faulty history, bad moral analysis and dubious voting advice are behind claims that several cherished Irish saints were involved in abortions, warn critics ahead of a key May 25 referendum that could repeal Ireland’s constitutional protections for the unborn.

“One can no more derive the acceptability of abortion from these stories than one can justify the practice of violent revenge from those folktales which tell of supernatural retribution rendered against those who had the misfortune to cross a saint,” said Father Bernard Healy, C.C., a priest of St. John’s Parish in Tralee, County Kerry.

“What contemporary people think of abortion cannot rest on medieval folktales,” said the priest. “The sonogram, the science of DNA and our understanding of embryology enable us to understand the fetus as alive and sharing our common humanity. It is on the grounds of humanity that the unborn child has a claim in justice to our protection.”

His words came in a letter published in the Irish Times April 21 in response to an essay by religion professor Maeve Callan.

Callan, a professor at Simpson College in Iowa, claimed that biographies of several Catholic saints like the sixth century abbess St. Brigid of Kildare “reverently record abortions among their miracles.” Her Irish Times opinion essay, published April 19, said abortion was “a relatively minor offense” under the penitential standards of medieval Catholicism.

Callan contended that stories of St. Brigid, St. Ciarán of Saigir, St. Cainnech of Aghaboe and St. Áed mac Bricc show the performance of abortions on women who were nuns secretly pregnant or abducted women, including nuns, who had been raped. The stories talk about the baby in the womb vanishing or the womb emptying.

“The recipients of Áed mac Bricc’s and Brigid’s abortion miracles don’t even speak before the saints purge their wombs. Brigid’s devotee, however, afterwards ‘gave thanks to God’ – the only one of these women whose response gets recorded in the texts,” Callan wrote.

But these accounts need to be put in context, according to Thomas Charles-Edwards, a professor emeritus of the University of Oxford, who held the Jesus Chair of Celtic professorship.

“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,” Charles-Edwards told CNA. “The attitude behind the stories is best explained by Finnian,” he said, citing one of the founders of Irish monasticism.

Finnian had written of one pregnant woman in these stories that “her crown can be restored and she may don a white robe and be pronounced a virgin.”

“A distinction needs to be made between miraculous events and ordinary life,” Charles-Edwards continued. “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.”

Callan’s claims also drew criticism from Dr. Paul Byrne, a Dublin-based independent scholar who has lectured in early Irish history at University College Dublin.

“There is no credible evidence that any Irish saints were involved in any form of abortion,” Byrne said in comments provided to CNA.

Byrne said that many hagiographic stories about saints, also known as “lives,” include “folklore, legend and political anecdote, which was demonstrably compiled long after (usually some centuries after) the saint in question had lived.”
 
“And the texts of Irish saints’ lives were not static: it can be shown that some lives were updated in subsequent centuries to reflect contemporary developments,” he said. For instance, sometimes the ancestors of later Irish dynasties are written into such stories
 
Byrne considered the accounts about saints cited in Callan’s piece.

The alleged account of St. Brigid dates to the seventh century. St Aid mac Bricc died in 589, but his life cited by Callan was written as late as the 12th century. The sixth century’s St Ciarán of Saighir is depicted in a life written no earlier than the 13th century. St. Cainnech of Aghaboe died in 600, but parts of his life cited by Callan date to the late eighth century and other elements may date from much later.

The Life of St. Columcille, written by the abbot and hagiographer Adamnan about the year 700, is a work of “much higher caliber” that makes clear his effort to record authentic material and suggests other saints’ stories of the time are not so reliable, he said.

Other abortion advocates have tried to claim St. Brigid and others for their cause. The group Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland has promoted the work of Dr. Gillian Kenny, a research fellow at the Center for Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College Dublin. Kenny makes similar claims as Callan.

The pro-abortion rights group has described St. Brigid as “one of Ireland’s first abortionists” in its material advocating repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Republic of Ireland’s constitution, which protects the equal right to life of both mother and unborn child.

The repeal effort would legalize abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy. It has the support of the republic’s major political parties and has the backing of international funders like financier George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.

Callan’s essay acknowledged that early canons and penitential instructions “include abortion among the many sins to be repented.” However, she argued, “comparatively speaking, it’s a lesser one.”

Some pentientials varied based on the stage of pregnancy. In the Old Irish Penitential, a first trimester abortion requires three and a half years of penance, a second trimester abortion merits seven years’ penance, while a third trimester abortion merits 14 years.

In the Irish Canons, according to Callan, “the penance of a woman who has had an abortion amounts to a quarter or half the time of the penance of a man who has committed fornication.”

Callan claimed that support for “legal and safe” abortion might better reflect a “medieval” attitude than opposition to abortion.

Father Healy, however, said the reference to the penitentials was evidence against her claim: “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,” he said.

Charles-Edwards, for his part, agreed that the pentitentials and contemporary secular law in Ireland provide “much better evidence on current social values.”

“In both abortion was condemned,” he said.

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