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Statement of Frances Kissling on the Canonization of Gianna Beretta Molla

May 17, 2004

WASHINGTON, DC—Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, released the following statement earlier today:

In 1962, Italian pediatrician Gianna Beretta Molla died just one week after giving birth to her fourth child. She was 39. Doctors had informed her of the dangers of proceeding with the pregnancy because she had a large uterine tumor and recommended that she obtain an abortion to save her life. Dr. Molla declined this medical advice and insisted on continuing the pregnancy to term.

On Sunday, May 16, Pope John Paul II named six new saints, including Dr. Molla. Saints serve as important role models to Catholic people everywhere. From children in parochial school to adults seeking guidance on what it means to be a good Catholic, the saints serve as both a symbol and inspiration for those who seek to lead good lives. It is important that the church acknowledges those who have made heroic contributions to the world. Along with the other five individuals canonized this past Sunday, we are certain that Dr. Molla was a good and decent person. We regret her tragic end.

Canonization conveys both direct and subliminal messages to Catholic people. One need only look at who this pope has chosen to confer upon this honor to draw conclusions about the role of women in the Catholic church.

For many of the world’s women, the death of Gianna Beretta Molla has serious implications on their life experience. Women in the developing world still face the possibility of dying in childbirth every day. Each year, more than half a million women worldwide die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth, including 79,000 women who suffer illegal, botched abortions. I cannot help but wonder if Gianna Molla’s decision will be presented as the norm of human behavior to poor, non-professional Catholic women for whom pregnancy is a high risk. Will it suggest to them that not only should they not have an abortion if their life is at risk, but they should not use contraception which could prevent such a situation from occurring?

The pope’s choices for canonization also lead us to ask whether or not women are held to a different standard where sainthood is concerned. Where among the pantheon of saints canonized by this pope are the women saints whose lives are characterized by independence, autonomy, a healthy respect for themselves and their aspirations, and their contributions to the world? In order to be a saint, must a woman die in childbirth, be raped or abused, or become a nun? We hope that future candidates for sainthood offer Catholic girls and women the chance to express ourselves, to stand up against injustice, and to survive.

—Statement ends—