The word selflessness—as in the gift of oneself to assure the welfare of another—is seldom heard in places like the United States, the United Nations, the secular world at large. Then there is Italy, where in recent decades three remarkable women chose life for the unborn children they were bearing, even at the cost of their own lives. They have not gone unnoticed in a country whose ambience still evinces a culture of life.
First there was Gianna Beretta Molla, a physician and pediatrician from near Milan who developed a cancerous tumor while pregnant with her fourth child. She refused extensive treatment in order to assure the well-being of her daughter, who came into the world completely healthy in April 1962. A few days later, on Holy Saturday, Gianna, by then in great pain, succumbed to cancer at the age of thirty-nine. This daughter, named Gianna Emanuela, followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a physician. On May 16, 2004, together with her siblings and father, she attended Gianna’s admission to sainthood in St. Peter’s Square. This was the first time ever that a husband witnessed the canonization of his wife.
Chiara Corbella Petrillo was only twenty-eight when, on June 13, 2012, she died in her hometown of Rome, also from an aggressive form of cancer. She had brought three children into the world. The first, a daughter in 2009, and the second, a son born a year later, were both identified by sonograms as being severely malformed. Although abortion in Italy is available in cases of fetal malformation, Chiara would have none of it. Rather than abort the nascent lives within her, she and her husband Enrico decided these children should be born and held in the arms of their parents and loved, then baptized into the Church before being called to their heavenly home. Both newborns survived for less than an hour. Their funerals, which lasted much longer, were joyous occasions as the parents celebrated their children in heaven.
A third child, Francesco, was born in 2011. He entered the world a perfectly normal and healthy baby and will celebrate his eighth birthday on May 30. However, this time it was Chiara whose life was in danger, as she had become seriously ill with oral cancer. Like Gianna, she too refused whatever treatment would endanger the life of her unborn child.
During the year after Francesco’s birth, Chiara’s cancer spread throughout her body. For his first birthday, she wrote her little son a keepsake letter, in which she described all the lessons she had experienced during her short life, so that he could have it as a guide when he got older. Just over two weeks later, despite immense suffering, she died a serene death. She was buried in her wedding dress.
Chiara’s extraordinary story of holiness, love, dedication, and humor became legendary, not only in Italy but throughout the Christian world. In September 2018, she was declared Venerable, just six years after her death, ten years after she and Enrico were married in Assisi.
Caterina Morelli died of cancer last month at age thirty-seven after living a generous and virtuous life assisting the homeless and jobless in Florence. She too was a doctor who bore a child while racked with cancer, having postponed whatever treatments might harm the baby she was expecting. She gave birth to a healthy boy in 2012, her second child, and subsequently submitted to extensive chemotherapy treatments, which arrested the tumors. But her cancer returned in 2015, and once again she underwent aggressive chemotherapy. In the latter part of 2018, Caterina’s condition worsened considerably, as cancer spread to her brain.
In late January of this year, her parish arranged for her daughter’s First Communion day to be moved up so that Caterina could be present. A few days later she went into a coma; she died on February 8. Over 500 people attended her funeral in the Church of the Annunciation in Florence. Sooner or later Caterina will likely join the other mothers on the road to sainthood.
Gianna, Chiara, and Caterina were three courageous and saintly Italian women who chose life for their unborn children despite the availability of abortion and medical intervention to save their own lives. They chose not to abort and not to endanger the nascent life they carried within. Their example of love, courage, sacrifice, and suffering stand out in a global society aggressively—and proudly—promoting abortion on demand as a woman’s reproductive right.
These three women, guided by deep faith and truthful conscience, gave the world splendid examples of the heroic choice of life over death for the unborn, the most voiceless and defenseless among us, whose fate is completely dependent on the choice of their mothers.
The United Nations Population Fund promotes the slogan “Every child a wanted child.” Indeed, every child is a wanted child: “Before you were, I knew thee.” Three modern women also knew this.