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This semester, students in my Women as Healers class at Arizona State University are reading Sex and Herbs and Birth Control. One young man, Brian Anderson, was so intrigued by the story behind the title of chapter 3, “Praying to St. Bridget,” that he decided to do further research on the saint for his first essay. (The chapter title comes from the St. Bridget amulet that some Irish women wear to protect themselves from pregnancy — see the post “Loss of Indigenous Knowledge in Veracruz, Mexico”.) Brian discovered a fascinating 2002 article by Judith Maas in the Irish Times. Titled “St. Bridget would vote No if faced with this referendum,” the article expressed opposition to a proposed amendment to Ireland’s anti-abortion law that would increase the punishment for anyone obtaining an abortion to twelve years’ imprisonment. The author pointed out that St. Bridget, though an abbess of the Catholic Church and a patron saint of fertility, was willing to help women in desperate circumstances:

“A symbol of motherhood, Bridget is also known as Muire na nGael — Mary of the Gael. However, if necessary, she did not hesitate to interfere with nature. In the first Life of Saint Bridget, written by Cogitatus around AD 650, a woman in crisis pregnancy came to her for help. ‘A certain woman who had taken the vow of chastity fell, through youthful desire and pleasure, and her womb swelled with child. Bridget, exercising with the most strength of her ineffable faith, blessed her, caused the foetus to disappear, without coming to birth, and without pain. She faithfully returned the woman to health and to penance.’ This account of an abortion cannot be found in current translations of the book. In the 19th century it vanished from the official version of St. Bridget’s life….

“In the early Middle Ages, abortion wasn’t considered a serious crime. The Penitential of St. Finnian states that ‘if a woman by her magic destroys the child she has conceived, she shall do penance for half a year.’ This is mild compared to other penalties and compared to the proposed 12 years’ jail in the current proposal for the abortion referendum.” (Irish Times, 5 March 2002)

It is not surprising that when the Church’s stance on abortion changed in the 19th century (see the post “Questions to Ask Your Priest”), the Church also changed the official biography of St. Bridget. Church authorities have consistently attempted to conceal the fact that earlier Catholic notables such as St. Bridget, Hildegarde of Bingen, Tomas Sanchez, and others had more flexible attitudes toward abortion.