Gianna Beretta Molla was a model of the successful twentieth century woman: She had an advanced degree and was a working mother. She loved skiing and mountain climbing. She was a very modern woman — and became a pro-life hero when she chose to put the life of her unborn child before her own.
Gianna was born in Magenta, Italy, on Oct. 3, 1922, the tenth of thirteen children. She grew up in a family of deep faith in Bergamo and Genoa. Her parents were Third Order Franciscans. The family also knew heartache; only eight of the children in her family survived into adulthood.
Gianna continued her family’s tradition of putting faith into action by being an active supporter of the works of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Azione Cattolica, a Catholic lay group in Italy.
In 1942 she began studies to be a doctor in Milan. After receiving her medical degree in 1949, she opened an office in the town of Mesero, focusing on pediatrics. She considered her medical work a mission and supported mothers, babies and the elderly poor.
In 1954 she met Pietro Molla, an engineer. They fell in love and were married in 1955. Shortly before their wedding, she wrote to him, “Love is the most beautiful sentiment that the Lord has put into the soul of men and women.” They visited St. Peter’s Square on their honeymoon.
Gianna and Pietro had four children, (Pierluigi, Mariolina, Laura and Gianna Emanuela) and lost two to miscarriage.
While she was pregnant with Gianna Emanuela, doctors discovered a tumor in her uterus. They recommended Gianna chose either an abortion or a hysterectomy, both of which would have caused the death of her unborn child. (The doctors were invoking the ‘doctrine of double effect’, where one negative action as seen as acceptable because it brings about a good end.)
Gianna refused both options, and asked the doctors to only remove the tumor, saving her child’s life. As a doctor, she knew continuing the pregnancy was risky, however she put the life of her unborn child first. After her daughter was born, Gianna developed complications and died a week later on April 28, 1962. She was 39 years old.
Her daughter Gianna Emanuela later followed in her mother’s footsteps by becoming a doctor herself. She works with the elderly.
In 1972 the Archbishop of Milan presented the cause for Gianna’s canonization, positing that she was an example of a woman who led a Christian life of heroic virtue. Serendipitously, the deciding miracle in her sainthood cause was the case of a pregnant woman from Brazil who had complications in her pregnancy, yet later delivered her child in perfect health.
Gianna was canonized in 2004 by Pope John Paul II. Her husband and children were at her canonization, possibly the first time a husband and children were witnesses to such an event.
She was the inspiration behind the Gianna Center in New York, a pro-life Catholic health care facility for women.
When Pope Francis visited Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families in 2015, Gianna Emanuela was one of the special guests, and read a letter that her mother had written to her father that highlighted the virtues of marriage through what she called “the sacrament of love.”
St. Gianna is the patron of mothers, physicians, and unborn children.
Her feast day is April 28.
Read her biography at Franciscan Media here:
Read more about the ‘”doctrine of double effect” here: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/double-effect/
Her official Vatican biography can be found here: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_20040516_beretta-molla_en.html
A novena to St. Gianna can be found here: https://saintgianna.org/novena.htm