Two weeks ago a young Italian mother gave up her life for her unborn child in a stunning act of saintliness, says Paul Williams

Chiara Petrillo was a 28-year-old Italian mother who apparently refused life-saving cancer treatment that would have damaged or destroyed her baby. Her baby, Francesco, was born perfectly well. Chiara died.

Chiara’s funeral took place a few days ago in Rome. But Francesco was not her first baby. Her first, Maria, was found in the womb to be terribly disabled. Chiara and her husband Enrico refused repeated advice to abort Maria. The baby lived for 30 minutes, and was baptised, loved and mourned. Chiara and Enrico’s next baby, David, was found in the womb to have no legs. Further complications followed and once more he died soon after birth, cherished, loved and celebrated to the end. Then Chiara became pregnant with Francesco. Chiara was found in the fifth month to have cancer, but she would not accept any treatment that would harm her baby. Sometimes love is like that.

But in terms of Catholic moral theory Chiara was not obliged to refuse life-saving treatment.

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If treatment is given with the intention of saving the life of a mother, where the completely unintended result may nevertheless be to kill her unborn baby, it is morally acceptable. This is utterly different from killing the baby in order to save the mother. In the latter case one actually intends to kill the baby in order that the mother should live. Catholic moral theory, based on Natural Law, holds that it is never, absolutely never, morally acceptable to kill an innocent person in order to help another. This is no matter who that other may be. That is non-negotiable. So if Chiara had undergone life-saving treatment and Francesco had unintentionally died in the womb, Chiara would not have been morally culpable. Of course, she would never have actually intended to kill her baby, even to save her own life. She would not have preferred that her baby die rather than she did herself, and accepted it as right under the circumstances, “the lesser of two evils”. But Chiara could have received treatment without at all intending to harm her baby. She could have done this without blame even if she knew that there was a good chance her baby would – barring a miracle – be killed as a result of the intervention.

So much for Catholic moral theory. And it seems to me in all of this it is correct and perfectly defensible. Yet it has to be admitted that other non-Catholic philosophers have found something distinctly iffy about this reasoning. And if it is felt to be iffy then perhaps the iffy-ness lies not in its logic but in its psychology. If a mother knows she is pregnant, and if she is so full of love that she loves her unborn baby to the maximum, then psychologically even though in receiving life-saving treatment she might not intend the baby’s death still, knowing that the baby may be harmed or may die as a result of that treatment, her love may not let her do it.

I stress that my point here is psychological, not philosophical. A mother may find she has so much love for her baby that although she would not be morally culpable if she underwent life-saving treatment which entailed the unintended death of her baby, nevertheless she would rather die herself than do so. That, we might say, is heroic love. It is love that goes the extra mile, love that most of us may not be up to. But some clearly are. And that makes Chiara heroic, showing forth the heroic virtue and example that we hope to find in saints.

Still, can we – I mean we in “the modern world” – really approve of what Chiara did? We might admire her. But perhaps deep down we think she was a bit unwise, maybe even foolish. Certainly it makes absolutely no sense from most secular points of view to approve of her actions. How can she kill herself to save the life of a foetus. The foetus is, after all, replaceable. Through her own survival she could have had many more babies. Francesco was not (yet) a lovable person. One cannot – or should not – love a foetus with a love that will willingly accept one’s own death in exchange for its survival. And, of course, death is the end, the final “beyond which nothing”. So it seems likely from a secular perspective that bringing about one’s own death for a replaceable “it” cannot ever be morally justified.

It seems to me that for a certain sort of Christian, too, Chiara probably made the wrong decision. She could have lived. She could have had more babies. She was clearly capable of having a healthy baby. She was also clearly a very lovely, loving and virtuous young lady. She could have remained, as the mother to her child and wife to her husband, and she could have done so many good works. For it is doing good that is the important thing for us, not dying.

No, it is only for a particular type of Christian that Chiara’s story is one of supremely inspiring triumph. That Christian is the one who has a non-negotiable trust in God and who has complete moral certainty, a Christian who knows what they need to do and who submits themselves to it. Such a Christian sees nothing intrinsically frightening in death. And it is the Christian who really accepts holiness as our calling, who needs and welcomes the heroic example that saints give us, and who recognises the actions of God in bringing forth saints for His Church, who will celebrate the story of Chiara, Enrico, Maria, David and Francesco.

We are almost overwhelmed in this story not by death but by life. When we watch Chiara talking about her decisions on YouTube what we see is bubbling joy. Of course, she would rather none of this had happened to her and her family. But in following the heroic way, the way of the saint, we can see in Chiara’s face and her smile (she was a Franciscan, incidentally) the presence of the Holy Spirit. We see the Spirit that with all the pain of our human situation also gives life, and gives joy, and brings abundant life and joy out of suffering.

Shortly before her death Chiara is reported to have said: “Perhaps deep down I don’t want healing; a happy husband and a peaceful child without his mother are a greater witness than a woman who has overcome an illness. A testimony that could save so many persons …” And she was buried in her wedding gown, on her way to her Divine Spouse but also, she said, on her way to her two lovely and so much loved earlier babies.

At a time when the Church is constantly under scrutiny and attack by its enemies and all too often by its friends as well, urging that the Church’s very survival depends on following some latest fad or fashion, Chiara Petrillo shows too that (in Tertullian’s famous saying) the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Christians. For she is a saint and a martyr, a witness. The survival of the Church lies not in fashionable accommodation. It lies in God.

Chiara Petrillo shows wonderfully well the way God brings forth for us the saints and martyrs that we need in our day. When young girls, often very young girls, use abortion as “emergency contraception” and when young women have been known to get pregnant and then abort the baby just to “check that everything is working properly”, Chiara Petrillo, who would literally die rather than hurt her baby-foetus, is a saint for our times.

Carissima Chiara, prega per noi.

Paul Williams is Emeritus Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy at the University of Bristol and a lay member of the Dominican Order

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