Of Vanishing Fetuses and Maidens Made-Again: Abortion, Restored Virginity, and Similar Scenarios in Medieval Irish Hagiography and Penitentials
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Of Vanishing Fetuses and Maidens Made-Again:
Abortion, Restored Virginity, and Similar Scenarios in Medieval Irish Hagiography and Penitentials

Miracles by their very nature are astonishing, but some found in medieval Irish hagiography are all the more so, as they defy not just the laws of nature but the very basics of Catholic sexual morality. These accounts celebrate saints who perform abortions, restore female fornicators to a virginal state, contemplate infanticide, and result from incest and other “illegitimate” sexual unions. Moreover, the texts themselves generally reflect a remarkably permissive attitude toward these traditionally taboo acts, an attitude also found in Irish penitentials and law codes. The manner in which medieval Irish religious texts present abortion, virginity, “illegitimacy,” and the female body as a site of saintly action raises a range of questions concerning gender, sexuality, and sainthood in the medieval Irish Christian church.

These medieval stories have modern relevance. The 1992 “X case” in Ireland made international headlines for what many considered to be “medieval” and ultra-Catholic repressive policies regarding women and sexuality. A fourteen-year-old girl had become pregnant after being raped by her friend’s father, and her parents decided to take her to England for an abortion, as it was illegal in Ireland. They also began a criminal investigation and asked whether DNA from the aborted fetus could be admissible as evidence in a rape case, which alerted the authorities to the parents’ intentions; as a result, they were forbidden to leave the country. The government’s harsh response sparked a tremendous outcry among the Irish public. The girl eventually had a miscarriage, but her case led to an Irish Supreme Court ruling that abortion was permissible if pregnancy posed a “real and substantial [End Page 282] risk to the life of the mother.”1 Irish citizens were then asked to vote in a constitutional referendum on three issues: the right to information about abortion services available in other countries, the right to travel in order to procure an abortion, and the right to abortion if “the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother” were at risk. The first two proposed amendments passed, but the third part of the referendum was rejected by voters due to its unsatisfactory language, although it attempted to refine a ten-year-old amendment to the Irish constitution, which recognized “the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right of the life of the mother, guarantee[d] in its law to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”2 The 1992 Supreme Court ruling and the wording of the failed amendment in the 1992 referendum offered something of an improvement in the rights of women, as only then were their lives, if not their health, conceded greater importance than that of the fetus inside them. Subsequent legal history in Ireland attests to the difficulty of exercising these rights, however. For example, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in December 2010 that the Irish state did not have “an accessible and effective procedure” in place by which a woman could ascertain if she qualified for a legal abortion, and thus the Irish state stood in violation of article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.3

Many might find this stance on abortion unsurprising for a country that did not allow contraceptives until 1979.4 Irish Catholicism has frequently been used to explain such an “archaic” and severe mentality, not without justification.5 Yet in medieval Irish religious texts, some written in Latin and others written in Irish, saints perform abortion and penitentialists declare abortion to be a lesser offense than bearing an unwanted child or committing “fornication,” which strongly suggests that the antiabortion stance of modern Ireland cannot be explained away by its religious roots or [End Page 283] as some inherently Irish trait. Medieval Irish hagiography and penitentials demonstrate remarkable flexibility in attitudes toward abortion, virginity, “illegitimacy,” and the female body as a site of saintly action, but it is important to bear in mind that few certainties exist for the texts being discussed. Apart from...