Friday 1 February 2008

Happy St Brigid's Day – Ireland's first abortionist

Ireland's only female patron saint, Brigid of Kildare, celebrates her feast day today, February 1st. A date that is traditionally the first day of spring, and chosen presumably because of the associations St Brigid has with fertility. She was a conglomeration of the pre-Christian goddesses that preceded her – a Celtic figure appropriated by the Church to boost pagan conversion. She was subsequently ousted in favour of the patriarchal figure of St Patrick and the impossible virgin-mother Mary.

While many will know that Brigid is a patron of healing, fertility and learning, the Church are not so quick to tell us she was in fact Ireland's first recorded abortionist. In 650 AD a biographer of Brigid, Cogitosus, told the story of a young woman who had broken her vow of chastity and fell pregnant as a result. The young woman went to see Brigid, who took care of the problem:

Brigid, exercising with the most strength of her ineffable faith, blessed her, caused the fetus to disappear without coming to birth, and without pain.

Today, of course, Brigid would be excommunicated for this 'miracle', which explains why this particular biographical sketch does not appear in any of the annals of history sanctioned by the Church. It is well documented in detail in the original writings of Cogitosus and yet it conveniently remains absent from modern translations. In the 7th century, Brigid performed an abortion on a young woman. This was perfectly acceptable in the eyes of the Church then and her ability to 'cause the fetus to disappear' was considered nothing short of a miracle. If she lived today, Pope Benedict XVI would tell us that she was 'co-operating in evil'. How times change.

Current Church teaching on this is a manifestation of patriarchy. Just as 'Saint Brigid' is an embodiment of goddesses past, the story of her kindness in helping another woman reflects what women have been doing for each other since time began – privately, and with love and consideration. A woman’s autonomy over her own life and body should not be crushed in order to achieve a moral or religious goal. This is something that Brigid herself acknowledged, and the Church would do well to remember - before labelling those who support the modern equivalent to the actions Brigid took as the 'gravest injustice'. It is time to take the rosaries away from ovaries and today remember just who St Brigid was – Ireland’s first abortionist.

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