St. Gianna Beretta Molla: A Saint for Our Times

St. Gianna Beretta Molla is a saint for our times. But, not for the reasons many believe. St. Gianna’s story is often portrayed as follows: she gave up her life so her child could live, thereby setting a heroic example for us of what it means to be a mother, a good mother, a godly mother.

When I first “met” St. Gianna, I was frankly suspicious. As a sociologist, I immerse myself in studying how the examples we use and the stories we tell shape our ideals of what a person should be, what a saint looks like, who qualifies as a good mother. And, as a Catholic doula, one of the most dangerous narratives I see in the Catholic birth world is the idea that perinatal health is what matters most, set up against a backdrop of stories of godly mothers who die for their children.

As a Catholic sociologist doula, who has now learned much more about St. Gianna, I am disheartened by how inaccurate retellings of St. Gianna’s story, and others, can pave the way for us to ignore maternal health. In other words, I worry that emphasizing the sanctifying value of a mother’s death provides an easy excuse to avoid reckoning with the ways in which we undervalue mothers’ lives.

In reality, St. Gianna’s story shows us someone who died to herself every day, someone who practiced that kind of self-giving love and then, when faced with a possibility of heroism, was willing to give the ultimate sacrifice, if needed. However, St. Gianna did not die so that her child might live; and that is crucial for us to understand and remember. Without it, we turn her story into propaganda for maternal death as the most godly and responsible choice; with correct context, we see the ways in which small, everyday choices prepare us for big ones.

St. Gianna Beretta Molla was a physician who lived from 1922 to 1962 in Italy. In her, we see the image of a normal person—a saint who loved to ski and mountain climb, a saint who knitted, who experienced perinatal depression, who reminded her husband to give their son his suppositories, and who wrote about never having time to go to daily Mass and about watching boring reruns on TV.[1]

St. Gianna’s first three pregnancies were very difficult. She experienced hyperemesis gravidarum (morning sickness to dangerous levels), long pregnancies (two that lasted 41 weeks and 3 days and one that lasted 43 weeks and 4 days), long labors (around 36 hours), and at least one forceps delivery. After the birth of her three children, she then experienced two miscarriages. At the beginning of her fifth, and most famous, pregnancy, she was 39 years old.

Two months into the pregnancy, Gianna was diagnosed with a uterine fibroma (a tumor which is usually benign, meaning non-cancerous, but can contribute to problems during pregnancy). Two of the typical treatments would result in her unborn baby's death—a surgery removing the contents of her uterus, including both the fibroma and her baby (which would have been illicit under Catholic teaching), and a surgery removing her entire uterus including its contents (which would have been licit under Catholic teaching).

Many retellings of St. Gianna’s story end here, stating that she forwent the treatment entirely and died for her baby. That is inaccurate. St. Gianna chose the third treatment option available to her: a more cautious surgery removing the fibroma but leaving her daughter in utero (which was licit under Catholic teaching).

This surgery was generally successful, and Gianna’s condition returned to expected after it. But she must have worried that there were more problems to come; as this rainbow pregnancy continued, she told her husband and other family members that if, at any point, anyone had to make a choice between her life and that of the baby, they should choose the baby's. Toward the end of her pregnancy, she went through a medical induction of labor, which was unsuccessful, and eventually gave birth through Cesarean surgery to a healthy baby girl, whom she named after herself.

After baby Gianna’s birth, things took a turn for the worse. St. Gianna contracted septic peritonitis, a condition that involves complications of an infection of the lining of her abdomen. This likely was caused by bacteria that entered her body during the C-section, that then spread to her bloodstream. The infection took over her body, making her organs dysfunction, and she died a week after giving birth. St. Gianna was not canonized for dying, nor for dying for her child. She was canonized for her heroism in being willing to die for her child. Her death was unrelated to the life of her child. In other words, she could have been heroic and survived.

Heroism and Health

St. Gianna is not a case study of how we should eschew scientific life-prolonging treatment in favor of dying for our children. Consider that she sought treatment for her fibroma, rather than simply allowing it to grow. Consider that she made choices throughout her career as a doctor, fostering the health of her patients and their families. When our takeaway from her story becomes “she’s a saint because she died for her child, and people who die for their children are similarly just meant to be saints,” we ignore her powerful intercession on behalf of maternal health. And that is certainly intercession we need.

Today’s maternal health crisis is truly that: a crisis. Across the world, 223 women die out of every 100,000 who give birth.[2] Put another way, in 2020, every two minutes, a woman died because of a condition related to pregnancy and childbirth.[3] Since 2016, maternal mortality rates, which were slowly decreasing, have been stalled or increasing worldwide.[4] This is particularly notable in the United States, which has the highest maternal mortality rate of all highly-resourced countries at 32.9 deaths for every 100,000 births.[5] This rate puts the U.S. in similar ranges as Uzbekistan (30 deaths per 100,000 births) and the Syrian Arab Republic (30 deaths per 100,000 births); compare this to Denmark or Turkmenistan, which has 5 deaths for every 100,000 births.[6]

The majority of these deaths worldwide occur because of bleeding, infections, and blood pressure complications.[7] Sepsis, which caused St. Gianna’s death, is considered to be the primary cause of death in at least 10% of maternal deaths worldwide.[8] The prevention of sepsis is so important that professional organizations including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that everyone who experiences a c-section receive prophylactic antibiotics (preventative antibiotics, usually administered within 60 minutes of starting a c-section).[9] Yet, still, some areas do not have the resources needed to administer such antibiotics, and some providers still choose not to prescribe antibiotics in all cases when WHO or ACOG would recommend them.[10] Similar struggles face women who will deal with bleeding and blood pressure complications.

Advocating for more and better maternal healthcare is a difficult task. Rather than facing and fighting the dangers our society accepts for pregnant and postpartum women, it can be easier to laud women’s bravery for making impossible choices. Sometimes it feels neat and tidy to be able to put the things someone teaches us about our current lives into a box—such as, “St. Gianna placed her child’s life above her own. I am supposed to do that too if I am in that situation.” The reality of the saints is far more complicated than that. They are often people who chose holiness in many situations and call our attention to the complex realities of injustice in our world today.

Let us not limit our retelling of St. Gianna’s story to the heroic decision of placing her child’s life above her own; let us also be reminded by our societal and global call to better care for mothers during pregnancy and postpartum. Let us echo her compassionate care of her own patients in our care of women during the perinatal period. She is a saint whose untimely and unnecessary death reminds us of the importance of science and high-quality medical care to our survival, and of the commitment we must have to maternal health.

St. Gianna, patron of those who heroically die so that others can live, pray for us.

St. Gianna, patron of those experiencing hyperemesis gravidarum, long pregnancies, long labors, forceps deliveries, inductions, cesarean births, miscarriage, pregnancy at an advanced maternal age, and perinatal anxiety; those whose children are sick or need regular medications; those who knit; those who dislike watching reruns; those who die to themselves a bit every day; those let down by science and the medical system—pray for us. 

[1] Gianna Beretta Molla, Love Letters to My Husband (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2002); Pietro Molla, Saint Gianna Molla: Wife, Mother, Doctor (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004).

[2] UNICEF Data, “Maternal Mortality Rates and Statistics,” March 14, 2024,

[3] World Health Organization, “Maternal Mortality,” February 22, 2023,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Donna L. Hoyert, “Maternal Mortality Rates in the United States, 2021,” NCHS Health E-Stats, March 16, 2023,

[6] WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, World Bank Group, and UNDESA/Population Division, “Maternal Mortality Ratio (Modeled Estimate, per 100,000 Live Births)” (Geneva, World Health Organization, 2023),

[7] World Health Organization, “Maternal Mortality.”

[8] Katherine E. Eddy et al., “Factors Affecting the Use of Antibiotics and Antiseptics to Prevent Maternal Infection at Birth: A Global Mixed-Methods Systematic Review,” PLoS ONE 17, no. 9 (September 1, 2022): e0272982,

[9] American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “Use of Prophylactic Antibiotics in Labor and Delivery,” Practice Bulletin, no. #199 (September 2018),

[10] Katherine E. Eddy et al., “Factors Affecting the Use of Antibiotics and Antiseptics to Prevent Maternal Infection at Birth: A Global Mixed-Methods Systematic Review.”

Featured Image: , Unveiling of new statue of St Gianna Beretta Molla; Source: Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0. 


Abigail Jorgensen

Abigail Jorgensen is an assistant professor of sociology with an appointment in health care ethics at Saint Louis University and a birth and bereavement doula. She is the author of the recently published A Catholic Guide to Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Infant Loss: Compassionate Answers to Difficult Questions

Read more by Abigail Jorgensen