7 brave mothers who risked their lives to save their preborn babies

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By Nancy Flanders |
Becoming critically ill while pregnant can be devastating. While high-risk conditions associated with pregnancy often don’t occur until later in the pregnancy — allowing the preborn child to be delivered prematurely so the mother’s life can be saved — conditions unrelated to pregnancy, such as cancer or ALS, can be diagnosed at any time.

Some cancer treatments are safe during pregnancy, but some are not, and these mothers chose to forgo their own life-saving care to allow their babies a chance at life.

St. Gianna

St. Gianna Beretta Molla was an Italian pediatrician who suffered from chronic illness. During her pregnancy with her fourth baby, Gianna began to suffer immense pain. Doctors found a tumor in her uterus and gave her three choices: an abortion, a complete hysterectomy, which would also mean the death of her child, or attempted removal of just the tumor in an attempt to save both lives.

Gianna chose the third option and the surgery was a success, but complications continued through the rest of the pregnancy. When it came time to deliver the baby, Gianna told her family, “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate. Choose the child. I insist on it. Save the baby.”

In April 1962, Gianna Emanuela Molla was delivered by C-section, and though doctors worked hard to save her, her mother Gianna died just a week later from septic peritonitis. She was 39 years old.

In 2004, Gianna was canonized as a saint. She is known as the patron saint of mothers, physicians, and preborn children, and is the inspiration behind the first pro-life Catholic healthcare center for women in New York: the Gianna Center.

Blessed Chiara

Chiara Corbella Petrillo was just 28 years old when she died. She and her husband Enrico had already lost two babies at birth, Maria and David, choosing to carry them each to term knowing that they would likely die. Pregnant with her third child, the couple discovered he was healthy, but that Chiara was not.

Diagnosed with aggressive cancer, doctors advised her to begin treatments, but those treatments would have risked her baby’s life. She decided to forgo the treatments to protect her preborn son, Francisco. After he was born in May 2011, Chiara began treatments, but the cancer progressed, and she lost sight in one eye. On June 13, 2012, Chiara passed away. In a letter she wrote to Francisco a few days before her death, she told her son, “I am going to heaven to take care of Maria and David, you stay here with Dad. I will pray for you.”

In an interview with Vatican Radio, Enrico said that he and Chiara had learned from their three children that there is no difference in a life that lasts 30 minutes or 100 years. As her cancer progressed, love grew even stronger.

“I said, ‘But Chiara, my love, is this cross really sweet, like the Lord says?’ She looked at me and she smiled, and in a soft voice she said, ‘Yes, Enrico, it is very sweet,’” he explained. “In this sense, the entire family didn’t see Chiara die peacefully, but happily, which is totally different.”

Ashley Caughey

In 2012, already a mother to a young son, Ashley Caughey began to suffer pain in her knee that doctors wrote off as arthritis. But a year later, the pain began increasing, and walking becoming difficult. An X-ray revealed the news that she had osteosarcoma, a bone cancer. She also learned she was 10 weeks pregnant. The chemotherapy she needed posed a threat to her preborn child, Paisley. Ashley told CNN:

They told me what would likely happen to Paisley, that you know, she most likely wouldn’t make it and I just knew. It wasn’t a choice to me. It was like this is what needs to be done. She’s first. I’m not going to kill a healthy baby because I’m sick. There’s nothing wrong with her. Her life is just as important as mine if not more important. I mean as a mother my job is to protect my kids.

After Paisley’s birth, the cancer spread throughout her body and to her brain, and Ashley was given just months to live. She hoped to make it to her daughter’s first birthday, but Ashley passed away in 2014, a month shy of Paisley’s birthday.

Ellie Whittaker

Two months after suffering the miscarriage of her first baby, Ellie Whittaker found a lump in her neck, and then learned she was pregnant. She was diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Doctors advised her to abort her baby and begin chemotherapy.

“The doctor advised I have an abortion because cancer treatment could cause problems for the baby,” she explained. “There was no way I was going to give her up so I chose to delay it.”

Doctors planned to begin chemotherapy at 27 weeks, when it was less likely to harm the baby. But Ellie did so well, doctors held off on treatments until after her c-section at 37 weeks in March 2020. The cancer had progressed to stage three, but after 12 rounds of chemotherapy, in October 2020, Ellie learned she was cancer-free.

Amanda Bernier

Two weeks after she and her husband learned they were having their first baby, Amanda Bernier learned she had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Doctors advised her to abort her baby, but Amanda refused.

Arabella was born in November 2014, and by that time, Amanda was unable to walk, and had lost over 50% of her lung function. She lived for two more years, breastfed her baby, and worked from her bed. She died in 2016.

Having lost both her mother and grandmother to ALS, Amanda asked everyone prior to her death to help find a cure for ALS for her own daughter, “and all of the unborn future ALS patients.”

Angela Bianco

During the first trimester of her pregnancy, Angela Bianco learned she had a malignant brain tumor. She was at her grandfather’s birthday party when suddenly, she fainted after feeling horrific pain in her head. After a few days in a coma, she was told she could have cancer treatments if she had an abortion. She thought it was the end of her and her baby.

“I didn’t want to abort and think about saving myself,” Angela said. “My duty was to give birth.”

She added, “I thought about my life, but also about the baby that was inside me. I told the doctors I did not want to abort, that I wanted my daughter to be born and that she was a great gift, at whatever the price.”

She was found to be a candidate for robotic radiation treatment in Italy, but bureaucratic delays stalled the trip until the fifth month of pregnancy. The cancer had progressed, but she was able to receive the treatment.

Angela gave birth to her daughter Francesca Pia in 2014, and the two are reportedly doing well.

Paula Cawte

Paula Cawte was told by doctors that her pregnancy was ectopic, and her preborn baby was developing outside of the uterus — but not in the Fallopian tubes. The baby was in Cawte’s abdomen, and doctors said she could have an abortion, or risk her own life to save a baby whom they said would likely be disabled or stillborn.

“We had been trying for over a year to have a baby and there was no way I could terminate when I knew she was healthy,” Cawte said. “We knew it was dangerous. The doctors said I could bleed to death if she ruptured an organ or an artery.”

Cawte had moments of intense pain, but she made it to 30 weeks when she delivered baby Eva. Doctors said the baby survived because the membrane of Paula’s abdomen had created a sac containing amniotic fluid that helped the baby’s lungs develop. Paula, however, nearly bled to death as doctors gave her eight pints of blood.

Today, mother and daughter are doing well.

“Now we can’t believe we have such a beautiful, healthy and happy little girl,” said Paula. “It’s a miracle.’

Mothers are constantly giving of themselves to care for their children, even to the point of death. But abortion advocates have long-pitted mother against child for any reason — financial, social, or physical. Sacrificing one’s life for the life of another is the ultimate gift a person can give.

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