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The Visitation and the unborn: A post-Roe reflection

No honest Catholic can pray the “Hail Mary” and support abortion, or finger the Rosary and advocate prenatal killing.

Detail from "The Visitation in the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry; the 'Magnificat' in Latin" (c. 1412-16) by The Limbourg brothers (Wikipedia)

The Gospel for the Feast of the Visitation features the encounter of four people with each other: Elizabeth and her son John the Baptist, and Mary and her Son Jesus Christ.

Approaching the first anniversary of the overthrow of the murderous regime of Roe et al. v. Wade, we find that the Gospel of this Feast has a number of critical truths for us as we listen to it in the Dobbs era.

First, the Bible’s teaching about the humanity of the unborn. There is no question that the humanity of the unborn child is taught, and not by the Pope, not by a Council, not by Catholics in whom “the dogma lives loudly,” but by the inspired writer of a Christian Gospel who recounts the encounter of two women, blessed in a special way by God, whose reaction to the meeting is guided by God’s grace.

Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” greets Mary and Jesus: “blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk 1:42). Elizabeth does not greet Mary alone. She greets two guests. And she does so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of Life,” who is responsible in a special way for the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy but responsible in an “ordinary” way for every pregnancy that occurs.

What do I mean?

No human being can create a soul, that is, the principle which gives life to a body. There are plenty of occasions where a man and a woman engage in sexual intercourse and nothing comes of it in terms of a child. We might say their actions are necessary but not sufficient, because a soul is not a human creation but God’s. Every life that exists comes from the hands of God.

Elizabeth likewise says, “how does it happen that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43). One cannot speak of being a “Mother” unless life exists, because motherhood can only be a relational category: you cannot speak of a “mother” except in relation to another person, a “child.”

Finally, Elizabeth adds that not only she, but also her baby, were filled with emotion at this visitation: “the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leapt for joy” (Lk 1:44). Elizabeth does not say “the clump of cells in my womb leapt for joy” or that “the blob of tissue in my womb experienced a muscular movement” (the preferred terminology for pretending a fetal heartbeat isn’t a heartbeat).

Luke uses the word βρέφος—“baby”—for John the Baptist. Luke uses that same word—βρέφος—in 2:12, when the angel applies it to the newborn Jesus whom the shepherds will find “wrapped in swaddling clothes.”

The “Hail Mary” comes right out of Luke 1, with language taken from the Archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation and from Elizabeth’s words at the Visitation. No honest Catholic can pray the “Hail Mary” and support abortion, or finger the Rosary and advocate prenatal killing.

Second, the significance of John’s leap, quite apart from Elizabeth’s remarks about her βρέφος. When Mary is invited by Gabriel to become the Mother of God, he tells her that “Elizabeth, your relative … is [in] the sixth month for she who was called barren” (Lk 1:36). Our liturgical calendar puts the Annunciation in March and the Nativity of John the Baptist in June, so Elizabeth is clearly in her third trimester.

Why is that important? Two reasons:

One, you will hear complaints from abortion advocates that the Dobbs decision overturning Roe is “out-of-touch” because it quotes discussions of medieval law and the 18th-century English jurist William Blackstone. What’s behind that?

Medieval and English law (the law the colonies inherited) attached great attention to “quickening,” i.e., the time when a woman could feel her baby move in her womb, because it established indisputably a living child. That is not to say that the status of the pre-quickening fetus was unimportant, but that “quickening” provided evidentiary proof a baby was alive (and thus, if killed, a crime was committed).

Remember that, until the mid-19th century, the female reproductive system was something of terra incognita, not because of “medical patriarchy” but because it was largely internal and, therefore, its operation largely unobservable in a pre-anesthetic age. It’s not an accident that when 19th-century research expanded medical understanding of the functioning of the female reproductive system, it was doctors who led the campaign in the United States to tighten abortion laws.

An analogical situation occurred in the 1980s, when ultrasound gave women a new “window on the womb.” Women who see their baby “leaping in the womb” are generally less inclined to abortion, which is why Planned Parenthood et al. fight as hard as they do to keep women from seeing the dance of life in their uterus.

Discussing medieval law and Blackstone, then, is simply looking at how we reached the situation when, before Roe in 1973, almost every state restricted abortion to a greater or lesser degree.

Second, John’s leap also reminds us of the dishonesty of abortionists who, while they talk about “early term abortion,” oppose any restrictions on abortion even in the third trimester, including up to birth. Sure, they couch it in terms of “health,” but the truth is: aware of people’s visceral reaction to late term abortion, they need to dodge the question of what they want to keep legal.

Third, the Feast of the Visitation reminds us of the practical support pregnant women need in a post-Roe America. Mary—herself pregnant—made a 90-mile journey to Elizabeth, probably on a donkey, to help her older relative in pregnancy and childbirth in a world where she would not deliver at Ain El-Karim General. Having removed obstacles to the legal protection of the unborn, Christianity needs many modern Marys to assist women with all sorts of difficult pregnancies.

Roe is reversed, but we cannot rest on our laurels: every church needs to be a sanctuary for life. Do you need concrete ideas on how to do that, whatever your situation? I recommend reading Amy Ford’s practical little book Help Her to Be Brave and put it into action in your parish. Help your local crisis pregnancy center, both financially and by defending it against attacks—not just from criminals but by calling out political hypocrites who bray about “choice” but would shut down these practical centers that help women choose life.

The Feast of the Visitation is a sign that has a lot to say to the times. Let’s celebrate it rightly!

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About John M. Grondelski, Ph.D. 18 Articles
John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He publishes regularly in the National Catholic Register and in theological journals. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.


  1. How can your church be a sanctuary for life when 2 of your top members (Biden and Pelosi) are doing everything they can to promote killing as many babies as possible??

    • No Church controls the heart, mind, and soul of any human being. What is so complicated to understand about this?

    • You are confused once again. Every top member of the Church is prolife. Biden and Pelosi are famous members. But famous in no way is synonymous with top.

    • Brian, have you considered that Mr. Biden and Mrs. Pelosi have probably excommunicated themselves through their actions?

  2. Excellent article.
    A few comments:

    The latest census data show that Catholics are 21% of the United States population. The abortion industry data show that 21% of those getting an abortion are Catholics. We are the only religion that condemned abortion from the beginning of Roe v. Wade. Others have since reversed and also condemn abortion (i.e. Southern Baptists). One would assume from this that Catholics would have fewer abortions than their percent of the population. So, what is the problem? Having an official position against something and teaching against something are two different things. I believe having an abortion homily in October and mentioning the March on Washington in January do not nearly convey the evil of murdering the unborn.

    The abortion industry’s data show that 40% of abortions are repeat abortions – 2nd, 3rd, 4th. Also, 87% are on single women. There are obviously other moral issues involved (adultery, fornication) that are not being taught.

    I certainly agree with the promotion of crisis pregnancy centers mentioned in the article. But to some extent we are locking the barn door after the horses escape. We need strong teaching on all of the moral evils associated with abortion, as well as the evil of abortion.

    • Unfortunately, they actually do represent the majority of Catholics. 30 years in myself, and I only flashed the Catholic card whenever necessary. Otherwise, I was as worldly as the rest of them. If the hierarchy had any spine whatsoever, they would harshly reprimand them and many others. You lay people need to demand more and better leadership from the men running the show.

      • Wrong again. They were not elected by Catholics to represent them in the Church. You probably mean to say that they are “like” most Catholics in your opinion.

        As for you telling what us lay Catholics should do, haven’t you already admitted that you were a terrible Catholic? Why should us lay people listen to someone as you?

          • Obviously you weren’t. You stated you were as worldly as the rest of them. Not one good Catholic that I know is worldly. By your own words and actions you show the faithful Catholics that you were a terrible Catholic, no better than the ones you point the finger at (Biden and Pelosi).

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