Friday, November 18, 2005

Abigail Witchalls

Homefront Catholic Herald
London 2005-11-15

The fortitude of Abigail Witchalls, the devout young Catholic mother paralysed by stabbing six months ago, has amazed the nation. The media, however, don’t quite know what to make of her.

First of all she let it be known that she forgave her attacker. This stymied the tabloids, who expect to be able to whip the victims of random violence into vengeful frenzies at the drop of a cheque.

Then she astonished her doctors by the speed of her recovery. There is general agreement in the secular press that her positive attitude is helping her as much as the great skill of her carers; the idea that the constant prayers said for her by family and friends might have something to do with it does not, of course, get a mention.

Meanwhile Abigail, now able to speak and feed herself, continues to describe herself as “blessed” – again, language which the average tabloid journalist just can’t figure out at all.

Now she has really knocked them sideways. She has given birth to her second baby. One or two of the papers jumped the gun and reported this birth as being by caesarean section. Presumably the reporters simply could not imagine that Abigail, paralysed from the neck down, could give birth in any other way.

It later became confirmed that Abigail had given birth naturally, “with very little assistance”. He came a bit early, and he’s on the small side, but he’s working on that, because Abigail is breastfeeding as well.

“What a woman,” said a friend of mine in astonishment.

The surprise, however, is misplaced. The oddity is rather that anyone should think a caesarean section would be necessary. Nowadays, most women choose to put themselves into Abigail’s condition during childbirth, by having an epidural. Most of these births end normally (though honest midwives admit that the epidural does increase your chances of going under the knife). By birthing normally, Abigail was simply taking advantage of the only physical benefit her terrible paralysis has to offer her.

The question which is bothering me, though, is this - why do so many women choose this state of paralysis? And what, I can hear the Editor muttering, does this have to do with the rest of us?

OK, I am getting to it.

The doctrine concerning Our Lady’s perpetual virginity which, when I first read about it before I became a Catholic, enraged me beyond words, is the doctrine that she gave birth without pain.

As St Thomas Aquinas put it: “Painlessly, and without change in Mary's virgin body, her Son emerged from the tabernacle of her spotless womb.” This still seems to me to be an insult to the fortitude and patience of women who do suffer pain, and furthermore are willing to suffer it again and again.

However, recently I have been learning about hypnotherapy in childbirth. The main aim of the technique is to eliminate the one emotion which, its practitioners maintain, is the biggest cause of pain: fear. The theory goes like this: if women are taught not to fear, then they will have almost pain-free births. At first I thought this was sheer hokum.

But wait - what was the first thing the angel said to Mary? “Be not afraid.” Perfect freedom from sin means being able to obey God without second thoughts or hindrance. So, if an angel tells Mary not to be afraid, then she is not afraid, and that’s that.

Then I watched some films of women giving birth without so much as a squeak, and not an epidural in sight. These were not cranks, but ordinary women who, not having the grace of perfect freedom from sin, had used hypnosis to free themselves from fear.

With shock, I realised that what I had hitherto only been able to accept as a doctrine in a “symbolic”, Vatican 2 sort of way, rather than one of fact, was actually perfectly believable and obvious.

Now Abigail Witchalls adds a new layer to this mystery by showing that even when your life is riven by a horrible tragedy, there is no reason to be afraid. And what’s more, she, too, has a baby to show for it.


Anonymous said...


Interesting read. Would you mind putting a link to Abigail Witchalls Trust on your website? We've just launched it.


fish said...

Your blog is very very good. I would love you to vist self hypnosis and let me know what you think. Thanks

eliza said...

thank you. this was exactly what i was looking for. you have filled me in on abigail witchalls' recovery and her lovely birth story. as a feminist christian i cheer for natural birth. i'll be reading more of your blogs.

eliza getman