Call the Midwife & Back-Alley Abortion

Jenny Lee poses with fellow midwives Trixie Franklin, Cynthia Miller, and three neighborhood babies.

Jenny Lee poses with fellow midwives Trixie Franklin and Cynthia Miller and three neighborhood babies. (

As a general rule, I prefer to maintain a strict separation between my art and my politics. My politics are admittedly at variance with most artists, but I also find that introducing politics can taint otherwise spectacular art, making it more mundane. I thought about this after watching a recent episode of Call the Midwifean emotional and historically meticulous PBS period drama, based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth. The show follows the midwives and nuns who serve the working class in London’s East End during the late 1950s, and Worth appears as the main character, Jenny Lee, a newly minted 22-year-old midwife.

This particular episode addressed abortion in 1950s England through the story of one desperately poor mother. The neighborhood abortionist publicly refers to herself as an herbalist and has already sold this distressed mother some nonsense drink to abort her unwanted ninth child. When that potion fails, along with other painful folk remedies, the anguished woman invites the abortionist to her apartment to butcher her on her own kitchen table. The woman ends up in a coma and nearly dies.

Many of the show’s episodes tackle difficult, even taboo topics, including: a woman who is grief-stricken about the impending death of her brother, with whom she has an incestuous relationship, an elderly woman still mourning the deaths of her young children who were taken from her at a workhouse and never properly buried, a teen prostitute whose daughter is given up for adoption against her will, twin sisters married to the same man who cope with one twin’s late-in-life pregnancy, a woman who abandons her two young children to be with her abusive husband, and a ship captain who pimps out his daughter to maintain his crew’s happiness. These stories are always treated with great care and feel like deeply personal tragedies.

This episode focused on the mother of eight and her single-minded devotion to terminate her unplanned pregnancy. Thematically, the show’s writer framed it with a discussion of birth control (The Pill), which was still just a scientific work-in-progress. Scientifically, the two are tightly linked. If a woman has access to birth control and uses it properly, theoretically, she should not be in the position of desperately seeking an abortion. However, this was not only a scientific story.

This woman’s personal experience felt like a case study in the personal becoming political, and based on a recent BBC interview with series creator Heidi Thomas, that was no coincidence. The real Jennifer Lee apparently felt strongly about abortion in her capacity as a nurse, and Thomas saw this episode as having ramifications for today.

Undoubtedly it does, especially as Americans tune in to watch after having read about abortionist Kermit Gosnell’s trial in Philadelphia. The U.S. Supreme Court may have established a Constitutional right to abortion in 1973, but abortion remains an unsettled issue; Americans continue to wrestle with it at both the state and federal levels.

Legalizing abortion was supposed to make it safe for women, and yet, the revelations about Kermit Gosnell’s inhumane treatment of pregnant women and their newborns and the existence of others like him, make the past, as dramatized in this episode, feel uncomfortably present.

The young Jenny Lee was idealistic and devoted to both her patients and their children. Given that, if Jenny were still alive, I suspect she would read coverage of the Gosnell trial and be heartbroken by the gap between her hopes and our reality.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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