Call the Midwife – The PBS Series Tackles Abortion

This past Sunday evening, eager fans gathered around their TVs for the final episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Call the Midwife, ending its eighth season on PBS, may have attracted less attention, but the series, once again, was prescient, tackling a topic very much front and center – abortion.

Call the Midwife is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, a British nurse who lived and worked with a community of Anglican nuns in the poverty-plagued East End of London in the 1950s. The first season opened in the year 1957 and the series is slowly working its way through the 1960s, a time period which saw many political and cultural revolutions. The nuns and midwives who live in Nonnatus House in the small town of Poplar, strive to provide quality health care for pregnant women and their babies, but often find themselves tending to other family members. 

Heidi Thomas, who created and writes the series, manages to craft story lines which confront controversial topics without seeming heavy handed. She puts a face to these conflicts, bringing us inside the lives of people who are struggling to provide for their families while trying to make sense of a world that is rapidly changing. Subjects that have been covered include birth defects, epidemics, sexually transmitted disease, homophobia, racism, female genital mutilation, alcoholism, elder care, hoarding, dementia, and interracial adoption. Another recent episode hit on something “ripped from the headlines” – a measles epidemic and a vaccination trial that was resisted by some skeptical parents.

The storyline on abortion was timely, coming on the heels of laws passed by several states that will not only severely restrict a woman’s access to abortion, but also deliver severe penalties to the physicians who perform these operations. There will be court challenges, but if the issue reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, the landmark case of Roe v. Wade could be overturned.

When Season Eight opens, the newly married Lesley is thrilled to be starting her new family, while her unmarried sister, Cath, is focused on launching her career as a model. Tended by midwife Lucille (Leonie Elliott), Lesley delivers a healthy baby, but it’s Cath who falls ill. Although Cath had told her sister she was suffering from food poisoning, she had actually sought a back alley abortion. Lesley takes her to Nonnatus House where Sister Frances (Ella Bruccoleri), Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter), and nurse Valerie Dyer (Jennifer Kirby), give her medical aid. Three episodes later, Jeannie Tennant, finding herself pregnant with her third child, approaches Dr. Patrick Turner (Stephen McGann) for an abortion. When he refuses, citing the law against the procedure, she, too, goes the back alley route. She’s not as fortunate as Cath, however, and soon dies from an infection.

Everyone at Nonnatus House is enjoying watching the Olympics, when Valerie receives an urgent call from her aunt who runs a pub. She asks Valerie to come right away and bring her medical bag. Another midwife, Trixie (Helen George), goes with her, but they are unprepared for the sight that greets them in the room over the pub. There, Valerie’s grandmother, Elsie Dyer (Ann Mitchell), has been performing abortions, and her most recent client, a young woman, is bleeding out on the table. Valerie seems frozen in place, in shock that her beloved grandmother is an abortionist. Trixie, however, who is a force to be reckoned with, orders Valerie to call an ambulance. The police are notified and Elsie arrested.

Valerie agonizes over being forced to testify against her grandmother. But after Cath comes and tells the court about her botched abortion which necessitated a hysterectomy, Elsie changes her plea to guilty and is given a six-year sentence.

When Valerie visits Elsie in prison to ask for forgiveness, the older woman absolves her granddaughter of any guilt. But Elsie delivers a warning which certainly resonates today: unless there are both legal and safe alternatives for women seeking abortions, women will continue to turn to underground procedures that will jeopardize their health and even their lives. 

Call the Midwife has been renewed for several more seasons, taking the series into the late 1960s.

Top Photo: Jennifer Kirby (Valerie Dyer) and Ann Mitchell (Elsie Dyer)
(C) Neal Street Productions – Photographer: Ollie Upton

About Charlene Giannetti (302 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "1Life After You," focusing on the opioid crisis that will be filmed in 2019. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.