A Pro-Life Episode of Downton Abbey? Not Really

The 1920s-set show gets viewers worked up, but the story's very different from how it would be today

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Nick Briggs / Carnival Films / PBS

Edith, Robert and Cora on the Feb. 9, 2014, episode of 'Downton Abbey'

Warning: Spoilers below for the Feb. 9 episode of Downton Abbey.

(MORE: Catch up with TIME’s recap of last night’s episode)

Even before last night’s episode of Downton Abbey aired, viewers had decided that the show was making a political statement about abortion. At one anti-abortion website, the episode was discussed — along with future spoilers, so don’t read if you’ve only seen last night’s installment — for including a storyline that “affirms pro-life values.” In the hours since it aired, many viewers have come to the same conclusion.

Here’s what actually happens in the episode: Viewers already knew that Lady Edith, after a semi-secret night spent with her semi-fiancé Michael Gregson, is pregnant. Not only is she unmarried, but her beau is also missing — he moved to Germany so he could get a divorce from his institutionalized wife and marry Edith, but he’s been incommunicado for weeks and nobody knows where he is. If he returned divorced and ready to wed Edith, her pregnancy would be scandalous, but the scandal would fade; with him missing, Edith knows the baby will be a scandal that could turn her into a social outcast for life. She makes an appointment to get an abortion, but when she shows up for the procedure — tortured by the thought of “killing the wanted child of a man I’m in love with,” while another patient cries in the next room — she changes her mind and leaves.

All of that sounded, to many viewers, like an argument against abortion:

But applying a modern-day debate to Downton’s plot actually make much sense. In the context of the show, the episode isn’t “pro-life” at all.

First of all: The pro-life/pro-choice debate hadn’t crystalized into those terms at the time. But moreover, as Aunt Rosamund is aware, an abortion would have been both illegal and dangerous for Edith. Those were factors any woman would have considered.

At the time, British law about abortion dated all the way back to the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861. Per the law, a woman who attempts to end a pregnancy was guilty of a felony, the punishment for which could be as harsh as “penal servitude for life.” (Though the law had been updated a few times between the 1860s and the 1920s, it still stood.) It wasn’t until 1967 that abortion was decriminalized.

Plus, in the decade after the time that Lady Edith changed her mind, more than a quarter of all maternal mortality in England was caused by abortion. (By contrast, a 2012 study found that today a woman is 14 times more likely to die giving birth than from getting a legal abortion.) Even though Edith’s social class could have ensured a safer experience for her than many other women could afford, the risk was still high.

Then there’s the fact that Edith wants to have the baby — if anything, it’s about her choice. In her dialogue, she describes the fetus as a “wanted child”; she always wanted to have the baby, so her decision at the abortionist’s flat is less of a realization about the beauty of motherhood, and more a recalculation of her own strength. A pregnant woman who wants to have a baby deciding to do just that isn’t a statement on either side of the abortion debate.

And since it’s a TV show, there’s another factor in play: drama. The real choice doesn’t actually come down to Edith’s motivations, but rather those of the show’s creator. When this season aired in England, another plot line — Anna’s rape — drew fan uproar too. Downton creator Julian Fellowes made a statement, as quoted in The Guardian, that could apply just as well to Edith situation: “The point of our handling is not that we’re interested in sensationalising but we’re interested in exploring the mental damage and the emotional damage.”

If Edith had gone through with the abortion, it might have fueled an episode or two of scandal. But giving Edith a baby out of wedlock in a show set in the 1920s is a decision that could (literally) give birth to seasons’ worth of drama. That’s an apolitical choice — neither anti-abortion nor pro-abortion — but when it comes to television, it’s the choice that matters most.

(MOREWhy 2014 Should Be The Year We Talk About Abortion On TV)

15 comments
lostcajun
lostcajun

This is TV show.  The characters don't make moral choices.  They do what the writer wants them to do for dramatic effect.  I'm grateful the writer had some honest feelings displayed in the character of Lady Edith.  Most women I've known, and yes I've known many who had not planned to become pregnant. naturally thought of the unborn within them as their baby.  They had to do mental gymnastics to STOP thinking of the unborn within them as their baby.  And that decision was accompanied by fear which in our time could easily be comforted.  One of the pseudo-truths of feminism is that women have to chose between themselves and their baby.   This is an unnecessary and manipulated decision.  There is enough compassion and love to go around to help women make choices they and their unborn child can live with.

Poogur
Poogur

Our own beliefs and prejudices color our perception of the movies we watch and the books we read. I never saw this episode as one supporting pro-life. Instead, I thought it was an excellent dramatic representation of the hard truths that were faced by women when abortions were illegal. Women have always and will always be able to obtain abortions. However, when they are illegal, women face unsanitary, dangerous conditions, which lead to death and loss of later fertility.This is especially true of women from lower socio-economic classes. Women with money can always afford a better class of back room butchery. Again, I was touched by the depiction on Downton Abbey. I commend them for showing the agony of making such a horrific choice.

ksam21629
ksam21629

With abortion, it seems that people would not chose to abort without sound reasons. I don't think the majority of people who choose abortion are doing so to intentionally kill someone, rather, they're doing it to save them from a life they may not be able to support. I would argue it isn't about "murder" and "choice," but about making the best decision in whichever situation arises. For Lady Edith, choosing not to have an abortion was the best decision in her situation.

Pooler90
Pooler90

She chose life. Accept it. It wasn't because of fear of the procedure, it wasn't because of fear of legal punishment...it was because she wanted the child inside her. I commend her for this, but in the end, "want" should not be the deciding factor in human life. We are very fortunate to live in a society where children, the elderly, and the poor carry intrinsic value whether they are wanted by others or not. In the same way, every child is wanted by someone. Every voiceless human life deserves to be defended. One person should not be the deciding factor of whether someone lives or dies. Abortion is killing a human life. That's not to shame women who have aborted their children or to cause pain for them. It is giving them the absolute truth of what they are committing, which they deserve to know if they're making such a decision. I'm sorry, but there's something very unethical and ignorant in performing any kind of medical procedure, keeping the patient blind of what is happening. That's extremely messed up. If a doctor is going to tell a woman that she carries a higher mortality rate by keeping her child, then he should probably tell her that by having an abortion, she is destroying a human being inside her that already has a unique identity, and is already in the early stages of life.

okayfine
okayfine

Oh, I think we're giving Mr. Fellowes too much credit for thoughtful writing here. He writes a soap opera that proceeds at breakneck speed. The entire argument presented in the episode was the question of whether Lady Edith wanted to be a social outcast. She chickened out when she heard the pain & grief of the women in the examination room. She wants a piece of her shabby boyfriend. With a baby she has it. That's pretty much the extent of it.

WilBye
WilBye

I think this article fails to recognize that this TV show is being shown to an audience that is well aware of the argument between Pro-life and Pro-choice. The average viewer doesn't care about the politics of the 1920s and the issue is treated as a modern issue. 

If this show were truthfully addressing any issue... the gay character (Thomas?) would probably not have been taken so lightly...

Of course I have barely watched any episodes of Downton Abbey but I think this article is ridiculous.

BillScott
BillScott

Yes, really. The tell was the word “killing."  This must’ve had the compulsory pregnancy zealots doing cartwheels since it echoes their favorite shaming argument – that any abortion by any woman under any circumstances amounts to…wait for it….murder. (Of course, when you ask them about punishments if abortion was outlawed all you usually get is a lot of hemming and hawing about how they don’t care about punishment – well, if it’s really murder why not?)

Anyway, Downton has been going Downhill and this is where I step off.

BillScott
BillScott

@Pooler90 You wrote: "Abortion is killing a human life. That's not to shame women who have aborted their children or to cause pain for them." 

Oh, no of course it isn't. You would never do such a thing would you? Except when you do, which I'm guessing is fairly often. 

Here's the thing: You can't have it both ways. If you want to use the inflammatory cudgel of words like "killing" and "murder" and "infanticide," you have to own them. That means shaming millions of good people who have had legal abortions for their own deeply personal reasons -- reasons that have nothing to do with you and are frankly none of your business. It also means favoring extreme criminal penalties if abortion is outlawed, ie, sending young women to prison for life or even executing them, along with similar penalties for others who aid and abet such as parents, boyfriends etc. If you don't want to shame people and don't have the stomach for the legal consequences of your inflammatory "killing" rhetoric, you should stop using it. Otherwise it is simply cynical and cruel -- just as I believe it was for Fellowes' script writers to use that word.



mf60deg
mf60deg

@BillScott   Shameful acts precipitate shameful labels. Like, wait for it.....murder.  

PatComstock
PatComstock

There are so many logical fallacies in your argument, I wouldn't't even know where to begin. Grow up and reply like an adult instead of a sulky teenager!

BillScott
BillScott

@mf60deg @BillScottOk, mf...so if abortion is outlawed as you apparently hope, what do you propose to do to young women or her parents who have one anyway? Imprison them for life? Execute them? If not, why not? After all it's....murder.

PatComstock
PatComstock

. A Catholic hospital has both a right and a duty to make ethical decisions based on the tenets of said faith. And THAT is none of your business!!

loves2read
loves2read

@BillScott  Good responses each time.  Wonder what happens when the woman carries the baby to full term and a point is reached when a decision must be made whether to save the child or the mother?  or even earlier in the pregnancy when a crisis is suddenly at hand making the choice fetus or mother? This should be a medical decision generally, but not if she is in a Catholic Hospital!

BillScott
BillScott

@JohannineLogos You may be amused, but you don't comprehend well. I most certainly DO argue with the "murder" claim, which I was using sarcastically. In any case my real problem is with people who throw such terms around for emotional, shaming impact without really believing it themselves. (Read my response to Pooler above.) Even you stop short of owning the full ramifications: You say you favor some "jail time" if abortion is criminalized, but if it's premeditated murder why would we not impose the death penalty or life without parole, depending on the state? Are you willing to have the state execute a 19-yr-old woman who stops a pregnancy she did not intend and does not want? Or whose boyfriend skips out as soon as she tells him? Are you going to lock up the parents of a 14-year-old who decide that's the best way to deal with the situation?? If so, congratulations, you are one of the few compulsory pregnancy zealots with the courage of your convictions. But most would not have the stomach for that, and you have to ask if it's because, deep down, they know it's not really "murder" but just like using that term for effect.

As for the deterrent effect, read some history. Stopping unintended pregnancy is as old as the human race, regardless of laws or social mores in place at any given time. The way to reduce abortion rates is through education, birth control and non-coercive alternatives that do NOT include bludgeoning people with cruel and cynical shaming language.


Finally, we DO agree entirely on the need to put more emphasis on the role of the male in this equation. However, I would go a step further. If we outlaw abortion, thus taking off the table that option for the female, how about we also take away the male's option to just walk away for the situation he created? We would require paternity tests for all out-of-wedlock births (using subpoena powers to get them from any potential father), and then require the male to be 50 percent financially responsible for the child until it reaches the age of majority. If the father is a minor, put his parents on the hook. Now THAT might be a deterrent....

JohannineLogos
JohannineLogos

@BillScott  I am always amused by how many pro-choicers like yourself do not argue with the claim that abortion is murder (which is commendable, because it is), but rather on the basis that if we don't permit this murder, something REALLY HORRIBLE might happen like a mother and child ending up on welfare or the child being put into someone else's custody if the mother was jailed. Because that's never happened in the history of human civilization.


Seriously: there are dozens of ways the child could be taken care of. Moreover, if the punishment for an abortion were jail-time, how many fewer unwanted pregnancies would there be? Ideas have consequences. Liberals act like no one's behavior will change if abortion became criminalized. Cause, you know, the threat of being put in prison has never deterred anyone from doing anything.


Oh, and the father of an aborted child should receive the same if not greater punishment --- jail time or at least spending the rest of his life paying child support.