Warning: Spoilers below for the Feb. 9 episode of Downton Abbey.
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:
— Heidi Parson (@hgparson) February 10, 2014
Lady Edith choosing life on Downton Abbey tonight. #prolife
— Alexei Laushkin (@foolsconfidence) February 10, 2014
Kudos to Downton for being pro-life
— Reba Jongeling (@RebaMaeJ) February 10, 2014
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.