On abortion in period drama

by Jude Starling

This blog post includes key plot information for the following films, TV drama episodes and books:

  • Vera Drake
  • Call the Midwife (series 2, episode 5)
  • Farewell to the East End by Jennifer Worth
  • Casualty 1900s (the 1906 pilot and episode 5 of the 1909 series)
  • Lilies (episode 6)
  • The Buccaneers (episode 4)
  • The Crimson Petal and the White (episode 4)
  • 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days)
  • If These Walls Could Talk

History may have been largely written by and about men, but there’s little doubt that historical fiction brings something of a female balance. Of course there are now notable female historians such as Kate Williams and Lucy Worsley, and it is true that even centuries ago the world had its key players who were female (although there will always be someone who would rather not dwell on that fact). Too, there are historical novels and period dramas written by or based on the writings of men, and centred on male characters (e.g. Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series and the works of C. J. Sansom), but the majority of historical novelists writing today are female, and their work is largely marketed to women, as are period dramas, historical fiction’s film and TV equivalents. Indeed, so common are historical novels written by and about (and largely read by) women that the genre’s most recognisable cover design trope, the ‘headless bodice‘, is based around the female figure and fashions of the period in question – albeit arguably to a degree that ignores the woman behind those superficialities.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that historical fiction and period drama, often led by female protagonists, frequently explore women’s issues in ways that can both echo and contrast with the ways in which those issues are experienced today, and one of those issues is abortion.

Vera Drake (2004)

Vera Drake (2004)

Of course, the legal and social constraints around the intentional termination of a pregnancy vary widely across time and geography, and it is not my intention to cover such an intricate topic in detail here. However, ever since I read this article in which former midwife Jennifer Worth addressed the issue of medical accuracy in the 2004 film Vera Drake I have wondered what Worth would have made of the adaptation of part of her work.

Jennifer Worth (née Lee) was a nurse and midwife in one of the poorer areas of London’s East End during the 1950s, and later wrote a series of memoirs based on her time in practice. In 2012, shortly after Worth’s death from oesophageal cancer, the first series of Call the Midwife, the BBC drama based on her writings, aired. Worth’s memoirs were adapted for TV by Heidi Thomas, who also created the excellent 1920s drama Lilies, and Thomas’ work is invaluable for its compelling portrayal of life in the working class – or outright poverty – in history, much of which is often ignored in prime time period drama.

In Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, the eponymous character (played by Imelda Staunton) conducts a not-for-profit illegal abortion service, using intrauterine injections of a warm water solution containing soap and disinfectant to terminate the pregnancies of local working class women and girls, all of whom are unable to afford the doctor’s fees necessary in order to secure safe, legal terminations on grounds of physical or mental health. Only one of Vera’s clients is shown to have any adverse reaction to the procedure (teenager Pamela, played by Liz White), but it’s a gravely serious one as she nearly dies from peritonitis and is saved only through swift medical intervention.

Although she applauded the film as ‘brilliant’ in many respects, in her piece for the Guardian Worth took issue with the potentially dangerous portrayal of the flushing-out method, as it was known to abortionists and medics of the period, as largely safe and comfortable. Worth argued, convincingly, that it was highly unlikely to be either, and that seeing it portrayed as such could lead desperate women and girls whose access to safe abortion is limited to try it, to their cost. Her explanation of why this apparently gentle method would in fact be extremely likely to be painful is clear, and although women would only have cause to seek the help of medical professionals such as Worth and her colleagues if something went wrong, and first-person accounts from people who survived this procedure can be found (not the most robust of sources but the two combine to suggest that perhaps Worth’s use of the words ‘invariably fatal’ is not completely accurate), the evidence that this is not something to attempt oneself is compelling.

In her third and final memoir Farewell to the East End, Worth tells the story, relayed to her by a fellow midwife, of Hilda Harding, a housewife and mother of six whose family are living in squalor in a bombed-out building, struggling to get by on her husband’s limited earnings and refused new housing by the local council due to the size of their family. Unsurprisingly, Hilda is desperate not to continue with her seventh pregnancy and seeks out the local ‘herbalist’, Mrs Pritchard, who sells her a bottle of some ineffective potion. When this fails to terminate the pregnancy, Mrs Pritchard makes a brutal, agonising attempt at a surgical termination on Hilda’s kitchen table using ancient metal instruments that could not be properly sterilised. It’s months before Hilda realises that even this has not ended the pregnancy; that the haemorrhage she suffered following the procedure must have been due to some internal injury caused by Mrs Pritchard’s instruments, but when she goes to take this up with the abortionist she is rebuffed.

Call the Midwife (2013)

Call the Midwife (2013)

Worth’s non-fiction reads like fiction, and in her accounts of scenes from the private lives of those she writes about it’s inevitable that some imagination must have been used. Worth never met the Hardings, Hilda and Bill, or Mrs Pritchard and her daughter/assistant Miriam, and the colleague who told her the story met only the Hardings themselves. It’s unknown precisely how accurate Worth’s portrayal of Mrs Pritchard as a conscienceless con artist with considerable social pretensions was (although her treatment of Hilda suggests that it wasn’t far off), and the same goes for her interpretation of Miriam as grunting, monosyllabic and equally cold to the sufferings of her mother’s clients. It seems unlikely that Hilda shared this much detail with Worth’s colleague, for the latter came into the story some time later, when she was summoned by Bill Harding to the family’s derelict housing only to find the baby Hilda gave birth to dead in a chamber pot. An inquest was held, during which it was determined that the baby was born alive; then drowned in blood and amniotic fluid and suffocated under its placenta, but it was decided that as the Hardings were largely uneducated people, it was feasible that they didn’t see the danger in the obstruction of airways, and therefore an open verdict was recorded and nothing more came of the case.

Call the Midwife‘s 8pm Sunday slot naturally brings with it certain limitations, and so it isn’t difficult to surmise how the live birth and alleged infanticide came to be cut from the story of Mrs Harding (called Nora in the TV episode, and played by Sharon Small). There are other changes: the Hardings’ number of children is increased from six to eight (presumably to further enhance the extent of the demands placed upon them), and Mrs Pritchard’s ‘surgery’ successfully terminates the pregnancy, although as in the book (and doubtless in real life), it’s torture for Mrs Harding and nearly kills her. In the televised version of the story Mrs Harding is a patient of nurse and midwife Jenny Lee (a dramatised version of Worth’s younger self, played by Jessica Raine), and makes her desperation clear to a number of medical people but the law leaves them powerless to help her. Mrs Pritchard and Miriam (Alison Newman and Charlotte Victoria) are not as exaggeratedly villainous as they are portrayed in Worth’s book; the irresponsibility and dangerousness of their practice left to speak for itself. Curiously, the TV Jenny’s language is actually made less objectively medical – instead of stating, as Worth does in her Guardian piece and in Farewell to the East End, that ‘you virtually have to kill the mother before you destroy the foetus’, Jessica Raine’s lines instead refer to ‘kill[ing] a baby’, and one wonders how Worth would have perceived this important alteration of terminology.

The dramatisation of the abortion scene deserves much praise, for it’s a horrifying spectacle and extremely evocative of the savagery of unskilled procedures such as this, without actually showing any graphic gore. In a manner reminiscent of the shower murder scene in Psycho, scenes of the abortion taking place are intercut with Jenny’s coworker Trixie (Helen George) giving herself a manicure in preparation for a date, the latter planting disturbing images of the former in the viewer’s mind without the need for explicit images. As a result, it could be shown during prime time and its valuable message about the necessity of safe abortion provision reached a wider audience than if it had been screened late at night.

I found the conclusion of the episode less authentic, however: Mrs Harding is saved by medical intervention (vaguely alluded to, so it is unknown precisely how this is achieved) and rehoused in the country with her family, recovered and now infertile. While as stated above it’s understandable that the ending relayed to Jennifer Worth by her colleague wasn’t used, given Worth’s account, both in her book and in her Guardian article, of the numerous deaths of women who had undergone either Vera Drake’s flushing-out method or Mrs Pritchard’s surgical one, and the many more who suffered chronic maladies far more arduous than welcome infertility, the happy ending seems rather like a case of deus ex machina. In one scene, the Harding children gather around their unconscious mother’s bed and take it in turns to kiss her, evoking the separate case Worth refers to in her book and article, in which the children of a victim of a backstreet abortion were brought to the hospital to say goodbye to her before she died, and this only serves to make the sudden cut to the Harding family strolling happily through fields seem less likely, not to mention somewhat uncomfortable.

Does it perhaps let the laws of the period which kept Mrs Harding from having a safe termination off the hook somewhat, if the statistically very unlikely scenario of a woman surviving after being sufficiently injured by a backstreet abortion to be rushed to hospital, the medical emergency overriding fear of the strict 1950s law, is shown, particularly after the good work done by the actual abortion scene in showing how brutal the reality created by those laws was? Worth does refer to women who survived, but given the infrequency of this happening to patients brought into the hospital in which she worked, and the aforementioned vagueness of Mrs Harding’s dramatised escape from the brink of death, there is something unsettling about it. The Call the Midwife adaptation has handled death well in other episodes, so one wonders what led the screenwriters to shy away on this occasion as it could be argued that this may send the worryingly misleading message that unhygienic, unskilled abortion of the sort that flourishes under criminalisation of the procedure is painful and dangerous, but ultimately the consequences are repairable. Still, the episode’s abortion scene remains a powerful illustration of these horrors if one sets aside the denouement.

The fictional treatment, whether in novels, film, TV or plays, of abortion and those who undergo, carry out and encounter the procedure is worth considering because even now it can be handled somewhat awkwardly. Despite the procedure being safe and largely legal in Britain today, as well as in other countries around the world, and that it is currently estimated that one in three women will have an abortion, the choice to do so is rejected with disproportionate frequency in much of the modern media, with those who choose abortion and those who provide it often presented in stereotypical ways that don’t bear close comparison with the diverse reality. (Vera Drake is somewhat unusual in this respect, with the women depicted choosing abortion including those who seem to have made the choice without necessarily suffering under the duress of circumstances such as rape, adultery or poverty mingling with those who do fit into these categories, while the saintly Vera could be argued to be an example of going rather too far in a bid to counterbalance the old trope of the hatchet-faced illegal abortionist harridan.)

For those with an interest in history, the treatment of abortion is further complicated in many cases by stricter laws and social pressures, cruder methods and less sophisticated medical techniques with which to save anyone who finds themselves in danger, and yet the fact that even now the choice of abortion is met with considerable discomfort and avoidance in the media, coupled with the varying levels of legal restriction around the world, suggest that we still have some commonalities with the abortion storylines of historical fiction and period drama; that for those in unfortunate circumstances there is still danger to health and from the law, and judgement from others for the choices they make. Even now, those professing a degree of authority on the subject can lie outrageously about the supposed consequences of abortion, and to a degree that brings to mind the most superstitious elements of historical beliefs about health issues.

It is sometimes pointed out that as abortion by definition terminates the pregnancy, it is understandable that storytellers would have their characters make different choices in order to provide the author with more plot material: the pregnancy and birth; parenthood; the adoption process, fostering or care home and the influences these experiences have on character development and therefore future events. But it seems to me that this is ignoring the equal potential for a writer in abortion: how the pregnancy came about; the woman’s feelings about it; how she makes her choice and goes about seeking an abortion; where she ends up, with whom and what happens; any risks posed to her (especially in historically-set pieces); how the procedure turns out; what happens in her life thereafter… as in real life, there are so many variations. Historical fiction and period drama often mean restrictions on abortion that may not apply in the country in which the story is set today, but there’s a reason why confinement in various forms is a common factor in different types of story, and as with many other subjects, sometimes those restrictions allow the writer to explore the issue in an intense and focused manner.

The following period drama films and TV episodes also cover the subject of abortion:

  • In Casualty 1900s, the BBC drama based on medical records kept by The London Hospital at the dawn of the 20th century, the issue comes up twice. In the 1906 pilot, Minnie (Fiona Gillies) is admitted with terminal peritonitis following an attempt at a self-induced abortion with a knitting needle. In the 1909 series, episode 5, Anna (Jo Hartley) is admitted having tried to abort a pregnancy with a lead-based product. The abortion is incomplete, and to save her life and shield her from prosecution Dr Millais Culpin (William Houston) and Sister Ada Russell (Sarah Smart) treat Anna for lead poisoning and then anaesthetise her in order conduct a procedure in secret in the consulting room, stating for the purpose of her records that she is suffering from menstrual problems. She recovers.
  • In episode 6 of Heidi Thomas’ 1920s-set series Lilies, May (Leanne Rowe) attempts to abort a pregnancy using a herbal concoction. It fails, but despite May suffering some side-effects from the potion she recovers.
  • In the adaptation of Edith Wharton‘s 1870s-set novel The Buccaneers (episode 4), Conchita (Mira Sorvino) borrows £500 from her friend Nan (Carla Gugino) to finance the termination of a pregnancy resulting from an extramarital affair. The operation is presumably successful (the price certainly suggests that it is performed by a doctor), for Conchita continues as normal thereafter.
  • In the adaptation of Michel Faber‘s Victorian-set novel The Crimson Petal and the White (episode 4), Sugar (Romola Garai) aborts a pregnancy through the use of caustic douches (which cause considerable burns) and falling/throwing herself down a flight of stairs (injuring herself in the process).
  • In 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), a Romanian film set during the Ceauşescu regime of the 1980s and allegedly based on a true story told to director Cristian Mungiu, Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu) enlists the help of her university roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to obtain an illegal abortion, performed by a male abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) with a catheter and a syringe of sterile water. The termination itself is completed successfully, but the situation proves hazardous for both women in other respects.
  • In the 1950s plot from the American film If These Walls Could Talk, widow Claire (Demi Moore) seeks out Tom (Aaron Lustig) to perform an illegal abortion after she becomes pregnant following a one-night stand. As a nurse Claire is suspicious of Tom’s hygiene and medical skill but in her desperation she goes through with the procedure and is last seen alone and in a collapsed state, haemorrhaging profusely. In the film’s 1970s plot, Barbara (Sissy Spacek), a wife and mother of four who has returned to university as a mature student, contemplates a now-legal abortion with the input of her feminist teenager Linda (Hedy Buress), but decides not to go through with it. If These Walls Could Talk‘s third plot is based in the 1990s and was contemporary at the time of release.