Downton Abbey Spotlights Abortion as Character Makes an Examination of Conscience

SPOILER ALERT: This post discusses the Feb. 9 episode of Season Four.

My husband and I have embarked on a new family tradition: we watch Downton Abbey every Sunday evening unless we have more important plans. 

Aside from the costumes and the setting, we love the way the show's creators use seemingly ordinary moments of domestic life to illuminate deeper truths about the healing power of virtues like charity and justice.

Recently, when the plot turned to a positive pregnancy test for Lady Edith, the unmarried daughter who has fallen in love with a married man who has disappeared during a trip to Germany, I wondered how the show would address her problem.

Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey is a Catholic, but the show has never served as a vehicle for promoting Catholic teaching on hot-button issues. Rather, I have often discerned  a more subtle process of presenting a Catholic vision of community through the' relationships, life choices and obligations of a sundry group of people who call Downton home.

The show, for example, doesn't celebrate the autonomous individual who puts his or her desires ahed of the common good, though it roots for ambitious servants who want to better themselves. When characters act selfishly that fact is duly noted, though often tolerated by a household culture that is patient with human frailty. 

As the Feb. 9 episode began, I got my first clue about how the moral dilemma arising from Lady Edith's pregnancy would be addressed. In an early scene, she is preparing to go to London, where she has scheduled an abortion. She is clearly shaken and seeks reassurance from her mother, Lady Grantham, who is unaware of her predicament.

Edith asks her mother, "You don't think I am bad, do you?"

Her mother replies, "Bad? No."

Edith tells her, "Sometimes I have bad feelings."

Her mother draws her close and says, "We all have bad feelings. It's acting on hem that makes you bad."

The exchange, which offers a precise statement about the morality of human action, sets up Lady Edith's painful examination of conscience.

Lady Edith goes to London and soon reveals her pregnancy to her Aunt Rosamund.

"What do you propose to do?" Rosamund asks.

Edith tells her, "it is hard to say the words but I have decided to get rid of it."

She partly justifies her choice by reminding her aunt that if the pregnancy continued, she would become an "outcast."

When pressed to reconsider, Lady Edith acknowledges the horror of her planned action, "I am killing the wanted child of the man I am in love with and you ask me if I have thought about it?"

Further, she admits her dawning sense of guilt, saying that she would no longer go to the nursery at Downton to visit her niece and nephew. Here, she makes no distinction between the life of   her unborn child and that of two toddlers who were "wanted."

But when Lady Edith arrives for her appointment at the doctor's office, she hears a patient weeping. The haunting cry echoes the grief of Rachel, who -- we are told in Matthew 2:18 --  is "weeping for her children... because they are no more.”

Edith tells her aunt that she cannot go through with the procedure and literally flies from the doctor's office.

Think back to Lady Grantham's clear-eyed obseration: "We all have bad feelings. It's acting on hem that makes you bad."

So did the Downton Abbey episode take a "pro-life view" of abortion? Some commentators who oppose abortion say it did, while others challenge that judgment. 

On Time magazine's website, Lily Rothman argues that

applying a modern-day debate to Downton’s plot  [doesn't] 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.

...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.

But why should the morality of abortion only be addressed within a modern "culture wars" framework that focuses on the scoring of political points? Rothman's conclusion ignores more than two thousand years of religious moral teaching that opposed abortion as the unlawful taking of innocent human life. Further, while it may be true that Lady Edith's ultimate decision reveals a "recalculation of her own strength" that fact also illuminates a larger truth: moral choices that respect life empower rather than diminish women.  

So, what's next for Lady Edith? If past episodes are any guide, the show's creators will not return again soon to the issue of abortion and the moral dilemma posed by a crisis pregnancy. Rather they  will be patient with their characters and with their audience, allowing them time to absorb the lessons learned as Lady Edith fashions a life-giving solution to her predicament.