Like they did last season, we are happy to have the faculty of the Vanderbilt School of Nursing back to guest blog for us each Monday morning about the previous night’s episode of Season 2 of Call the Midwife, airing on Sundays on NPT and PBS Stations nationwide at 7:00 p.m. Central, March 31-May 19. Check in here every Monday morning for the next six weeks for historical and contemporary context on the show, and some fun discussion. SPOILER ALERT: Some may contain spoilers, so please be aware of that.
By Michelle Collins PhD, CNM
I have generally been very excited to pen my thoughts after watching each episode, but I must say there was a growing level of trepidation as I approached writing this week’s blog. The story line centered on Nora (Sharon Small), a mother of 8 at what we lovingly call today “advanced maternal age,” who finds herself pregnant with her ninth child. Living amidst poverty, in a two-room rat-infested public housing flat, she struggles with the palpable, agonizing realization of bringing yet another mouth to feed into her family. From a place of sheer desperation, she attempts to abort the baby using the various means available in a 1950′s non-legalized abortion environment – herbal preparations given her by the local lay abortion provider, ingestion of epsom salts, turpentine, even attempting to physically injure herself. I wonder how many of you felt the same cold chill when her husband handed her the package with the knitting needles and crochet hook that she had sent him to purchase.
The issue of elective termination has been debated since the dawn of time – literally. Ancient Chinese women used mercury as an abortifacient, while Greek women partook of the herb pennyroyal to induce abortion. Midwives have long stood on both sides of the issue as well. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, we read about two midwives who had some real moxy for women of their time (considering that disagreeing with the reigning ruler usually bought you a one way ticket to the executioner). When the reigning Pharaoh began to get a bit nervous that the growing Hebrew population was producing too many future warriors who could potentially rise up against him, he called two Hebrew midwives to his court. Shiprah and Puah, as they were named, were commanded by the Pharaoh that when they attended births, if the baby was a male, they were to kill it at the time of birth. Well, that didn’t sit so well for this God-fearing dynamic duo. They went their way and blatantly disobeyed the Pharaoh. When they were hauled back into his court and questioned as to their disobedience, they told, well, a slight white lie in that they reported that the Hebrew women were unlike the delicate Egyptian women; the Hebrew women were hearty and had always given birth by the time the midwives had arrived. Therefore, there was no way to kill the baby at that point and make it look like a stillbirth. Call it naiveté, or the hand of providence, but the Pharaoh let them go their own way, and as Paul Harvey used to say “now you know the rest of the story.” Exodus records that it is because of their actions that the midwives found favor with God.
As was true in the episode, nurses, physicians, and midwives are often caught in ethical situations where personal morals and convictions are put to the test. It’s fairly easy sometimes to “armchair quarterback” someone else’s life and prescribe what is right and wrong. When you are placed smack in the middle of that person’s life situation — amidst the pain and the angst and despair — it can honestly all become a bit fuzzy. As noted at the end of this episode, “Nora’s life was saved by doctors who asked no questions… .”
Michelle Collins PhD, CNM, is an Associate Professor of Nursing, Director Nurse-Midwifery Program, at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing
Missed our analysis of the Previous Season’s Episodes? Read them here.