Spoiler alert: This essay is based on a series of episodes of the fabulously popular Downton Abbey, and it reveals some elements of the plot. If you’re a fan of the show and haven’t watched the latest season, stop reading now. My title, while cryptic, is spoiler enough—please do accept my apologies. If you’re a fan and all caught up, you’ve seen this one by now and understand my title: Read on.
For the uninitiated: Downton Abbey chronicles the goings-on of the Crawley family: Lord Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; his wife, Lady Cora Crawley, a wealthy American whose fortune helped save the estate; their daughters, Mary, Edith, and Sybil; Lord Grantham’s irrepressible old mother, the Dowager Countess; and, most interestingly of all, the downstairs staff of butlers, valets, footmen, ladies’ maids, and kitchen workers. The story begins in 1912, with a report of the sinking of the Titanic reaching Lord Grantham by telegram and newspapers, and it proceeds through the Great War into the Roaring Twenties. Almost against my will, I too—like so many common, vulgar Americans—have become hooked on this strangely compelling drama about the English landed aristocracy.
Here comes the spoiler: Lady Edith, the sometimes nasty, irritatingly selfish, and hard-luck pathetic middle sister, finally has a true lover, Michael. Michael, however, is married to a mental invalid who no longer even knows who he is. He cannot legally get a divorce in England, though he loves Edith and wants to marry her. (Sound a bit like Jane Eyre?) Michael’s a decent enough chap, even if distressingly middle class—a journalist, of all things! We all feel some sympathy for his plight. He eventually travels to Germany to become a citizen of England’s recent war enemy, so he can divorce his wife and marry Edith, whom he loves dearly—and in whom he brings out the best. Mostly.
Michael and Edith evidently spent an illicit night together before he embarked, and now Edith is pregnant and Michael is nowhere to be found. Edith suddenly finds herself alone in her pregnancy. Her mother, father, sister, and grandmama have no clue.
Edith’s is a classic crisis pregnancy, but in a 1920s aristocratic key. The man is gone, the baby is conceived, and the pregnant woman is left alone with her looming massive social embarrassment and colossal inconvenience. Edith does not want to “kill”—the word she chooses, accurately—the “wanted child” of the man she truly loves. But the specter of being a single mother of a “bastard” child, with all that this entails—the social ostracism, pity, and family shame—is worse, in her benighted judgment. Edith reluctantly resolves to have an abortion in London, telling no one but her widowed and childless Aunt Rosamund, with whom she stays in the city. Edith has found a doctor who advertises somewhat clandestinely that he will help a pregnant woman get rid of her problem.
Aunt Rosamund behaves reasonably well in all this. Indeed, in the end, she is the heroine of the day. Rosamund, no spy, knew about Edith’s initial indiscretion with Michael. At that time, Rosamund had conveyed her disapproval of Edith’s conduct in no uncertain terms, in addition to her pique at being placed in such a compromised position with respect to her brother and sister-in-law. Now Edith is pregnant and, once again, in Rosamund’s London parlor.
Aunt Rosamund refuses to be shocked by Edith’s use of the term “bastard.” Instead, she is shocked at the prospect of abortion, both as a wrong of its own and also for its consequences for Edith. Has the young lady really thought this through? What if Michael returns? Would she then hide the pregnancy and abortion from him, marry him once he obtains German citizenship and a German divorce, and forever live a lie? Abortion, moreover, is both dangerous and illegal, Rosamund knows. What would she tell Robert and Cora (Lord and Lady Grantham) if something were to happen to Edith?
But Edith sees no other way out. Of course she knows that she would be “killing” her “baby”—words she chooses carefully and knowingly, and that she pronounces deliberately and despairingly. She is clear-eyed, if tearful, about this. Edith is many things; but a self-deceiver she is not. There is simply nothing else to be done.
Rosamund is an unfailingly supportive aunt. She insists on at least accompanying Edith to “that place”—a choice that walks the tightrope between being supportive and becoming an enabler and accessory. Then, in a dramatic scene, Edith, hearing the anguished, inconsolable cries of another aborting mother in the next room, has a change of heart. As the nurse comes for her, she gets up to leave, announcing that this had all been “a mistake.” Rosamund follows, brusquely repeating to the nurse: “It seems there has been some mistake.”
In the next episode, Aunt Rosamund hatches a plan, preposterous on its face but convincing in the context of the world of Downton Abbey. She arrives at the country estate of Lord and Lady Grantham for dinner, and announces that she has decided to take something of a sabbatical and travel to Switzerland to work on her French. Wouldn’t it be grand if Lady Edith might accompany her for a few months away? It might do her good—she could study French too—and it might take her mind off the missing Michael.
Everyone, including a reluctant Edith, accepts the arrangement. Nobody will know but Edith and her Aunt Rosamund: the baby will be born, safely, and given for adoption to a loving Swiss family. The only skeptic is the all-knowing, saucily perspicacious old dowager countess. She sniffs out the plan and confronts Edith.
I won’t spoil any more. For now comes the point of reflecting on Lady Edith’s situation as a lesson about abortion generally. Art imitates life, and life imitates art; this storyline offers an abortion parable ripe for interpretation and analysis.
Edith’s situation, however distant in terms of time, wealth, and manners, is nonetheless a paradigm for crisis pregnancies. Transposed to a more universal key, her situation is common. We the viewers do not really fault her for the pregnancy. We are actually glad, at some level, to have seen her fall in love with a man who loves her and is good for her. Love is making her a better person.
But with the willingness to abort the life of her child for purely social reasons, we see the old selfish Edith return. To her credit, she sees clearly that abortion is killing a child. No illusions here: no willful blindness to what abortion is, no blithe dismissal of the unborn child as an inconsequential mass of tissue, no self-deceptive assertion that this is merely “her” body to do with as she pleases. Those social lies are a half-century away.
To her discredit, however, Edith is morally blind to a proper evaluation of the consequences of this clear-eyed biological knowledge. We the viewers (most of us, anyway) see this, too—and it presents abortion in its most disturbing, and probably most common, aspect. Edith’s social worries clearly are not sufficient to justify the deliberate killing of a child. Her willingness to do so is not exactly callous—she is grief-stricken—but she is willing to do so nonetheless, because that is how she weighs the moral stakes. Her relatively trivial (to us) but very real (to her) self-interest and social standing outweigh the value of a human life.
In the end, she cannot go through with it. Yet, even then, it all feels like it is a bit more about Edith than about her baby. She—Edith—cannot bear it. We see this more clearly in the next episode, where she struggles to concoct a plan to have the baby near Downton and leave the child, Moses-like, with a local tenant farmer. She wants to see and know her child. Rosamund convinces her of the impracticality of this plan, but Edith has trouble letting go of it.
Lady Edith’s crisis pregnancy resembles in its own way many crisis pregnancies today. For many women today—one in five pregnancies ends in abortion—the social, practical, and personal reasons for having an abortion simply trump the life of their child. The social pressures are different from those on Lady Edith, to be sure: the daughter of the Earl of Grantham was under little economic pressure. But social and economic reasons still compel many women to choose elective abortion to kill their babies. As Edith initially did, some women feel there is no alternative. They are in genuine crisis, and many do not have the ready alternatives available to Edith.
Aunt Rosamund acted as a one-woman Crisis Pregnancy Center, counseling against abortion, devising alternatives to save the life of the baby, and bearing great personal cost and inconvenience to save the moral and mental health of her niece. She confronted the problem head-on.
Abortion appears to be a quick fix for an immediate emotional crisis, but it is a long-term emotional and physical disaster for the woman who kills her child. The emotional and moral crisis does not vanish when the unborn child is killed; it is compounded and made permanent. The most intensely ideological defenders of abortion (and abortion providers) vigorously deny this, seeking to lessen the cognitive dissonance by denying the facts of what abortion is and does. They sanitize reality and cloak it in euphemisms.
Some women—and even more men, who support abortion in far greater numbers—may be fooled, or comforted, by such rhetoric: the human capacity for self-deception is enormous, especially where selfish self-interest is involved. But many more women realize, with Edith, that this is a ruse, and wish there were a way out from what they perceive as a hopeless problem.
I have known—we all probably know—some Lady Ediths, some Aunt Rosamunds, and some absent Michaels. There are the young women who, in crisis pregnancies, spent a season in Switzerland (metaphorically) to save their child’s life, enduring the pain of separation and of not knowing their child rather than the pain of killing. I know, as close and dear friends, “Swiss” families who have adopted such children and made them their own. And we all know young women who have moved forward as single mothers, with families and friends supporting them.
Finally, there are the men and women who work for, or support, abortion-alternative crisis pregnancy centers—the Aunt Rosamunds of today. These people are lifesaving heroes. What they do is not easy. It often involves great personal sacrifice and anguish. It requires selfless love for others—for mothers, for babies, for families.
Lady Edith’s pregnancy could, I suppose, be cast as a “pro-choice” parable: A young woman, abandoned and in need, must have the right to safely terminate her pregnancy. It is admirable to see Aunt Rosamund, even while disapproving of Edith’s decision, standing by her and supporting her right to choose even an illegal abortion. And see? In the end, it was Edith’s choice to have the baby, and give her up for adoption. Edith made the choice that was right for her. Might not Lady Edith’s story be making the case for abortion rights?
In the end, this Downton Abbey story line is neither overtly pro-life nor pro-choice but merely paradigmatic and illustrative. Crisis pregnancies are real, but abortion kills a baby. Social and personal pressures may conspire to make such killing seem a tolerable option for vulnerable and confused young women. Responsible men are often absent. Families are often clueless. Women in such situations might not, because of the same social and personal circumstances, evaluate the moral stakes properly, even when they are mature and seem fully to understand what they are doing.
Abortion may initially seem to be a convenient way out, but seeing and hearing makes a difference, as it did to Edith. Abortion is not painless. It not only kills the child; it causes great and inconsolable grief to the woman who has chosen to kill her baby. Women in crisis pregnancies need help and support.
In the end, the story of Lady Edith’s pregnancy lays bare what abortion really is. It illustrates not only the inadequate reasons that motivate many abortions, but also the very real difficulties of crisis pregnancy, the ways in which such crisis can obscure reason and moral sense, and the indispensability of good-hearted people coming to the rescue.
Michael Stokes Paulsen is University Chair and Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas, in Minneapolis, and co-director of its Pro-Life Advocacy Center (“PLACE”).