I feel compelled to challenge Professor Paulsen’s analysis of what he calls “an abortion parable” in his essay, “Lady Edith and Abortion Rights. I choose to title my response, “Lady Edith and Pregnancy Dilemmas.” His blurb: “For many women, the social, practical, and personal reasons for having an abortion simply trump the life of their child.” Mine: “For many men and women, the multi-faceted realities of pregnancy pose complex questions about moral responsibility that defy rigid characterizations.” Perhaps this subplot in Downton Abbey is a parable of sorts, but the moral question that lies within it involves more than whether the solitary and selfish Edith should choose to abort or not.

First, I challenge Paulsen’s derogatory characterization of Lady Edith as “the sometimes nasty, irritatingly selfish, and hard-luck pathetic middle sister.” When I asked my 16 year-old son to describe Lady Edith in one adjective, he chose “tragic,” which he defined as a relatable figure whose bad mistake leads to his or her downfall (he just finished reading Oedipus Rex). He rejected the notion that she was selfish.

Perhaps viewers will recall that Lady Edith was the young woman who joyfully committed to marrying a disabled elderly aristocrat (he left her at the altar), who tenderly helped the injured servicemen of the Great War to write letters, and who courageously defended a bandaged misfit who claimed to have previous ties to her family and heart. It is also interesting that she is the first daughter to venture into the man’s world of work, setting aside the customary expectations of an earl’s daughter. I suggest that Paulsen employs Lady Edith as a straw woman who is animated by “selfish self-interest” in his effort to show that many pregnant women are similarly motivated when choosing abortion, a rigidly dismissive characterization that he sustains throughout his analysis.

This leads me to my second challenge. I believe that Paulsen trivializes the moral dilemma that women find themselves in when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. He also infantilizes these women, largely stripping them of their moral agency. Although Paulsen acknowledges that Lady Edith feels social and personal pressures, he calls them “trivial” to us and “very real” only to (my emphasis) Edith’s self-interest and social standing. Paulsen imagines that, in her “benighted judgment” she incorrectly weighs the moral stakes involved and is therefore willing to abort her child for “purely social reasons.” Even though she comes to see clearly that abortion is the taking of a life, Paulsen describes her as “morally blind.”

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Lady Edith attempts to evaluate the consequences of abortion in a way that Paulsen claims most viewers don’t—she can see abortion in its most disturbing light. Although women in her position are sometimes “vulnerable and confused,” they are still able to engage in moral deliberation and understand what they are doing.  Paulsen attempts to sum up the moral dilemma in this black and white way: “Crisis pregnancies are real, but abortion kills a baby.” Given his dismissive depiction of many women’s capacity to make sound ethical decisions, I argue that he fails to grasp the gravity of the “realness” of a crisis pregnancy, as well as the ability many women have to differentiate between complex choices.

Naomi WoIf provides a more level-headed account of the ethical dilemma at hand in her essay, “Our Bodies, Our Souls,” originally published in 1995. There she joins Paulsen in acknowledging that abortion rhetoric in our nation has the capacity to tell lies, leads to hard-heartedness, and is driven by political expediency. She is also brutally honest about the realities of abortion. The death of a fetus is a real death, and we cannot empty the act of its moral gravity. In fact, feminism at its best, she states, “is based on what is simply true.” But unlike Paulsen, Wolf claims that “there are degrees of culpability, judgment and responsibility involved in the decision to abort a pregnancy.” All abortions, she goes on to say, “occupy a spectrum, from full lack of alternatives to full moral accountability.” This is “a place of moral struggle, of self-interest mixed with selflessness, of wished-for good intermingled with necessary evil.”

Paulsen denies such a spectrum, insisting on accountability alone. Any perception of a lack of alternatives is dismissed as selfish and morally bankrupt. Wolf outwardly admits that feminist triumphalism is equally imbalanced, denying morally accountability almost entirely. When Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe”) had a change of heart, many feminists “explained away” her position as a sign of “girlish motivations of insecurity, fickleness and the need for attention.” Like Paulsen, they denied her moral agency, when in reality she cogently located herself in the “mushy middle,” like “a lot of people.”

I am certain that many, including Paulsen and myself, will deny that abortion is ever a necessary evil, but it does not follow that justifications do not exist that merit serious consideration.

Here’s how Wolf’s spectrum of moral accountability and culpability works: Some women have no excuse whatsoever for their carelessness in getting pregnant. They may lie to themselves and say that the reason they are aborting is to be a good mother. Wolf admits that she personally made a similar claim, dividing the decision into two columns, “me” and “Baby,” with the first winning out. I believe that Paulsen would dig in his heels at this end of the spectrum. On the other end, Wolf puts women who have fewer economic and social choices than she had and whose need for integrity and equality deserve attention. I will come back to equality in a moment. However much Paulsen may dismiss the reality of this end of the spectrum, Wolf claims that to deny the realities of either end is a form of “logical and ethical absurdity.”

A Paradigm of Sin and Redemption

To reconcile her recognition of the gravity of destroying a fetus with the moral agency of pregnant women, she suggests that we adopt a paradigm “abandoned by the left and misused by the right: the paradigm of sin and redemption.” Many religious traditions recognize sin, our need to atone for it, and the redemption we can experience through God’s compassion. We might understand redemption from the perspective of Jewish mysticism and tikkun or “mending.” This might involve striving to live chastely to avoid another crisis pregnancy or supporting programs that provide prenatal care for women in need. Paulsen relegates this sort of agency to Aunt Rosamund alone; Lady Edith must remain culpably nasty and self-interested, without hope of redemption. In a way, Paulsen’s indictment of Lady Edith becomes the mirror image of the hard-heartedness some feminists express toward the fetus that Wolf rightly acknowledges as unacceptable.

A return to the issue of equality leads to my third challenge of Paulsen’s analysis. We don’t need to review basic biology, but Paulsen dismisses the role of men by simply admitting that they are often absent, as is the case with Lady Edith’s Michael. The reality of the role men play must be acknowledged. Scapegoating women while giving men a pass limits the type of moral weighing that must go on, a weighing that has to hold men equally responsible and culpable. If not, we place the onus of the moral decision on women alone, who, when faced with current abortion rhetoric, might find it nearly impossible to find the strength to embrace fully their moral agency. This dynamic also strips men of their moral agency, physically present or not. Isn’t their choice a form of sin as well? Aren’t they also in need of atonement and redemption? Many indict women for their “rights talk,” but few indict men for theirs because it can remain unexpressed, unaddressed, and normalized.

While I propose no solution here to the moral dilemma that men and women face with an unplanned pregnancy, I do suggest that we reconsider Edith as a tragic figure who lucidly examines the moral spectrum of her responsibility to make an informed decision. She is not selfish or morally blind. Her reason and moral sense are not obscured, though Michael’s remain absent. As the most recent episode of Downton Abbey suggests, she also feels the pain of her decision to give her daughter up and, in the season finale, actually retrieves her.

Edith is not a caricature of an irritating, pathetic woman. Rather, she is a woman who decidedly places herself in the mushy middle—a place that pro-lifers should strive to understand more compassionately.