Call The Midwife

Midwives on wheels

I don’t watch much TV.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not because I don’t love sitting on the couch and passively receiving information from the screen. It’s just that I’m way too cheap to pay for cable, which means we only get PBS, Fox, and Univision. I hate Fox and I don’t speak Spanish, and I’m not a fan of Rick Steves.  So most of the TV I watch is children’s programming on PBS. Otherwise, I rely on Netflix and DVDs from the public library for my evening entertainment.

But last Sunday night, for some reason I turned on the TV, and was pleasantly rewarded with an episode of Call the Midwife.

Have you seen this?

It’s an hour-long drama about midwives in the 1950s in London. And it’s so good! In my wildest dreams I could have never imagined this program would be on television. It’s been airing in the UK for a year, but PBS just picked it up here (is this what makes Mittens want to defund the station??).

Created by writer Heidi Thomas –who wrote a screen adaptation of Middlemarch and is doing a remake of BBC classic Upstairs Downstairs– the program follows four young midwives in East London who work with the nursing nuns at Nonnatus House.  They deliver 80 to 100 babies a month.

In the first episode, we’re introduced to Jenny Lee, a new midwife. She rides a bike. She delivers a preemie. She treats a woman with syphilis. And although she is initially disgusted by the syphilis and overwhelmed the sheer number of pregnancies, by the end of the episode she characterizes the women she serves as heroes who endure tremendous hardship but always keep going.

To me, the show functions partly as a public service announcement for the health benefits of contraception and safe, legal abortion. The woman who gives birth to the preemie has 24(!!!) other children. The patient with syphyllis miscarries her 13th. These unending pregnancies ravage women’s bodies, age them before their time, and add to seemingly insurmountable poverty.

But what was a woman to do?

At the time, there was no accessible birth control, no family planning clinics, no way to really limit pregnancies in a safe and effective way.  It makes me wonder what those Republicans who want to restrict contraception have in mind for the future. Would they see this ceaseless procreation as a type of utopia? It’s hard to imagine anyone actually advocating to make contraception less accessible.

Opposition to family planning technologies cannot possibly have any public health benefit. That means that opposition to birth control can only mean one thing: opposition to gender equality. For women, having control over our fertility is the baseline for equality. Without control over your fertility, you have no hope of  social equality. Period.

That doesn’t mean that I’m jumping up and down with joy because Bayer has decided to make contraceptive implants more affordable for women in poor countries, or that I’m an unapologetic supporter of DepoProvera, or that I think that the contraceptive patch is the best thing since sliced bread. It doesn’t mean that I don’t see issues with many family planning interventions. But although I have plenty of reservations about hormonal birth control, and sometimes question the zealousness with which international development organizations approach family planning initiatives in other countries, I am 100 percent certain of one thing. Female-controlled birth control is a fundamental right.

I don’t watch much television, but for the next several weeks, I’ll be glued to my set on Sunday nights.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you watch the show? Do you like it?

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