Call the Midwife: What Nuns Know about Reproductive Justice
This week on Call the Midwife, there were only two births, and one of them was a piglet. The plot has veered away from focusing exclusively on pregnancy and birth, offering viewers the opportunity to think more broadly about reproductive health.
In this episode, Peggy, the cleaner at Nonnatus House, finds out that her brother, Frank, is dying of pancreatic cancer. When midwife Jenny Lee is sent in to take care of him, she is shocked to discover that the siblings are very, very close. They even share a bed. When she broaches the subject with Sister Julienne, instead of responding with judgment or moral outrage, the nun demonstrates a remarkable attitude of compassion, love, empathy, and understanding. Frank and Peggy were brought up in a workhouse, Sister Julienne explains, and they have found love where they could.
Sister Julienne ‘s version of a Christian attitude is one that is rarely displayed in contemporary American culture. So listen up, Republicans, here are three things you could learn about reproductive health from the sisters at Nonnatus House.
1. No health issue exists in isolation. Frank and Peggy are clearly involved in a relationship that is far more intimate than that of most siblings. “It’s incest,” gasps Jenny when she tells Sister Julienne, eager for the nun to pass judgment. Sister Julienne’s reaction reflects a deeper understanding of the complexities of life rather than a knee-jerk reaction steeped in dogma. The brother and sister grew up in a workhouse, separated from their parents and each. “There was nothing left of family the minute they walked through those gates,” says Sister Julienne, offering Jenny a different way of understanding and relating to the situation.
Pregnancy, planned or not, ushers in a series of health issues but it also takes place within the social context of a woman’s life. That’s why many women’s health activists prefer the framework of reproductive justice to reproductive rights. The SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective puts it this way:
“One of the key problems addressed by Reproductive Justice is the isolation of abortion from other social justice issues that concern communities of color: issues of economic justice, the environment, immigrants’ rights, disability rights, discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, and a host of other community-centered concerns. These issues directly affect an individual woman’s decision-making process.”
Wouldn’t it be great if political discussions about reproductive health started from a place that considered social context?
2. Nuns know how to do religion right (or left?) Call the Midwife is like a public-service announcement for the merits of nuns. Sister Julienne is my favorite of the bunch: she knows how to pray, sing and devote herself to her religious calling, but she also knows when to show compassion, put someone in check, and step back when needed. She uses her energy to nurse the sick, not to function as a member of the morality brigade. In this case, religious beliefs are a foundation for action rather than rhetoric.
This summer, a group of Catholic nuns took to the road on an anti-poverty bus tour. Their action was inspired by a reprimand from the Pope for pushing “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” In fairness, the nuns haven’t taken strong stances on controversial issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, and it’s this silence that rankled the head office. Apparently, not delivering consistent vocal diatribes about the evils of abortion and homosexuality automatically makes you a suspected feminist.
Meanwhile, powerful religious Republicans are offering families advice for coping with sex education, giving directives for what to do if your child is subjected to the dreaded homosexual curriculum at school, and saying things about pregnancy resulting from rape being God’s will.
3. Everyone deserves a soulmate. In this episode, Jenny Lee’s “phantom lover” rings her at Nonnatus House, jolting her into the realization that she will never really love her current flame, Jimmy, with that same type of passion. She then tells Jimmy that she can’t marry him and she can only be his friend. “I want that feeling… like you’re drowning under the weight of love and passion,” she tells him. “Like you would die for each other. “
The right to find your soulmate isn’t a commonly acknowledged reproductive right. But according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), maybe it should be. Among the list of more frequently touted rights—ike the right to determine how many children to have—UNFPA also lists “voluntary choice in marriage and family formation,” and “sexual and reproductive security” as key features of good reproductive health. Not surprisingly, Republicans oppose same-sex marriage (and almost all of these reproductive rights), but perhaps a different conversation could emerge if proponents of marriage equality could frame it as a reproductive health issue.
There are only two more episodes of Call the Midwife this season, and I’ll be blogging about both of them right here. Stay tuned—and weigh in with your own comments below!
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