Free Essay: Religion and Science on BBC One's 'Call the Midwife.'

Published: 2022-04-20
Free Essay: Religion and Science on BBC One's 'Call the Midwife.'
Type of paper:  Term paper
Categories:  Science Religion Movie
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1902 words
16 min read

Having premiered on UK screens in 2012, "Call the Midwife" has established itself as a fan-favorite show for over five years despite its plot revolving around childbirth, an event which is rarely talked or televised. "Call the Midwife", in defiance, displays this process in all its gory (Do Rozario, 2018) and surprisingly, has a diverse gender viewership even if it is assumed that pregnancy and baby centered shows appeal only to women. Now in its seventh season, "Call the Midwife" is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, a midwife who served the East End London community in the fifties(IMDb, n.d.). The show features midwives and nuns based at a local convent named Nonnatus House. From this central location, the Nonnatus fraternity gets to interact with families from all walks of life who come to the convent for childbirth and maternal help. Through the midwives, the nuns, and the patients, the show highlights prominent issues facing women in the fifties and the state of society at the time regarding matters of religion, culture, and science. Produced by Pippa Harris and Heidi Thomas, the show has won big on the BAFTA Awards, the TV Quick Awards, the Television and Radio Industries Club Awards, the Royal Television Society, UK Awards, the National Television Awards, UK, the Music + Sound Awards, International, the Christopher Award, and the Gracie Allen award. "Call the Midwife" has also received nominations for the Prix Europa, and the Satellite Awards (IMDb).

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Since the show is centered on reproductive health, many scientific issues emerge as the show progresses through the fifties and the sixties. Prominent among these scientific themes is birth control. It is in 1960 that the first birth control pill was approved (Watkins, 2012). Through "Call the Midwife" viewers get to see what significant impact the approval of oral contraceptives had on women at the time. For example, in the show's pilot episode, viewers meet Conchita Warren, who Jenny Lee helps to deliver her 25th child. In the show's third episode, viewers meet Winnie, a senior woman who is upset about getting pregnant in her late forties. Although it later emerges that Winnie's problem with the pregnancy is that she had an affair and was afraid that her child would be born black, viewers get to see how lack of birth control caused unwanted or unneeded pregnancies in women of all ages. In the show's first season, Jenny also attends to a woman who is pregnant with her ninth baby and feels that the baby would be a burden to her already extensive family. The woman eventually opts for an illegal abortion, which nearly kills her. With the introduction of the birth control pill, women like Conchita, Winnie and the rest would be capable of taking control of their reproductive health and raise a reasonable number of children.

Another scientific theme pertinent to "Call the Midwife" is the administration of nitrous oxide, an anesthetic that has become popular among pregnant women in the show for use during childbirth. Also known as laughing gas, nitrous oxide is a fast absorbed gas that suppresses the nervous system by targeting specific areas of the brain and spine that are primarily linked to pain receptors (Collins, Star, Bishop, & Baysinger, 2012). In the first episode of the second season of "Call the Midwife", Dr. Turner receives numerous requests to administer the gas during labor, which signifies the importance of this scientific concept (nitrous oxide as an anesthetic) to women in the fifties and sixties. The show also dedicates many episodes to Thalidomide, a morning sickness relief drug that was widely used around Europe but was withdrawn in 1961 after it was established as the cause of severe birth abnormalities (Kim & Scialli, 2011). In the show, the women who Dr. Turner prescribes Thalidomide give birth to children with limb anomalies and phocomelia, which have all been scientifically linked to Thalidomide (Kim & Scialli, 2011). Since the show's plot is set in the fifties and sixties, the projection of the Thalidomide crisis is a timely representation of the scientific controversies cropping up during that time. The severity of the Thalidomide crisis is demonstrated by Kim & Scialli (2011) where it is noted that around 10000 children were born with phocomelia before the withdraw of the drug.

"Call the Midwife" not only portrays the effects the drug had on new-borns but also on their parents and families and healthcare providers such as Dr. Turner who were indirectly responsible for these tragedies by being the drug's prescribers. "Call the Midwife" also features aspects of infant nutrition in a period where breast milk was the conventional food for babies and infant formula was still viewed as an inferior substitute for mother's milk. This is despite formula milk having been in existence for half a century by the fifties. In "Call the Midwife", sister Evangelina brings out this attitude about formula milk by shunning a Marlowe sales representative who has come to Nonnatus House to teach new mothers about formula as a breast milk substitute for those suffering from low milk production and other breastfeeding issues such as inverted nipples. So hated is formula milk that a new-born whose mother is having trouble breastfeeding almost dies of dehydration following Sister Evangelina's tough stance on shunning the product.

Since the show is based on a time when Catholicism had taken firm root in Europe, many religious issues are projected as the series progresses, mainly through the nuns and the women coming to Nonnatus House for midwife assistance as well as the Poplar community at large. The most prominent religious theme in the show is that of nuns going back on their celibacy vows. This is correctly portrayed by Sister Bernadette, who decides to leave the convent and marry Dr. Turner. This comes at a time when religious traditions were beginning to break, and the church was very forgiving to people like Sister Bernadette who opted to divorce the church and pursue human romances. The church strictly prohibits homosexualism and "Call the Midwife" is keen to portray the alienation that same-sex lovers underwent back in the fifties. Homosexuals in Britain back in the fifties had two options: Either undergo medical treatment or face imprisonment (BBC, 2017). This means that same-sex orientation was viewed as an illness presenting an opportunity for scientific study (Waters, 2012) in Britain in the 20th Century and this was an opinion primarily fuelled by religion. In fact, it was not until 1967 that that homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain (BBC, 2017).

Call the Midwife's third episode in the fourth season is a clear depiction of this attitude towards homosexuality. In the episode, Tony Amos who is a first-time father is caught engaging in homosexual acts, which elicits hostile treatment from the community. As is the case with all other homosexuals at this period, Tony is required to undergo treatment for his 'condition.' Apart from societal discrimination, the reason why gay acts were done in secrecy in the fifties was because of the treatment procedures that one had to undergo, including electric shock therapy, administration of the hormone testosterone, and electroconvulsive therapy, all which left an individual emotionally destroyed (Bancroft, 2009). While same-sex relationships shunning was focused on males, women too had lesbianism tendencies as portrayed by Nurse Patsy who is in a secret relationship with Nurse Delia. Knowing the religious inclinations of the community that they work with, especially the nuns, Patsy and Delia hide their relationship for as long as possible, probably to avoid being put through the same mental anguish that their gay male counterparts are subjected to during treatment.

Another prominent religious issue in the show is the discrimination against unmarried pregnant women. This is rooted in the church's strong aversion towards premarital sex, and as such, expectant women who are unmarried are shunned. This is a significant factor contributing to abortions in the Poplar community. For example, in the fifth season's third episode, a young teacher loses her job and home after getting pregnant by a married man. Her frustration leads her to procure an illegal abortion. In the sixth episode of the same season, viewers meet Thora, a woman who fakes a pregnancy just to protect her unmarried pregnant daughter from the wrath of society. As a result of this rising trend of unmarried girls getting pregnant and often procuring abortions, Valerie and Lucille decide to hold sex education classes at the youth club, a move that is met with opposition from stern parents.

It is interesting to note that while their religion shuns acts that are branded indecent such as homosexuality, premarital pregnancies, prostitution, and abortion, the nuns and the entire Nonnatus house fraternity never turn a victimized person seeking assistance away. In episode five of the fifth season, Phyllis goes as far as tracking down a young prostitute and commits to helping her reform. Sister Winifred in the fourth episode of season five also embarks on teaching prostitutes in Poplar about safe sex practices after handling a case of a pregnant prostitute who is also infected with syphilis. In the show's 2015 Christmas special episode, it is revealed that expectant women are subjected to harsh conditions at a single expectant-women home, and Chummy and Patsy have to take over operations there for the sake of the mistreated women. Sister Julienne in the third episode of the third season shows notable sympathy towards a pregnant inmate who is afraid of losing her child to the system once she gives birth. It is also imperative to note that these highlighted religious issues also carry cultural aspects. As Orsi (2002) notes, religion is deeply embedded in the fabric of culture. Therefore, it is almost impossible to separate the two in such a discussion.

The Relationship between Religion and Science in "Call the Midwife"

Coyne (2015) states that religion and science will always have a competing relationship, forcing an individual to choose to conform to one, but not both schools of thought. "Call the Midwife", however, depicts an exact opposite situation where religion and science seem to be working in perfect harmony for the betterment of the Poplar community. Apart from a few leadership wrangles here and there, the nuns and nurses work in smooth cooperation during prenatal and labor procedures, with the elderly sisters appearing to do their best to mentor the young nurses by applying their wisdom and authority to the day to day running of Nonnatus House (Tincknell, 2013). The notion that religion and science are incompatible is based on the evolution/creation debate about the origin of humankind. In the creation account which is linked to religion, humanity originated from Adam and Eve, the first ever human beings to be created and placed on earth. In the evolution account which is linked to science, humankind is seen as a progressively changing anatomical species, whose current state is influenced by factors such as reproduction, survival and gene inheritance (Arnold and Fristrup, 2015). This outlook towards the human race has its roots on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, in which he identified natural selection as the pillar of the evolution of species to their current state (Costa, 2009). "Call the Midwife" is set in a period where both versions of the nature of life had amassed an almost equal support base.

People had also realized that scientific inventions were better placed at alleviating physical problems than the mere belief in a higher deity. For example with the birth control pill, women could have control over the number of children the...

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