Whether it was intended or not, Call the Midwife‘s Tragedy/Big Plot Twist of the Week wound up posing an interesting ethical question: Even though Dr. Turner (and, by extension, Sister Julienne) missed a major diagnosis of a newborn—the baby had a very rare brittle bone disease called osteogenesis imperfecta—and unnecessarily had the child removed from its home temporarily, would the baby have ultimately been better off remaining with its foster parents?
We’ll never know, because the story focused more on Dr. Turner’s overexhaustion, which factored significantly in the baby’s delayed diagnosis, and the suspected—then disproved—parental abuse. However, as the parents were devout Christian Scientists who didn’t believe in things like pain medicine or medical assistance for their severely handicapped child, once they learned of their baby’s bleak future, their child-care plan consisted of little more than prayer and ignorance. What then, is the better option? Having the kid remain with his loving biological parents, but enduring a life of pain, hardship, and an irrational outlook? Or, being raised by possibly loving foster parents, who would, hopefully, at least not blind themselves to reality and provide a wheelchair, pain medication and the understanding that his life span will most likely be short? We’ll be debating that question until Call the Midwife has reached the Swinging Sixties, I’m afraid.
Sister Julienne delivers an initially healthy baby boy to Poplar Christian Scientists Janice and Ray Prendergast. But, once baby Raymond starts showing up with fractures all over his little body, some clever editing makes it appear the short-tempered Ray might be taking out his anger on his son, and Janice refuses Sister Julie’s offer of any pain medication, opting instead for prayer, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is called in. It seems like an open-and-shut abuse case, at first, except when Raymond’s foster mother rushes him into Dr. Turner’s surgery with yet another fracture, the bone disease is finally diagnosed and the Prendergasts are hastily given back custody.
By the end of the episode, Sister Julie tries to explain to Janice that her baby will most likely need a wheelchair and “will never have a full recovery.” But Janice and her husband have refused to listen to any medical advice, choosing instead to put all of their faith in prayer, and believing that Raymond’s bones will heal with God’s help. The final shots of baby Raymond Prendergast, with Janice looking at him lovingly with a beatific smile, sends the opposite message to the viewer, and it’s distressing to watch. It does make you wonder then, if the Prendergasts had been found guilty of abuse, then perhaps Raymond would’ve been placed with parents who would tend to his special needs.
I’m not one to judge people who believe in prayer, but if a nun, Sister Julienne, no less, is skeptical at the Prendergasts’ course of action with regards to their very sick baby, then the one who is really going to lose out here is little Raymond. It’s never a good sign if a nun is saying, “Prayer won’t save your kid, lady.”
Also, and again, I’m not sure if this was the show’s intention, but my take on the whole “child abuse” subplot is that it wasn’t just used for a dramatic twist. The denouement in the Prendergasts’ story forces you to consider the possibility that they might end up being more abusive to their child than in the sense of what the NSPCC deems “unsafe.” There are all different forms of “abuse” out there, and one could even liken the Prendergasts’ behavior to that of anti-vaxxers today.
NEXT: The Doctor Takes a (Necessary) Holiday