A baby's delayed bone-disease diagnosis causes his parents to be suspected of abuse—but their Christian Scientist beliefs pose an even bigger ethical question.
Credit: Robert Viglasky

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

Dovetailing quite nicely off the Prendergasts’ narrative this episode was the overworked-Dr. Turner story line. I loved it because it showcased several important themes: 1. The Turner marriage is awesome. Shelagh and Patrick are an excellent team—as both husband and wife, as parents, and as the relentless medical servants of Poplar. 2. I never understood how the hell Dr. Turner managed to service the entire community on his own. He can’t be the only doctor in the area, can he? It’s amazing he didn’t collapse from exhaustion sooner. 3. It allowed Shelagh to embrace nursing/midwifery more wholeheartedly, which is something she had been dropping hints all season that she wanted anyway. Now, with her ill husband needing someone to pick up the slack (and the patients refusing to take her seriously—she was brushed off as a “receptionist” until she donned the nurse’s uniform), Shelagh—along with Chummy, who never abandoned nursing despite marriage and a child—is helping to further the conversation that women can do it all. That and it was beyond adorable when Patrick mistook his wife for a mere “Nurse,” and seeing his eyes beam upon realizing it was Shelagh.

And also, if you didn’t well up when you saw all of the gifts the community left for a recovering Patrick—cakes, liquor, cards, flowers, pictures drawn by children—then please tell me why you’re watching this show again?

Quick thoughts:

  • As promised, actress Bryony Hannah has indeed returned to Call the Midwife, after her character spent six months away from Nonnatus House to join the nuns’ order. Luckily for us, her new name is quite easy to remember: Sister Mary Cynthia. While Sister MC is still adapting to her new lifestyle, she seems far more comfortable in her own skin now than she ever was as plain ol’ Cynthia Miller.
  • We got a quickie glimpse at a still-recuperating Sister Evangelina at the start of the episode as she bid Sister Mary Cynthia adieu from the Mother House. You are definitely missed, Sister Evie. Come back to Poplar soon!
  • The story line involving Barbara and a pregnant Sylheti woman was sweet, but I wasn’t a fan of how CTM made Ameera Khatun catch diphtheria solely as a plot device (her health emergency forced Dr. Turner to bust out of his funk and save her life). In fact, Ameera’s situation was more than interesting enough on its own: First off, her character symbolized the burgeoning South Asian immigrant influx to Britain. Ameera’s narrative also demonstrated the importance of female companionship—something Ameera had been lacking since her arrival in London—and her dependence on her 9-year-old son, Faruk, to communicate for her, as she didn’t speak English. (Faruk sitting behind a curtain during his mother’s clinic visit and translating was precious to watch, but highly impractical.) Plus, Ameera helped to kick-start a food revolution in Poplar by introducing savory samosas into the Nonnatus House residents’ diet.
  • Trixie is still understandably in the mourning phase following last week’s breakup with Tom Hereward. There’s a brief attempt at reconciliation, but I wouldn’t hold out hope that they can figure out a way around this impasse. He’s not going to give up the church—and unlike Ameera Khatun, who dropped her life, culture, and everything she knew and had in the world to follow her husband to Britain, Trixie is not the type of person to just go wherever her man goes. What we do need to worry about though, is Trixie’s inability to put down the bottle.

Episode Recaps

Call the Midwife

Set in the 1950s, this BBC period drama (which airs on PBS stateside) follows nurse midwives working on the East End of London.

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