If you’re sentimental and not terribly squeamish, PBS is coming through with some primo Christmas Day content: the annual Call the Midwife Christmas Special, which, per usual, is the small-screen equivalent of a hot water bottle for the soul. Airing December 25 at 9 p.m. ET, the episode will see the midwives and sisters of Nonnatus House grappling with the Big Freeze of 1963. It’s the monster of all White Christmases as the United Kingdom — including Poplar, the East London neighborhood our heroines call home — experiences its worst winter weather conditions in 300 years. Unfortunately, no amount of snow or ice will stop waters from breaking or babies from crowning.
As in years past, the holiday special is full of tender, pass-me-a-tissue moments. But it also doesn’t shy away from addressing topics that aren’t your standard heartwarming holiday fare: sexual abuse, abortion, and unwed mothers. That’s not likely to faze the British drama’s loyal fans. Over six seasons — Season 7 premieres stateside in spring 2018 — the series has acted as a sort of iron fist in a velvet glove, giving social issues and sensitive women’s health topics a platform in a TV time slot typically reserved for rather genteel corset dramas.
Series creator Heidi Thomas put it plainly during a recent London screening: “We are still feminist; we are still furious.”
Indeed, no stone has been left unturned in the show’s unflinching depiction of maternal care circa the late 1950s and early 1960s. Amid the romance, frivolity, and feel-good scenes of precious newborns cooing in their mothers’ arms are stories that don’t come with a happy ending. Miscarriages, post-natal depression, pregnancy complications, back-alley abortions, and birth defects have featured heavily in storylines, many of which have been plucked from real-wife midwife Jennifer Worth’s memoirs.
Last season saw a working mother delighting in the newfound freedom of birth control pills, only to suffer tragic consequences. Another Season 6 episode earned praise for its sensitive portrayal of a Somali woman who had undergone female genital mutilation, and the effect that had on her childbirth.
Abortion, which was legalized in most of the United Kingdom in 1967 — Northern Ireland’s resistance is currently a major sticking point in the ongoing Brexit negotiations — has inspired two memorable storylines during the show’s run. In both cases, the women — one an unwed schoolteacher, the other a struggling housewife already ravaged by poverty and multiple births — were forced to take extreme, illegal measures to terminate their pregnancies. The horrific medical complications that followed were shown in graphic detail.
“[The law] doesn’t stop abortion; it stops safe abortion,” actor Stephen McGann, who plays Dr. Patrick Turner, told Bustle of those controversial scenes. “We show the consequences for women. We show what happened in those days in Britain.”
McGann acknowledged that certain issues have elicited different reactions from Call the Midwife’s global viewership. As of 2017, the show has been exported to more than 200 territories worldwide, including, of course, the United States, where abortion rights, Planned Parenthood, and birth control coverage have been threatened under the current administration.
“Different things are a challenge,” McGann said. “I would suggest that abortion is more of a hot topic in the modern-day United States than it is in Britain. But for all of these things, we approach them in a particular time and place, and we approach them with exactly the same ethos with which we approach all of our human relationships. It’s essentially a show that goes through human compassion, and if you extend compassion to the nature of humanity in the program, that means everybody. And Jennifer Worth — just to take a quote from the original books, not from our series — regarded abortion as a medical issue, not a moral issue.”
For the show’s female stars, this willingness to dive into important women’s health issues is a point of pride. “Since I’ve been a grown-up, I’ve believed passionately in a woman’s right to choose over whether they give birth or not,” Linda Bassett, best known as no-nonsense nursing sister Phyllis Crane, told Bustle. “I really believe women have that right and that responsibility.”
“I like that we cover all these women’s issues, whether you’re personally affected by them or not,” agreed Laura Main, who plays Shelagh Turner. “It’s something that might be in your past or your future, who knows? Having women’s experiences out there on a massive scale, when so often we don’t talk about things, and now we’re talking about miscarriage… people are now being open about that. That older woman when she had the prolapsed uterus [in Season 5] — your mind’s agog because you can’t even imagine that these things can happen to women. That’s why I feel really proud about [doing] the show… And I see things that I could be affected by.”
And there’s more to come, including a Season 7 storyline on tokophobia, the fear of pregnancy. Come December 25, expect to cheer on Trixie and laugh at Fred, but don’t forget what truly makes this show such a feminist hit. To quote Heidi Thomas: “The biggest star is the uterus and its ability to break hearts, make lives, and shape destinies.”