[Spoiler alert for PBS’s Mercy Street] Like just about every other Civil War historian out there, I’ve been following PBS’s new period drama, Mercy Street, pretty closely. The show, which aired its season finale on Sunday night, was innovative compared to other shows and movies on the war: it included plotlines about the health of women and escaped slaves right alongside old classics like amputations. The most prominent example was the story of Aurelia Johnson, a contraband slave who is raped by a hospital steward who had promised to help her reunite with her family. Aurelia becomes pregnant and chooses to end the pregnancy.
House servant Belinda Gibson gives Aurelia a tincture of pennyroyal, a common emmenagogue. But Aurelia is too desperate to wait for the concoction to work. In a powerful scene, the audience watches as she touches various items on a counter that she could use to induce an abortion, finally grasping a slender metal rod. But, inevitably, the procedure goes wrong: Aurelia punctures the wall of her uterus and begins hemorrhaging.
It was a powerful plotline, to be sure: a raped fugitive slave desperate to control the reproductive capacity of her own body. It seems to intentionally serve as a symbol of the sexual terror wielded in the slaveholding South. I should have appreciated its inclusion in the show, but for all its innovation, this plotline irked me. Why on earth did Aurelia, already terribly mistreated and separated from her family, have to nearly kill herself in order to induce abortion?
As I recently wrote for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, it was common for nineteenth century women — including enslaved women — to regulate their menstrual cycle through the use of herbs like pennyroyal. The restoration of menses (what we might today call abortion) was a practice that dated at least to the time of the Greeks, and carried no taboo before quickening in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy, when a fetus could be felt moving. Aurelia could have been portrayed taking Belinda’s pennyroyal preparation and going about her business. Instead, she nearly dies of blood loss after trying to end her pregnancy with a metal rod. Why?
This has long been a complaint of mine when it comes to depictions of women’s health on television and in film. Scenes of childbirth or abortion are the worst offenders. Natural parts of a woman’s life that generally occur without incident are portrayed as dangerous or horrifying, with some notable exceptions, such as the abortion scenes on Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and Obvious Child.
Childbirth in television and film, like Aurelia’s abortion on Mercy Street, is also often depicted as traumatic and inherently dangerous. In The Walking Dead, for instance, Lori Grimes goes into labor, almost immediately seems to know there are complications, and then dies of blood loss when she insists on an impromptu c-section. Lady Sybil died a horrific death from eclampsia after the birth of her daughter on Downton Abbey. Padme, mother of Luke and Leia in the Star Wars series, dies in childbirth even in a futuristic society where severely burned men can be reborn as cyborgs, hands can be rebuilt, and human beings can survive being frozen in carbonite. (I mean, seriously.)
Childbirth and abortion have been a part of life since time immemorial, but they’re still not treated like normal parts of the human experience. Instead, they are portrayed as dangerous, perpetuating the idea that women’s bodies are mysterious, frightening, and fragile. Moreover, it’s difficult to have strong female characters when they are always at the mercy of their inferior biology. Aurelia is a victim of her reproductive capacity, saved only by the medical prowess of a white doctor.
While Mercy Street is innovative in many ways, its portrayal of women as the victims of their own reproductive organs is old-fashioned. How much more revolutionary (and, dare I say, accurate) might the series have been had the writers taken a cue from Shonda Rhimes and Olivia Pope, let Aurelia swallow her pennyroyal, and simply never mention that unwanted pregnancy again?
Reagan, Leslie. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine and the Law in the United States, 1867-1973. Berkley: University of California Press, 1997.
Riddle, John M. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.