Downton Abbey Season 4: What if Lady Edith Gets an Abortion?
Credit: © Copyright ITV plc 2013    

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey Season 4: What if Lady Edith Gets an Abortion?

With Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael)'s pregnancy reveal on February 2, we know at least one issue she's bound to deal with on the next episode: What's she going to do about it?

Unfortunately, living in England in 1922 and with the father of her child missing, she doesn't have a whole lot of options — at least, not legal ones. She can't have a shotgun wedding without a groom. Is it possible she'll try to end her pregnancy? (We can tell you, if you don't mind spoilers.)

Despite abortion being illegal in Downton Abbey's time, women still sought help to terminate their pregnancies. Just as in the United States, women were reliant on back-alley abortions. Clinics advertised in newspapers and lady's magazines as cures for "menstrual blockages" or sometimes the softer term, "female complaints."

Advertising for clinics was cloak-and-dagger for a reason: At the time, both performing and receiving an abortion were serious offenses. In 1922, a few anti-abortion laws were in place — and none of them had a positive outlook for Edith had she been caught.

In 1803, the Ellenborough Act made abortion after "quickening" — movement felt at 16 to 20 weeks — punishable by death. By 1838, that death part wasn't applicable, but the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act made performing an abortion, including self-abortion, punishable by life imprisonment. A supplier of materials to be used for an abortion could face up to five years in prison.

Aside from a vague 1920s law allowing abortion if it was "done in good faith for the purpose only of preserving the life of the mother" — which wouldn't have been applicable in Edith's case — this is the set of laws the young Crawley daughter would most likely have been beholden to. If she were caught, she could spent the rest of her life in prison, as Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) was destined to do before he was cleared of charges in his first wife's death.

Of course, punishment would've only been doled out if Edith lived through the procedure — an unlikely outcome since abortion's illegal status meant no one was making sure an actual doctor performed the procedure or that it was being done safely. Between 1923 and 1933, an estimated 15 percent of maternal deaths in the U.K. came from illegal abortion.

Abortion was made legal in the U.K. in 1967 — prior to that, a woman who became pregnant from consensual, premarital sex, like Edith, would have had very little recourse other than ridicule or risking a Dirty Dancing-style "dirty knife and a folding table." For Edith's sake, let's hope she gets through this ordeal safely!

What do you think Edith should do about her pregnancy? Sound off below!

Sources: BBC; BBC;;; Abortions, Doctors, and the Law; Abortion in England 1900-1967

Sarah Anne Lloyd is an Associate Editor at Wetpaint Entertainment. Follow her on Twitter and Google+!