Wednesday, April 04, 2007

"Fetal Position": A Dramatic Pro-life Television Triumph

By Garry J. Moes

Just when you think television entertainment has plunged as far into the abyss as it can go, a stunning reversal hits the airways. On Tuesday night, April 3, 2007, one of the most remarkably cogent pro-life drama presentations was broadcast in a most unlikely venue, Fox Network’s otherwise utterly amoral doctor show, House.

The powerfully emotional episode, entitled Fetal Position, was amazing in its in-depth handling of the abortion debate and went so far as to reenact a now famous photograph used widely in pro-life circles depicting a tiny pre-born baby’s hand grasping the finger of a surgeon performing an in utero operation. Even more remarkable was that the episode ended with the show's lead character, Dr. Gregory House, who had argued vehemently throughout the episode in favor of abortion, until witnessing a similar tiny hand touch his own finger, admitting he was wrong and that what he had been advocating would have been a killing.

For those who are not familiar with the television series, it would be helpful to know something about the characters and usual orientation of the show to fully understand just how striking the April 3 episode was. The series, first of all, has no plot — or rather it has one formula plot repeated every week with different patients and a different disease of the week. Every episode opens with an ordinary or extraordinary person enjoy his life when he or she suddenly collapses from some mysterious illness. Rushed to the hospital, it is the task of Dr. House and his team of diagnostic specialists to identify the mysterious illness and save the person’s life. The team always goes through a series of promising diagnoses, only to have each of them fail as the patient moves closer and closer to death. At just the last moment, Dr. House has an epiphany and the cure is found.

As weak as the plot line is each week, the show’s redeeming feature, dramatically speaking, is the richness of the characters involved, both doctors and patients, but mostly the lead character, Dr. House. In addition to the richness of the characters and wittiness of House's dialogue, the performance by award-winning British actor/comedian Hugh Laurie, is always powerful. His character, Dr. House, is a pathetic and woeful drug-addicted loner who wallows in his misery, has the world’s worst bedside manner, antagonizes everyone in sight including and sometimes most of all his own patients. He speaks one language fluently — sarcasm. He was a gunshot victim earlier in life and now walks with a cane and lives with nearly unbearable pain, which he masks with incessant gobbling of painkilling medications obtained through reluctant fellow physicians by any means necessary. Yet through this all, he is touted by each of them as one of the most brilliant men in his field and thus indispensable to the hospital’s mission. For this reason, his colleagues, including the hospital’s ravishingly beautiful chief of medicine, are willing to perjure themselves and break laws and medical ethics just to keep him going.

In sum, Dr. Gregory House is one of television’s premier anti-heroes. This has been problematic from a moral standpoint for most of the life of this series, because this utterly despicable character always proves right and wise in the end. He may be a wretched person, but he is always to be admired for his dogged pursuit of medical salvation, never mind that he is willing to do anything, including nearly killing patients in order to find his answers, which viewers recognize are answers he often seeks to understand his own miserable condition. Some of the other leading characters are nearly as reprehensible from a moral standpoint. I had been ready to swear off the show completely after the March 27 episode in which two handsome members of House’s resident team, Drs. Allison Cameron and Robert Chase, began having on-the-job sex and made it clear that this is no-commitment, strictly recreational fun.

In Fetal Position, the anti-hero feature of the Dr. House character is turned on its head, resulting in a stunning triumph for the pro-life argument. In the story, famous celebrity photographer Emma Sloan, five months pregnant, is rushed to the hospital suffering from what appears to be a stroke. Through the usual series of misdiagnoses and process of elimination, House and his team eventually come to the conclusion that serious medical issues with Ms. Sloan’s baby are the cause of her mysterious illness and she will die unless the pregnancy is terminated. The mother adamantly refuses and finds support from House’s main antagonist, Chief-of-Medicine Dr. Lisa Cuddy, like Ms. Sloan a single career woman who herself has been struggling to become pregnant late in life. For once, Dr. Cuddy does not cave in to House’s pressures, but personally intervenes to take the most risky and highly unapproved methods to save the unborn baby’s life.

House angrily insists throughout the episode on calling the baby a "fetus" and not a "baby," and makes every classic pro-abortion argument possible, including that the organism in the womb is not a baby but a dangerous growth, a parasitic "tumor." But when he is finally convinced to perform lifesaving surgery on the child still in the womb, the tiny infant grasps his finger, shaking him to his core and leaving no mistake that this is a precious little human being. The extraordinary procedures save the lives of both mother and son.

Following the surgery, the mother thanks House for saving them, but he replies, "Don’t thank me. I would have killed him." The episode ends with House returning to his solitary home, gently and pensively rubbing the finger that was touched by the infant child. Meanwhile, the mother is shown some weeks or months later, playing joyfully with her baby.

This episode is most welcome especially in light of the fact that in an earlier episode, another distressed pregnant patient is convinced by House to terminate her pregnancy, despite her previous vociferous pro-life objections. Sadly, the Fetal Position, episode still seemed to look favorably upon in vitro fertilization and embryo implantation for single women who desperately want to indulge themselves with childbearing despite the fact that they will be bringing up children without fathers. Nevertheless, the power of this episode’s message that unborn babies are truly human and worth saving at almost any cost was overwhelming, and the show’s writers and producers as well as the Fox Network should be commended for taking this highly politically incorrect position.


Garry J. Moes said...

In perhaps the greatest pro-life victory since that awful day in 1973 when the Supreme Court authorized the wholesale murder of innocent unborn babies, the Court today (April 18, 2007) upheld the congressional ban on partial birth abortion. Click here to read the Court's 5-4 decision: Gonzales v. Carhart

J. Grant Dys said...

Uncle Garry,

I'm a '24' addict, not a 'House' fan, but I appreciate your analysis of that episode. I find such depictions moving and a welcome departure from the mundane that is most of TV today.

Re: Gonzales. I have a mixed opinions about it. While it is most certainly the "greatest pro-life victory since" Roe, as you suggest, to me, that's not much to be joyful about. Neither should we be grim.

Kennedy's opinion follows the Roe framework which, if read carefully, could actually provide much assistance to the pro-life movement, but has been wielded incorrectly by the left for so long its effect has only caused our society to move further left. Thus, even this decision fails to move society far enough back.

It is hard to criticize the decision because I am roundly excited that the Supreme Court has deemed the practice involving a drill, a clamp, a glorified shop vac, and a partially delivered human to be too much. That's great! But, there is so much yet to do - legally, if not philosophically.

Perhaps the greatest thing that SCOTUS did with its latest opinion, it did unwittingly. It has changed the "potential life" language of Casey and Roe to "living fetus." That parsing rhetoric may not seem like much, but it is significant. Firstly, it is the Partial Birth Abortion Act that uses the language and that precise language has been deemed constitutional. For now.

But, on a philosophical level, SCOTUS has removed the moniker "potential" and deemed that mass of tissue we hear NOW lamenting so often to actually be a "living fetus." That is significant. Unfortunately, we need to continue to move the discussion beyond Gonzales, which uses anatomical "markers" to deem the baby a "living fetus," and toward's Roe's idea of viability and beyond to the point of conception. THEN we will truly have something to be pleased with.

Still, this is a reasonable decision. It just does not go far enough. Then again, what are we to expect of Kennedy, filling the unpredictable "centrist" void left by Justice O'Connor.

I guess I'm just hard to please. Darn lawyers.