“Fetal Position”: A “House” Abortion Episode to Remember

By Dave Andrusko

Tonight is the two-hour conclusion to “House,” a television program that in its prime drew 19 million viewers. Greg House is hardly pro-life, but the episode “Fetal Position” remains one of the most “pro-life” shows ever broadcast on network television. The following story first ran April 5, 2007.

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From 8:00 to 10:00 on Tuesday nights, you’ll pretty much always are going to know where to find my wife and me: In front of the tube, watching “American Idol” and “House.” Whereas we might feel a little sheepish about admitting our compulsion to watch often marginally talented but lovable kids, we feel no reluctance in talking about House. House is simply compelling drama, with crisp dialogue and riveting plotlines.

We knew from last week’s teaser that last night’s episode would be a corker that would revolve around a pregnant woman whose life, and that of her unborn child, is at serious risk. Please bear with me if this goes on and on. “Fetal Position” was so good, it bears an in-depth examination.

Tens of millions of Americans saw a powerfully life-affirming message driven home with amazing impact. And it did so in a manner that (judging by the House message board) annoyed only those whom it would be impossible not to annoy.

House depends on exotic medical mysteries that only Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) can solve. He does so in ways that make Sherlock Holmes look like a bumbling amateur. Often House is the lone holdout, the one whom everyone else decides is so caught up in his own brilliance that his analysis must be loopy. This in spite of the fact that week after week, House proves to be an uncanny diagnostician, even if his first interpretations are invariably wrong. (This is, after all, an hour-long show.)

Without retracing all the steps in the plotline, House, his three young charges (dubbed by fans the “ducklings”), and his friend, Dr. James Wilson, eventually decide the only way to save the life of the mother, Emma Sloan (a famous celebrity photographer played by Anne Ramsay), is to abort the 21-week-old child. (The child’s condition is destroying Sloan’s liver, we’re told.)

House tells Sloan that the only way to save her life is to end the baby’s (“fetus,” as House continually refers to Emma’s unborn son) life. And that this must be done within the next two days.

The look on Sloan’s face is absolutely priceless, the kind for which actresses win awards. She just shakes her head no and tells House to find a way to save them both.

For House regulars, two things are hardly surprising. First, although I did not see the episodes, House has twice counseled women with complicated pregnancies to abort. Indeed, two friends told me in an episode that aired earlier this year, a woman who was date raped was determined to carry her baby until House talked her into an abortion.

The other unsurprising development is that House’s nominal boss, dean of medicine and hospital administrator Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) is firmly on the side of trying to save both the baby and the mom. In addition to being a very decent human being, Cuddy is roughly the same age as Sloan, also single, and is on-again, off-again, trying to get pregnant.

The twist is that Cuddy assumes the House role of hospital contrarian. She simply will not accept the consensus negative conclusions drawn by the rest of the staff, and personally takes over the case. Cuddy walks the ducklings through the same drills House invariably puts them through. Their goal, she tells them, is to improve the child’s health faster than the mother’s health declines.

Like House’s usual initial efforts, Cuddy’s increasingly frantic attempts to rescue the baby and mother fail. However, Cuddy and Sloan agree on a last-ditch, and risky, procedure which succeeds. This gives them a chance to find out what is the baby’s root medical problem.

House is about to leave on vacation when Cuddy shows up at his apartment. She wants him to do in utero surgery to repair the baby’s lungs and save the lives of both baby and mother. Cuddy gets the door slammed in her face for her trouble, but a moment later, House emerges and they are off to the hospital.

It is very important to realize that as the climactic scene is about to unfold the viewer has already seen not only the child’s face on a full-color 4-D ultrasound but also computer animations showing what an active 21-week-old baby would look like. Even if everyone but Cuddy and Sloan is determined that an abortion is the only appropriate course of action, the audience is emotionally invested both in the baby and his brave 42-year-old mother, whom we’ve learned has endured several miscarriages.

Emma’s uterus containing her baby is removed, an incision made, and the amniotic fluid drained. As House is about to begin, the camera pans to a close-up of the child’s fingers reaching out. His tiny hand gently grazes House’s index finger–-and a clearly moved House softly caressing the baby’s hand in return.

House is transfixed. This “fetus” has just established very human contact with a man who prides himself on his objectivity. Cuddy softly tells him the problem has been repaired but House’s gaze remains fixed on the baby’s hand that he is so tenderly stroking. “House?” Cuddy says.

Just to make sure we don’t think House has turned into some mushy pro-lifer, he quietly comes back with a typical House retort: “It’s alright: I just realized I forgot to TiVo [the horror movie] ‘Alien.’”

Pro-lifers, of course, know that this is a virtual re-enactment of the in utero surgery performed on Samuel Armas, whose spina bifida was repaired by doctors at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Samuel’s extended hand grasping the surgeon’s finger was captured in Michael Clancy’s famous photo. (You can also see this at www.michaelclancy.com/story.html.)

Reading the House message board and e-mailing back and forth with friends, clearly everyone was immensely touched by the scene. But the ending is equally compelling in a different way.

House returns to his apartment. He tears up the plane tickets Cuddy bought for him, deciding not to take his planned vacation.

The last scene is House rubbing the tips of his fingers together, recalling the emotional connection he’d made with Emma’s baby boy, and Emma (months later) lovingly picking her son up out of his crib.

This has already gone on too long, so let me end with this. It is one thing to avert our gaze, to refuse to admit to the obvious when the obvious is not an everyday encounter. It is quite another when we can see the unborn in her full humanity and when (courtesy of in utero surgery) the child can be (as House put it) twice born.

If the soul of Dr. Gregory House can be stirred by such an encounter, then there is hope for anyone.

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