The Knick’s two characters whose Irish accents haven’t faded, Sister Harriet and Cleary, have an almost romantic comedy vibe. She’s a nun who runs the orphanage connected to the titular hospital; he’s an ambulance driver. Other than their accents, they have in common frequent smoke breaks and a vocal hatred for one another. He reads her as judgmental because she doesn’t like him; he’s constantly sexually harassing her, and there seems to be no depth to the unseemliness he’ll get involved in. He’s also the only person at the hospital who knows that she performs abortions, in violation of federal law as of 1900, when the series takes place.
At the top of the series’ fourth episode, “Where’s the Dignity?,” Cleary leaves a bar with a sack of live rats for another man to fight in an underground rat-baiting ring. When he next runs into Sister Harriet, she asks why he’s been so hostile to her lately – more so than usual. He reveals that he knows that she’s performing abortions: “You are what you are. You defy God, and you kill his creations.” He’s disgusted that a woman of faith would perform abortions, but not so disgusted that he’s above blackmailing her: from now on, he’ll bring women to her for 60% of what she makes. Then the show does something I’ve almost never seen on TV: It makes a moral argument for the necessity of safe abortions.
The A-story of The Knick, if it can be said to have one, revolves around the medical advances being made by the doctors, primarily Thackery and Edwards – Thackery’s been struggling to successfully perform a C-section. In the pilot, he fails, and mother and baby both die within minutes. At the time, maternal mortality rates from pregnancy and delivery-related maladies were almost 1%.
Later in “Where’s the Dignity?”, Cleary brings a woman to The Knick who’s bleeding profusely. In the operating theater, Sister Harriet immediately identifies where the puncture was likely made, based on her experience of women performing their own abortions. Cleary watches as Dr. Thackery tries and fails to save her life, and immediately begins using the corpse to perform medical experiments. “We’ll find a use for her,” he assures another (male) doctor, and Sister Harriet and the nurse exchange a Look. In the morgue, the hospital manager, Barrow, eyes her body, hoping to sell it and pay down some of his debt, until he’s interrupted by Cleary, who’s ready to bury her, and is bigger. “Do you have any idea what the going price is for a fresh body these days?” Barrow begs. Cleary just stares him down, then steals the woman’s necklace.
Outside, Sister Harriet is having a well-deserved cigarette. Cleary interrupts her and tells her he’d like to show her something: the makeshift graveyard where they bury the bodies of patients without families. That was Cleary’s first job in America, he explains, and he’s seen more than his share of women dead from botched abortions:
“The look in that girl’s eyes, the terror. That was too much, even for me.”
“Now you know why I do what I do for these girls!” she insists.
“Don’t go justifying your baby-murdering. I still don’t like it. But I won’t see another girl bleeding to death and winding up here.”
They agree, now, to the partnership (still a 60/40 split, because, he explains, she’s got a better shot in the next life and he needs the help in this one), and say a prayer over the body of the woman who could have used Sister Harriet’s services.
I’ve watched a few shows with portrayals of abortions – I’ve seen shows where characters get abortions, and ones where characters have miscarriages instead. Some of them deal with the moral question an individual faces. What I’ve rarely seen on television is a morality play about why we need abortions to be safe and accessible – always have, always will.
I’ve heard from doctors who provides late-term abortions that a challenge of the job is that, for some of them, the procedure can be emotionally difficult. They’re secure and confident in the work they do, but they don’t have an outlet to express things that bother them without feeling like they’re fueling anti-choice rhetoric. Here on The Knick we see the conversion of a character who doesn’t like abortion, realizing how important it is to provide. And a nun is the one who convinces him of its ultimately moral necessity. As she explains in the first season’s finale to a woman to whom she’s giving an abortion, “Don’t you worry, it’s safe.”