17 April 2014

The (Probably Unintentional) Pro-Life Message of Doctor Who

I've been rewatching Doctor Who, and I've just gotten to Series 2 of the relaunch. Following the Christmas special, the first episode is called "New Earth." David Tennant's Doctor and Billie Piper's Rose Tyler are visiting a re-formed planet Earth in the year five billion and twenty-three.

(Whew. If you haven't watched Doctor Who, I imagine this is going to sound super silly. If you haven't watched it and intend to, then what are you waiting for? Spoiler alert, in that case. But I'm not going to let it stop me because this episode aired in 2006. You've had eight years.)

The Doctor and Rose visit a hospital in New New York, which is staffed by what Wikipedia describes as "humanoid feline nurses" called the Sisters of Plenitude. The Doctor is astounded by the medical advances that have been made by the Sisters, as they have cured diseases that he knows not to have been cured for a while yet.


A lot goes on, as episodes of DW tend to go a bit manic sometimes, but it is revealed that the Sisters of Plenitude have been making their medical advances by breeding humans, intentionally infecting them, and then figuring out how to cure the diseases. When the Doctor finds out, he says of the patients, "They were born sick, they're meant to be sick. They exist to be sick: lab rats. No wonder the Sisters have got a cure for everything, they've built the ultimate research laboratory, a human farm."

One of the Sisters, Novice Hame, says by way of justification, "It's for the greater cause... They're not real people, they're specially grown. They have no proper existence." Furthermore, all they are is "flesh," and thousands of people are alive thanks to the cures developed using this method.

The Doctor is not having this: "These people are alive. If [the humans outside the hospital] live because of this, then life is worthless."

Every time I've seen this episode -- which is a lot, I'm kind of a Doctor Who junkie -- it has struck me anew that whether the producers meant it or not, this is a powerfully pro-life episode. How is the crime of the Sisters of Plenitude meaningfully different from fetal stem-cell research? Human embryos are harvested for medical research, and it is justified with the argument that it's all for the greater good, and that the quality of life is improved for "real" people, at the expense of farmed flesh which isn't really a person.

But that embryo is a person.

The bred humans of New Earth are regular humans who would lead regular human lives if given the chance. So too, embryos grow into fetuses (otherwise known as "babies"), which are born and grow into toddlers, children, tweens, teens, and eventually adults. Regular human adults who live regular human lives if given the chance. At no time during the development from fertilized ovum to adult is a person anything other than a person, and people are not test subjects (unless they give informed consent, as with legitimate medical trials).

Those harvested embryos are test subjects, stripped of their humanity except for what that humanity can do for our health.

And if we live because of this, then life is worthless.


  1. I have to admit, despite being quite the geeky gal, I've never seen an episode of Doctor Who. *GASP!* But this awesome post has me tempted to argue for a spot for it on the coveted "Netflix discs that are high enough on the list to ever actually get seen" list. Right after we finish the Office. And maybe Psych. Where do you suggest we start?

    And more seriously, beautiful parallel to embryonic stem cell research. Nice to meet you. :)

    1. Nice to meet you too!

      They rebooted the show in the mid-2000s. It's been on in Britain on and off since the 60s but I've only seen the modern ones (and indeed Netflix keeps them separate).

      I would recommend starting at the beginning with the Christopher Eccleston season (the Brits call them "series") but a word of warning: it starts off slowly. You might have to push through most of the first season before it gets really good.

      I've never been able to convert my husband into a Whovian because he just couldn't hang in there. :)

      Let me know how you like it! (And if you haven't gotten up to the episodes of The Office with Will Ferrell yet, just know that he's the worst thing ever to happen to a good show. Ugh.)

  2. So...I wrote up a nice little reply, but upon hitting publish, it appears to have disappeared into internet-nothingness. Since I don't have the wherewithal to re-type it all, let's suffice it to say that I said "thanks." And that I promise to try patience with that first season. And I think I mentioned something about my husband loving British shows and having just completed our Jeeves & Wooster collection. And about about Will Ferrell...ugh, indeed.