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Emmerdale Down’s syndrome abortion storyline dubbed ‘insulting and offensive’

19 November 2020
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An upcoming storyline in the ITV soap Emmerdale has incited widespread criticism from the Down’s syndrome community.

The storyline features Emmerdale characters Laurel and Jai making the devastating decision to abort their baby after finding out there is a chance it could have Down’s syndrome.

Plot­line per­petu­ates embed­ded pre­ju­dice’ towards people with Down’s syndrome

Many in the Down's syndrome community have criticised the producers’ decision to go ahead with the storyline.

Rachel Mewes, who has a child with Down’s syndrome, launched the campaign against the soap opera. She said,

“I have a child with Down’s syndrome. She’s called Betsy. She is three years old and my absolute world. I consider Emmerdale writing this storyline to influence the masses as a perpetuation of the embedded prejudice towards people with Down’s syndrome that is a huge problem in our culture.”
Rachel Mewes

Hazel Toal, who describes herself as pro-choice, has a daughter with Down’s syndrome and is involved in the charity Wouldn’t Change a Thing, which challenges stereotypes of people with the condition.

She said, “My heart breaks because when this storyline runs, people with Down’s syndrome will watch this and wonder why they’re terminating a baby like them.”

She highlights the role that negative stereotypes of disability plays in termination decision-making, stating that “one of the biggest reasons people terminate is because of poor information.”

Wendy O’Carroll, who founded the charity Ups and Downs, also criticised the producers in an open letter:

“Your proposed story will further serve to encourage and confirm the opinion that ending the life of a baby just because it has Down syndrome is perfectly acceptable and understandable because maybe it would be better if fewer people ‘like them’ were in the world.”
Wendy O’Carroll Founder of Ups and Downs

Sarah Costerton, a Christian with a child with Down’s syndrome, described how having a child with Down’s syndrome had enriched her life and given her a community — something that is completely missed in the Emmerdale storyline:

“Our lives are richer and more full for having Beth. The best friends that I have, have all come since having Beth - she's introduced me to some wonderful people and it's a wonderful community to be part of and I can't help thinking that the people in Emmerdale, and this poor couple who have a dreadful life when you read their backstory, would thrive having a child with Down syndrome because they would find people will rally and will support them. And that's what we find; we're part of an amazing community.”
Sarah Costerton

Cam­paign launched in protest

A petition calling on the producers to cancel the show has now been signed over 23,000 times, demonstrating the strength of feeling amongst many that the storyline should not go ahead.

One MP even wrote to Dame Carolyn McCall, Chief Executive of ITV, calling on her to intervene to drop the story before the 30th November, when it is due to be broadcast.

Pro­du­cers did not get bal­anced view of Down’s syn­drome beforehand

The producers argue the episode is ‘well researched and sensitively written’ and believe they ‘consulted widely’ before going ahead — speaking to medical professionals, people with lived experience, and the organisation Antenatal Results and Choices (ARC).

However, they have been criticised for not seeking a more balanced view of life with the condition, such as neglecting to consult with Down’s Syndrome Association.

They didn’t talk to any charities or organisations for people with Down’s syndrome to find out about their lives.”, argues Hazel Toal.

Sarah Costerton also points out that ARC previously existed purely to help parents who had already made a decision to terminate, and are therefore not 'impartial'.

Time to chal­lenge Britain’s dis­crim­in­at­ory abor­tion law

Last year, there were 656 abortions for babies who were said to have a chance of having Down’s syndrome.

The Sunday Times reported that the numbers of babies being born with the condition also dropped by 30 per cent, following the introduction of more accurate antenatal screening.

With a case soon to be heard in the High Court challenging Britain’s discriminatory abortion law, producers could soon find themselves falling foul of equality law if they continue to make storylines that perpetuate discrimination against people with disabilities.

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