Emmerdale’s Charlotte Bellamy has urged viewers to wait until they have watched all of the episodes before they judge the soap’s latest Down’s syndrome storyline.
The 47-year-old actress’s character Laurel Thomas and partner Jai Sharma (Chris Bisson) are set to terminate their pregnancy after a test reveals their unborn child has Down's syndrome.
The announcement of the upcoming storyline has sparked upset on social media among Down’s syndrome campaigners and community.
Bellamy told ITV’s Lorraine: “Of course it’s going to cause huge debate and it’s a highly emotive subjective.
“I think it’s important to say Emmerdale aren’t making judgments or taking sides and we urge people to watch all of these episodes before making judgments.”
The mother-of-three – who has been in the ITV soap since 2002 – said: “With any issue-based story, Emmerdale are always so thorough with their research. It was fundamental for me to speak to families who are affected by this. It’s been humbling and very insightful for me and helpful, so I can portray this as truthfully as I can.”
Bellamy also said that Emmerdale gave a “balanced view” pointing out that Rhona Goskirk’s son Leo Goskirk was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome before he was born and has appeared in the soap as a positive portrayal of families living with the condition since 2011.
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Laura Shaw, the series producer for the soap, said: "We're confident that what we've produced has been done in a really balanced and sensitive way.
"We haven't gone into this blindly, we've spoken to as many people as we possibly can. We've got the research, this is based on real life, and I think people will see that.
"You're going to feel uncomfortable at times watching it, but I hope that people will then, as they watch it, understand why we've done it."
She added: "I'm sure we'll get some mixed reactions, I'm well aware that it's a hugely emotive subject. But I do honestly think that once everyone has watched the episodes play out, they're going to feel huge sympathy for what an impossible and difficult choice these couples face, and an understanding.
"And what you'll see through Jai and Laurel's story is how that decision goes on to affect their lives for years to come."
The producers worked with Antenatal Results and Choices (ARC) on developing the storyline.
Jane Fisher, director of ARC, said: "I think it's really important that people can speak about this, not that they must, because for many people this is a very painful and private experience.
“And that's fine, they may not want to talk about it openly. But they need to know that they can, and at the moment many people feel reticent to talk about what's happened to them because they fear judgment."
Fisher said some parents who do opt for an abortion "very sadly don't feel they have permission to grieve for the baby they've lost, because they feel implicated in that loss".
But some viewers are already upset to learn Laurel and Jai’s will decide to terminate the pregnancy.
An online petition to cancel the storyline at change.org already has over 16,000 signatures.
Retired British athlete Nicola Sanders tweeted: “Worrying story line for members of the DS community who work v hard to rid society of outdated stereotypes around Down’s Syndrome. I support choice but having a storyline like this just reinforces the thinking that this is the only way.”
Tim Reid, the co-creator and co-writer of Car Share, commented: "Dear Emmerdale, are you confident you've tackled this story in a way your audience with Down's syndrome deserve? Have you taken the same approach you would if characters were choosing to end a pregnancy for reason of gender, race or physical disability?"
She writes: “Have you considered for even a moment, how children and adults with Down Syndrome who follow your programme will react to two of their favourite characters discovering excitedly that they are to have a baby, and then deciding to terminate the life of that child because it has Down’s syndrome?”
The Down's Syndrome Association, who have not been involved with the storyline, said in a statement: "The DSA can provide balanced and up-to-date information about Down's syndrome for anyone in Laurel and Jai's position.
"We would encourage anyone in this situation to contact our confidential helpline to talk with our trained staff for non-directive information and support."
People with Down's syndrome are born with an extra chromosome – causing learning disabilities, issues with physical growth development and often congenital heart defects.
Around 40,000 people in the UK have Down’s syndrome, and life expectancy for people with the condition is now 50 to 60-years-old.
It's thought about 90% of people in the UK who know their child will be born with Down's syndrome choose to terminate.
Watch: TikTok star challenges Down's Syndrome stereotypes