Charities are calling the exclusion “stigmatising”
In a recent episode of Call The Midwife, Jeannie found herself pregnant. Sure, for a show centred on a maternity ward, it’s not exactly an extraordinary storyline, but there was something a little different to how the women in Call The Midwife usually react to the news of their new baby. Because Jeannie already had two children, and she did not want a third, she chose to have an abortion.
However, as the show is set in the 1960s – before the enactment of the 1967 Abortion Act – getting a doctor’s approval wasn’t as simple as it should have been. Back then doctors could refuse an abortion on the grounds that a baby could be born alive, and this is exactly what happened to Jeannie. Faced with no other options and a healthcare system that wouldn’t help her, she visited a “backstreet” clinic and underwent the procedure illegally. She later died from an infection.
Following the broadcast, the BBC provided information of their Action Line website - a list of services and articles designed to help any viewers who may have found the issues explored in the show distressing. However, those who visited the website found absolutely no information surrounding abortion and when asked why, the BBC claimed that abortion was a “controversial” subject and may “imply the BBC supported one side or the other.”
“Abortion is not a “contentious issue”– it is a routine part of NHS-funded healthcare, provided by doctors, nurses, and midwives every day in hospitals and clinics across the country,” reads an open letter sent to the BBC by a group of charities and women’s health groups who contest the organisation’s decision to not provide abortion information.
“In barring information the BBC is in effect “supporting one side” by treating abortion as different to all the other medical procedures and conditions the BBC choses to include,” continues the letter. “This is highly stigmatising for the healthcare professionals we represent and the women we care for.”
According to NHS stats, one in three women will undergo an abortion in their lifetime and even though terminations under certain circumstances have been legal in most parts of the UK for over 50 years, many women still seek out illegal procedures thanks to difficulties accessing services. This is extremely prevalent in Northern Ireland, where abortion is still illegal - women seeking a termination often spend hundreds of pounds travelling to the UK, or seek out other, potentially dangerous methods, such as the at-home abortion pill.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), along with other women’s health bodies such as Marie Stopes, are calling on the BBC to change its mind about providing relevant, vital information surrounding abortion. They are asking Call The Midwife viewers and pro-choice people to complain about the exclusion of information via the BBC’s official complaints procedure.
The letter has had a positive reaction on Twitter, with many people joining BPAS in asking the BBC to provide information about abortions. MP Jess Philips pointed out the corporation’s pay gap as a real point of contention, as opposed to their stance on abortion:
Former chief executive of Women’s Aid, Polly Neate, also joined in with the condemnation writing that by refusing to publish such information the BBC are taking a stance on one side of the argument:
Call The Midwife has been a brilliant conduit for discussions of more serious topics ever since it first aired in 2012, and this is not the first time it has tackled women’s reproductive rights. In fact, there are now four episodes in which women undergo illegal abortions and then face drastic – sometimes deadly – consequences. For the BBC to air such important stories is brilliant and important, but it must recognise the responsibility it has to those watching. Because for a lot of women, those decisions and potentially fatal risks aren’t just actors on a screen - it’s real life.