An Emmerdale actress whose character will abort a child following a pre-natal diagnosis has defended the soaps decision to use the plotline.
Laurel Thomas, played by Charlotte Bellamy, and her on-screen partner Jai Sharma, played by Chris Bisson, will learn that their unborn baby has Down syndrome before deciding to terminate the pregnancy.
Speaking on Lorraine, Ms Bellamy said she felt "humbled" after her experience spending time with families that have "been affected by this".
She said: "Of course it's going to cause huge debate and its a highly emotive subject and I think it's important to say Emmerdale aren't making judgements, they aren't taking sides, we just urge people to watch all of these episodes before they make a judgement."
She added: "Soaps are at their most potent when they deal with very, very difficult stories and I think it's important that soaps don't shy away from them."
The decision to include the storyline has come under some criticism from charities and parents of children with Down syndrome.
Wendy O'Carroll, the founder of support charity Ups and Downs Southwest, voiced her concerns in an open letter to Emmerdale shared on Facebook where she pleaded with the producers to reconsider their decision.
She said: "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 Syndrome?
"Can you imagine these young people and adults, turning to the person or family they are watching with and asking “Why are they going to do that to their baby, because their baby is like me?”
She said the number of people who decide to abort their child after discovering they have Down syndrome was already "heartbreakingly high" around "90%-95%."
Producer Laura Shaw said she is “sure as we do with all story lines, we will get some mixed reactions”.
“I’m well aware it’s a hugely emotive subject but I do honestly think that once everyone has watched the episodes play out, they are going to come away with a huge sympathy for what an impossibly difficult choice these couples face,” she said.
“What you will see from Jai and Laurel’s story is how that decision will go on to affect their lives for years to come.”
Shaw added: “People are going to have some really strong views but I guess that’s what makes it such an important story to tell.”
She said the story is not about “right or wrong” but instead is about “people taking really, really difficult decisions and that they should be allowed to do that without living in fear of being judged or shamed”.
Jane Fisher, director of the Antenatal Results & Choices charity, which offers advice about antenatal screening, said she hoped the plot would encourage people not to think about abortion as a taboo subject.
“I think it’s really important that people can speak about it, it’s not that they must because for many people this is a very personal and painful and private experience and that’s fine, they may not want to talk about it,” she said.
“But they need to know that they can and I think at the moment we are in a situation where many people feel very reticent to talk about what’s happened to them.”
The storyline will air on the ITV soap over the winter.