WHEN Emmerdale unveiled a new storyline about a couple terminating a pregnancy, after learning their baby has Down’s syndrome, it was always going to be controversial. But producers insist it’s an important story to tell - and will highlight the anguish of thousands of people in similar situations.

More than 23,000 people are reported to have signed a petition against the storyline, which starts this week, and charities and MPs have written to ITV bosses calling for it to be scrapped. Thousands of people, including parents of children with Down’s syndrome, have taken to social media to raise concerns.

The plot centres on Emmerdale’s Laurel Thomas and her partner Jai Sharma. After discovering that Laurel is pregnant, the couple look forward to their surprise baby, and completing their blended family, but the first scan reveals a possible chromosomal condition. After the couple have a CVS (chorionic villus sampling) test, which shows the baby has Down’s syndrome, they make the heartbreaking decision to terminate the pregnancy.

Charlotte Bellamy and Chris Bisson, who play Laurel and Jai, urge people to watch the show before forming an opinion.

“It wasn’t a planned pregnancy but they’re initially delighted, although Laurel is 46 and knows the risks,” says Charlotte. “She has already lost a child, (to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and she’s also an addict.

“You can see she feels guilt and shame, because that is what real people go through. Emmerdale deals with very emotive stories very well; we do a lot of research. I felt it was a huge responsibility to tell this story but I had no misgivings.”

Says Chris: “From the outset we knew this was an important story to tell. We cover all sides of the argument. Jai at the start is more keen to continue with the pregnancy. It’s about people understanding each other and the circumstances which lead them to make this decision.”

Emmerdale has worked with th the charity Antenatal Results and Choices (ARC) and Charlotte and Chris have spoken to parents who made the decision to terminate pregnancies. “It was essential that we spoke to them about what they’ve gone through,” says Charlotte. “So many couples go through this incredibly difficult time. Their story has to be heard. However painful these decisions are, people have to make them. It is difficult but important viewing.”

Chris says the research process brought about “some of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had”.

“It drove me to portray this character with honesty and integrity. These things do happen and it’s about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” he says. “I had a long conversation with the producers. I felt it was incredibly important that Jai’s concerns were articulated, and the male voice was heard in this.

“It’s very sensitively written. It’s not an easy watch but it’s important to watch. The ramifications will run for quite some time. This storyline will have implications on other characters, as well as on Laurel and Jai’s relationship. It puts enormous pressure on them; they are both addicts and any level of stress can push them back. Every couple has a unique set of circumstances informing their decision. This story explores the specific circumstances of these characters and their reasons for making their most difficult decision.”

He adds: “Many people feel strongly about this issue but the fact that it’s uncomfortable viewing shouldn’t mean we don’t do it. I’d encourage people to watch it before commenting.”

Viewers will see the impact on Laurel’s friend Rhona, who has a nine-year-old son with Down’s syndrome. “They are two mothers who made two choices,” says Charlotte. “We Rhona’s side, it’s very balanced. There’s no right or wrong.”

Jane Fisher, director of the Antenatal Results & Choices charity, which offers advice about antenatal screening, said she hopes the plot will raise understanding of situations that lead to such a termination: “It’s really important that people feel they can speak about this. Many are reticent because they fear judgement. They feel they don’t have permission to grieve the loss of their baby. At least 50,000 people take the decision to end their pregnancy after diagnosis, not all for Down’s syndrome. That’s an awful lot of families struggling with one of the most difficult situations they will ever face.”

“This storyline gives an insight into reality and complexity, it’s not a simplistic process. It’s about two people going through the most challenging period of their lives. Emmerdale have done all they can to present it in the best way possible, to raise understanding and awareness.”

Emmerdale producer Laura Shaw says: “One of our biggest concerns was that people with Down’s syndrome would be watching. We see Rhona and Marlon and the joy that their son Leo has brought to their lives. Some of the most powerful scenes we’ve ever filmed are with Laurel and Rhona. Rhona plays a huge part in this story.

“It isn’t about right or wrong. It’s about people making difficult decisions and they should be allowed to do that without being shamed.”

* Emmerdale is on ITV Monday to Friday, 7pm.