Abortion on Trial: how we tackled one of the most polarising topics of our time

"This is a film which is not designed to have all the answers – it's a film designed to generate discussion, debate and conversation," says BBC commissioning editor Fatima Salaria

abortion-on-trial

By Fatima Salaria: Commissioning Editor for Religion & Ethics at BBC Factual Television

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Over a year ago, we began to think about how we could mark the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act. We spoke to many production teams but it was a conversation with Raw Television that really sparked my imagination.

Their initial idea for Abortion on Trial (BBC2, 9pm on 16 October) was bold and simple: to gather together a group of people with strong views who had direct experience of abortion to discuss the law and whether it was fit for purpose in 2017.

We instantly felt this was the right approach – a film which would grapple with the present as well as the history of the act itself. And remarkably, we discovered that what we were attempting to do was unique: to take the discussion on abortion outside of newsrooms and debate shows and to hear often visceral stories of people whose decision to have an abortion had affected their entire lives.

We all felt passionately from the off that we needed a strong journalist to anchor the film and to guide the contributors and the audience through the very many complexities of the subject and the nuances of the law itself.

It’s a huge privilege that Anne Robinson agreed to take on this role – her rigour, her bravery and her honesty are in the film’s very DNA. Anne is not only at her journalistic best here but was prepared to be incredibly candid about her own personal experience of abortion. She offered up her own home for us to film the documentary – in the hope our participants would be able to speak openly in a warm, relaxed environment. That offer entirely changes the tone and nature of this film.

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Over one weekend, these nine people, guided by Anne, explore each facet of the law in detail and meet campaigners, medical experts and politicians to hear their views on abortion. Some of those who participated feel that abortion is wrong in any circumstances; some think that abortion is right when the mother’s life is at risk or when a severe handicap is detected in the womb; others want abortion to be entirely decriminalised.

The other key aspect of this film is the ICM poll we conducted. It is the most comprehensive poll ever taken in the UK on Britain’s attitudes to abortion. The results are both insightful and surprising – suggesting a lack of understanding from many people polled around the laws governing abortion. It is surprising that findings from the poll suggest that 69% of Britons incorrectly think that abortion is currently completely legal if the woman requests it – proving that this is a topic that requires more open debate and discussion.

Perhaps this could be because abortion continues to be one of the most taboo subjects of our time, with polarised views and heartfelt opinions on both sides of the debate.

The women and men who took part in this programme were very courageous about telling their stories – and I would like to thank them. It’s a project that I am particularly proud to have helped bring to the screen. I wanted the film to be ambitious, thought-provoking and impartial. It has gone beyond my initial expectations: it is compassionate, emotional, informative, surprising and I hope people of all opinions can find something of value in it.

This is a film which is not designed to have all the answers – it’s a film designed to generate discussion, debate and conversation.

Fatima Salaria is Commissioning Editor for Religion & Ethics at BBC Factual Television

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Abortion on Trial airs on Monday 16th October at 9pm on BBC2