There are few topics as delicate or contentious today as abortion. From Donald Trump’s global gag rule, which sparked international outrage earlier this year, to Ireland’s forthcoming referendum on whether to repeal its abortion ban in 2018, it is one of the most polarising issues of our time.
It is quite a feat, therefore, to bring together nine people with conflicting views on abortion – eight of whom have had the procedure – and host an insightful discussion that doesn’t result in a shouting match. But Anne Robinson has triumphed in doing just that with her new BBC2 documentary: Abortion on Trial.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act, Robinson – who had an abortion herself many years ago – invited the group of eight women and one man to spend a weekend at her Gloucestershire home and discuss whether the 1967 law is fit for purpose in 2017.
As it turns out, Robinson’s country house is the ultimate “safe space” (for want of a less clichéd term) in which to share stories and views about abortion. “Hello, welcome, I’m Annie,” smiles Robinson through her fringe as she opens the door, in a totally different guise to the tough, no-nonsense persona we all feared on Weakest Link. While on the quiz show Robinson’s raison d’être was to embarrass contestants and make them feel foolish, here she is warm and caring without a shred of judgement.
At Robinson’s home, the participants help lay the table, eat together and pile onto the sofa hip-to-hip to engage in a candid discussion with people they have directly opposing views to. Guests of Question Time, take note.
And it is the candour in this documentary that is the most striking, not to mention moving. There is a real range of voices, including Mo who has had three abortions, the first of which was after sexual abuse when she was underage, Rachel who has had two abortions but believes that she “murdered” her children, and Lee who feels grief after his ex-partner terminated her pregnancy with his child. Robinson herself talks openly about her abortion in 1968: the fear, confusion and Catholic shame that she felt and “the most terrible black doom” that descended on her for months afterwards.
Some of the stories are visceral. Alice shares her experience of having a non-surgical abortion and taking two pills designed to induce a miscarriage. The current law requires women to take the pills at a clinic and go home to await the induced miscarriage, but long journey times can mean the miscarriage begins in transit. For Alice, after swallowing the second pill at the clinic, she began to miscarry on public transport. In the film she recounts the horror and pain of rushing to a café toilet and miscarrying in there, while members of the public knocked on the door, impatient for her to hurry up. After hearing this, the majority of the group agreed that the pill should be made available for women to take at home.
While Abortion on Trial does lean heavily in favour of the pro-choice camp and lays out very convincing arguments for the complete decriminalisation of abortion, it also gives the much-villianised pro-life side a voice and helps to illustrate the nuances of the debate. The film poses questions like: how late in the term is too late to have an abortion, if at all? Should there be a limit on how many abortions one woman can have? How can a man have a fair say in what his partner does with her body? As BBC commissioning editor Fatima Salaria tells us: “This is a film which is not designed to have all the answers – it’s a film designed to generate discussion, debate and conversation.”
We need more shows like it. Some issues are better discussed over a cup of tea by the fire than in the news room or debate show studios. Perhaps it’s time for David Dimbleby to have people over to his digs.
Abortion on Trial is on Monday 16th October at 9pm on BBC2