Viewers complain about Call The Midwife back-street abortion scene broadcast before watershedBBC


Viewers have complained about an episode of Call The Midwife that showed the terrifying and grim reality of back-street abortions in the 1950s.

A scene – broadcast on BBC1 before the watershed on Sunday – was regarded as so shocking that many voiced their concerns to both the broadcaster and the regulator.

It showed pregnant mum Nora Harding in her squalid two-bedroomed east London flat, struggling to cope with her out-of-work husband and eight young children. They are desperate for more space but the council refuses to upgrade them to a bigger property.

Mrs Harding is dismayed at the prospect of adding to her already struggling family and so enlists the help of a neighbour to perform the abortion, selling her wedding ring to pay for it.

The neighbour, a herbalist named Mrs Pritchard, arrives with a rubber sheet, which she rolls out on the kitchen table, and cloth-bound set of rusty tools.

Mrs Harding climbs onto on the make-shift gurney and lies on her back with her knees bent, writhing in pain. Throughout the procedure the camera repeatedly cuts to and from an unrelated scene in which one of the midwives, Trixie, is getting ready for a date.

Using sharp implements she files her nails and pushes back her cuticles, before painting blood-red varnish on top, which drips into pools on the floor.

The episode ends with Mrs Harding making a full recovery and moving to the country with her family to start a new life.

Critics have expressed concerns about children being exposed to the graphic scenes and said that it was not the right way to tackle such a serious issue. Complaints began being made after the show finished at 9pm and discussion boards were soon full of comments about the 'gross' and 'disgusting' content.

Sunday night's episode attracted 8.3 million viewers just shy of a series high of 9.3 million on January 20.

Margaret Morrissey of Parents Outloud said: "Broadcasters need to take responsibility and realise that children will have watched this, especially since it is half term week for a lot of schools around the country so they will have been up later.

"We all know that they [back alley abortions] happened and the problems that they caused but we don't need to view it on television.

"It's not that I think we should hide things or pretend they didn't happen but I just think that sometimes it is something that needs to be told in the context of a different situation to a television programme.

"It's something children will learn about, but during school education in an informed way, not on television in a graphic way."

A BBC spokesman defended the drama, saying: "Call The Midwife is inspired by the reality of East End life in the 1950s and prior to the legalisation of abortion, back street terminations were a documented phenomenon.

"Call The Midwife has never shied away from the tough conditions and difficult decisions made by pregnant women throughout this era and the series has become a critical and popular success thanks to its frank and honest approach."

And the BBC was defended by Natika Halil, Director of Information for sexual health charity FPA.

She said: "Back-street abortion is shocking and upsetting but this was the grim reality for women in Britain before abortion became legal in 1967.

"While it can be difficult to read or watch, the issue mustn't be airbrushed. Some women died and many others suffered terrible health conditions as a result and this reminds us of a situation we must never go back to."

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