Plenty of true stories are adapted for television and one of the most widely acclaimed of the last few years is the BAFTA-winning drama Three Girls. Discussing the 2012 child grooming and sexual abuse scandal in Rochdale, the series was praised for its deeply affecting story and impact in raising awareness of trafficking in the public eye.
Based on the real-life experiences of three women, the two-part drama explores how access to safe pregnancy termination was denied to so many before the historic decriminalisation in 2019. Not that it shies away from the barriers to abortion which remain in place for many.
Set in 2015, main character Theresa (Sinéad Keenan) is a part-time hairdresser and mother to a 15-year-old daughter and infant son. Her eldest, Orla (Lola Petticrew), stressed about her school exams, eventually reveals she's pregnant.
Panicked, the pair discuss the options available but without legal access to safe abortion procedures, they struggle. Elsewhere, we meet Hannah (Amy James-Kelly) and Jonathan (Colin Morgan), newlyweds who are desperate to start a family. After months of trying, Hannah eventually becomes pregnant but when a 20-week scan reveals a fatal foetal abnormality, the couple's world is turned on its head.
We also meet 40-year-old Rosie (Genevieve O’Reilly), who returns home to Northern Ireland when she finds out she is having a baby with her husband David (Prasanna Puwanarajah). 'Geriatric' pregnancy scans reveal the devastating news that the baby has a rare, life-threatening disorder, leaving the couple with a difficult decision to make.
By introducing a cast of women in diverse situations, Three Families shows the multitude of ways in which depriving women of legal abortions is a violation of basic human rights. With choice-based and wellbeing-based terminations both up for discussion, the series debunks criteria-based debates, proving that the circumstances leading to an individual abortion are never more or less valid than someone else's.
Often we centre the United States when it comes to pro-life vs pro-choice debates but Three Families is a reminder that the issue is a lot closer to home than some may think. From protesters outside Marie Stopes clinics to strict religious beliefs shaping viewpoints, the parallels between the two countries are drawn eerily clearly.
Though it's certainly a heavy watch, Three Families does the important job of showing how reproductive rights continue to be a source of contention. The Act that criminalised abortion in Northern Ireland may have been repealed in 2019 but a recent Stormont vote proves that politicians in the country are still trying to restrict access to safe abortions. While the new 2020 framework allows lawful abortion to take place at up to 12 weeks, Amnesty International has cited the existence of a postcode lottery, with abortion clinics in some areas shutting down due to lack of resources, leaving many without access to services.
This might feel a world away from the experiences of the rest of the UK but, shockingly, abortion is still criminalised in England, Scotland and Wales. As R29 UK's #ImACriminal campaign highlighted, the 1967 Abortion Act legalised abortion under certain conditions but it did not overturn the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, specifically sections 58 and 59, which mean that abortion is still – technically – a criminal offence. This means that while abortions can be freely and legally accessed in Britain, abortion remains a legal matter rather than a health issue in the eyes of the law.
Three Families successfully illuminates how the UK failed the women of Northern Ireland by excluding them from the 1967 legislation update. With moving performances, the miniseries shows the never-ending reasons why someone may choose to have an abortion and handles each individual story with sensitivity and care – just as it should be handled in the real world. Honest, timely and raw, the series is a stark reminder of history's failings and of how far we still have to go until all women have the right to choose.
Three Families airs on Monday 10th May and Tuesday 11th May on BBC One.