Shortland Street slammed by Down syndrome community

Members of New Zealand's Down syndrome community say they are "appalled" by an "insensitive and ignorant" recent Shortland Street storyline.

But the show's broadcaster TVNZ and production company South Pacific Pictures are defending it.

In the soap opera, couple Zoe Carlson and Chris Warner discovers their unborn baby is likely to have Down syndrome.

"The word 'abortion' was used straight away and that's very confronting and offending to people with Down syndrome, and their parents," says Kim Porthouse, a spokesperson for the New Zealand Down Syndrome Association (NZDSA).

In the show, Warner says the genetic disorder will mean the child suffers severe medical issues that "will crush" Carlson.

"These inflammatory statements are incredibly ill-informed and coming from a doctor it just reinforces a lot of the prejudice that having a child with Down syndrome is a burden," says Mrs Porthouse.

A joint statement from TVNZ and South Pacific Pictures says the show is "known for tackling a range of challenging issues that face New Zealanders today, and we know this is one of them.

"We realise that not everyone will agree with every choice we make, but we always appreciate when people come to us to share their feedback."

The statement also says that the storyline will evolve further and should not be judged just from the initial statements by Warner.

But the NZDSA says many people with Down syndrome are Shortland Street fans and they've already been hurt.

"They are offended," says Mrs Porthouse.

"A lot of our young people with Down syndrome absolutely love Shortland Street and suddenly one of their heroes tells them their families would have been better off without them."

The issue of screening pregnant women for Down syndrome is an extremely sensitive social and cultural issue, says the NZDSA.

"We don't challenge the free choice of women, we do hope New Zealand will not follow the path of other countries, where the state and medical profession have actively encouraged the termination of fetuses with Down syndrome," says Mrs Porthouse.

"There are countries like Iceland that are reaching 100 percent termination rates. We think that is a real negative for society and we hope New Zealand doesn't go that way."

The NZDSA says that TVNZ replied to its complaint about the storyline, saying it had "consulted with medical advisors".

However, the network refused to put contact details for the NZDSA at the end of episodes that featured the Down syndrome storyline.

In the TVNZ and South Pacific Pictures statement, the companies say "we don’t think a special viewer guidance message is called for right now".