Hazel McHaffie

Infertility

Father to thirty?!

Wow! The garden has gone from nought to sixty in one fell swoop. Everything is burgeoning and sprouting and bursting into colour, the birdsong has racheted up to symphony standard, the sunshine exceeding the benefits of any pharmacological tonic.

I’ve been alternating writing indoors with reading outside (when I’ve not been weeding and pruning and artistically directing, or course!) and loving the exhilaration of both. So it’s probably not surprising that, surrounded by all this new life and activity, my mind instantly latched onto a report about a different form of creation: babies.

This week it’s been revealed that a diminishing number of sperm donors are fathering eye-watering numbers of children. Now, as long ago as sixteen years (can it really be?!) I wrote a novel about the risks of this phenomenon: Paternity, so it’s a subject I’ve thought about long and hard. But even for me the statistics were like a cold water douche.

Figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) show that, in a period of 24 years (1991-2015):
17 British men have fathered at least 30 babies each,
a further 104 have fathered between 20 and 29,
1,557 between 10 and 19,
and more than 6,000 have created up to 9 babies.

Though these men are offering hope to many many childless women/couples, huge risks are inherent in such practices. Obvious ones are passing on undetected hereditary diseases and risks, and half-brothers and -sisters forming sexual relationships and procreating together. Donated sperm are currently tested for diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, CJD, Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis, but not for genes indicating increased risk of cancers or Altzheimer’s. In the face of the latest statistics, campaigners are calling for more stringent enhanced screening to try to reduce the incidence of faulty genes being passed on, but representatives from the world of assisted conception caution that further screening could reduce the number of donors coming forward or being deemed eligible to donate, already worryingly low.

Research in this area is complicated, not only by the powerful emotions and opinions and ethics around infertility, but also by the fact that sometimes the full consequences of what is permitted in this area are not fully apparent until a generation or more has gone by – which is why I felt compelled to write a sequel to Paternity: Double Trouble. And once you start tinkering with genes it can be impossible to repair any damage done.

So, what d’you think? Just how much control or interference should there be? What are the rights and interests of the babies as well as the parents, donors and recipients? What makes a man a father? Which diseases are worse than non-existence? Who decides?

Now there’s a little package of ethical conundrums to conjure with while you watch birds and animals multiplying prolifically all around you! Welcome to my world!

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The Handmaid’s Tale

Dare I confess to watching a TV adaptation before reading the book? Tut, tut, tut. I know, I know. I should have found the time to read it first, but, hey, I didn’t. Well, the subject matter appealed and my tbr pile is already threatening to topple over so what choice did I have?

The title in question? The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985. It’s an iconic novel, sold in its millions, never out of print, and it’s just caught the eye of the multitudes again. Sales of the book are reputed to be up 880% on last year! I can believe it. The Handmaid's Tale trailer

Because the tale has just been serialised over the past ten Sunday evenings on Channel 4 and much hyped.

So was it all it was cracked up to be? Well, it’s a dystopian near-future look at an American community in a place called Gilead run along fundamentalist puritan religious lines. Pollution has rendered millions of women sterile, and officials are assigning fertile young ones to the high-ranking men – known as commanders – to bear them children. These brainwashed nubile females are all dressed alike in all-enveloping russet red habits and starched white wimpoles. Everyone is obsessed by one thing: conception. It hangs over everything; creeps into every exchange. From the robotically repeat greetings – Praise be; Blessed be the fruit; May the Lord open – to the common knowledge of the girls’ optimal fertility days.

But in spite of their unique value to the community, the handmaids themselves are hedged about with prohibitions, so repressed that they are even named as possessions of the commanders. Offred (literally ‘of-Fred’) is the narrator (played by Elisabeth Moss), and we are party to her rebellious thoughts as she goes through the motions of sexual servitude.

The act of impregnation in Gilead is known as The Ceremony. It takes the form of a sort of carefully ritualised threesome with the commander methodically doing his best to ejaculate into the handmaid at the lower end of the bed (state-sanctioned rape in essence) at one remove from his wife who cradles the handmaid’s head in her lap and watches the action apparently impassively from the other end. All based on the Old Testament account of Bilhah Rachel’s handmaid bearing children for Jacob ‘between the knees’ of her barren mistress.

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.
 And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.
And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her.
And Bilhah conceived, and bare Jacob a son.
And Rachel said, God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son: therefore called she his name Dan.   (Genesis 30 vv1-6)

A taser-wielding, severe ‘Aunt Lydia’ keeps the coven of girls in subservience and trains them in their role, meting out dracronian punishments one minute, shedding hot tears for the girls she protects the next; and the legal wives ensure the handmaids definitely don’t get ideas above their station. They have one purpose and one purpose alone – as baby incubators for the ruling elite. Even a failure to conceive warrants horrible repercussions. And given the high likelihood that the commander is himself sterile, and the certainty that his wife is, it’s particularly hard to swallow. The tension is palpable, and only increased when the commander sends for one of them, or someone looks at them suggestively, or betrays an illicit emotion. The penalties for stepping out of line are barbaric – torture, eyes gouged out, beatings, hands hacked off, stoning, genital mutilation, even death by hanging or radiation sickness. Small wonder perhaps that the handmaids, with so much emotion suppressed, the victims of so much injustice, turn into raving vengeful murderers when they are licensed to punish a rapist. Making their later loyalty to each other when they have a collective opportunity to punish one of their own the more poignant.

And outside these baby-making homes, ominous black figures lurk and patrol, black cars with blackened windows glide into strategic positions, and the black shadow of something sinister hovers. Who can be trusted? Who is really in control?

It’s compulsive viewing although the violence and inhumanity in places left me feeling quite disturbed. And the horror of what’s really going on strikes forcibly when ‘Gilead’s children’ are paraded in front of a foreign delegation to demonstrate the effectiveness of this whole arrangement. I won’t spoil it by revealing more.

At once sobering and challenging but eerily perhaps, less unbelievable right now than in 1985 when Attwood dreamed it up. Why?

Because there are echoes of such a scenario in the news this past week in real life: reports of seriously diminishing sperm counts (down c50% since the 70s) resulting from a variety of sources in our environment and lifestyles (chemicals, pesticides, stress, obesity, tight underpants); figures that come from studies tracking 40,000 men. Couple this with the modern trend towards waiting till women are in their 30s to start a family and you’re looking into a future that looks suspiciously like Gilead! Or does it?

And then there are the chilling similarities to the forced marriages and honour killings countenanced by certain rigidly fundamentalist communities in this country today … Shivers run up and down the spine watching dozens of hands reaching for stones …

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the research reports, or the limits to real-life parallels, the lessons within the novel do challenge us today. Are we ‘too busy to stand against sin’? How far would we go to have a child? How much are we doing to protect our fertility, our race, human kind, our world? Difficult but relevant questions which make the story linger long after the credits have faded from the screen. Thanks, Margaret Atwood.

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Giving up the Ghost

Knitting and bookMay, chez nous, is a month of concerted efforts to raise money for several charities close to my heart. I’m hoping to keep the new novel simmering gently, but plans are in hand for assorted foodie events and sales and door-to-door collecting and creating goods to sell, as well. The knitting needles are already clacking ten to the dozen, at the same time as I reduce the size of my tbr pile of books. Happy days!

I won’t bore you with the domestic saga but all you bookworms and thinkers might well be interested in the reading. First up was an autobiography which proved fascinating.

Hilary Mantell has become a household name: the only woman to win the Man Booker prize twice, a prolific writer, reputedly one of the greatest living literary authors. But she’s arrived at this reputation, this successful place, through much tribulation. Giving up the Ghost: a Memoir is her own story, written back in 2003, not ‘to solicit any special sympathy’, she says, after all, many other people have survived far worse and never committed anything to paper. Rather it was an attempt ‘to take charge of the story of my childhood and my childlessness’; to lay a few ghosts to rest – the ghosts of past relations, past mistakes, the ghosts of her own unborn children. It was never intended to tell her whole story, and it doesn’t.

As a youngster ‘Ilary’ was weighed down by the burdens of her Catholic indoctrination: ‘You grow up believing that you’re wrong and bad. And for me, because I took what I was told really seriously, it bred a very intense habit of introspection and self-examination and a terrible severity with myself. So that nothing was ever good enough. It’s like installing a policeman, and one moreover who keeps changing the law.’  Her whole world was distorted through the lens of a perpetual guilt that started within five minutes of each confession. However, she lost her belief in God at the age of 12, a circumstance which had it’s own repercussions, although to the dispassionate observer some of her adult hauntings seem uncannily like the metamorphoses of her childhood superstitions, simply in a different guise.

There was little money and few luxuries when she was growing up but her situation resonated for me: it wasn’t unusual in the post-war years. I too remember looking on with wonder and not a little fear at the early vacuum cleaner – a Hoover Constellation which I was led to believe would gobble me whole if I allowed the nozzle anywhere near my long hair. I too vividly recall the flexes and tubing on appliances more sticky tape than original casing, coaxing each appliance to survive way beyond its sell-by date.

Secondary education for Hilary at a ‘rather posh‘ convent school was perceived through a more cynical eye, nevertheless, tales of humiliating punishments for unknown crimes, physical and psychological abuse inflicted by teachers, make sobering reading in these days where teachers are chary of even comforting a distressed child lest their contact be misinterpreted and reported.

For a long time ‘Protestantism’ carried much baggage in her mind, but it’s clear she harboured a great number of other misapprehensions and misunderstandings too, not all related to religious indoctrination and mystery, and perhaps more a consequence of the prevalent practice of simply not explaining things to children, coupled with her vivid imagination. Once again I identify with all of this. For her as well as for me ‘council housing’ carried sinister undertones. Aged three, Hilary was ‘waiting to change into a boy. When I am four this will occur‘, and she was nine before life disabused her of this notion, at which time she plummeted from ‘hero to zero‘. Neither, she discovered, was she actually destined to form a band of knights errant, nor become a parish priest, nor be gassed if she didn’t attend school.  She listened and overheard the adults but was forced to put her own construction on the meagre facts she gleaned.

Life was further complicated by the irregular arrangements within their household with her mother’s paramour, Jack, living under the same roof with the family. Hilary’s ‘childhood ended‘ (aged 11) in the autumn of 1963 when they moved to a semi-detached house in a different county, leaving her father behind, Jack now posing as her stepfather (although the relationship was not regularised through marriage), ‘the past and the future equally obscured by the smoke from my mother’s burning boats’. They now had a lawn, a rockery, an apple tree, new carpets … but another name. Nevertheless, their relocation didn’t stop new neighbours and school children taking a prurient interest in their private living arrangements, which Hilary resented greatly.

Even though her autobiography reveals a curious child with her fair share of scepticism, in many ways she remained a young woman of her time, and looking back she is amazed that she wasn’t more challenging; perhaps nowhere more so than in respect of her health. Even as a pre-teen she was never robust, but as time passed she was plagued with chronic and severe pain in many parts of her anatomy: ‘Miss Neverwell’ as she puts it. For years she was treated as psychiatrically ill, with devastating consequences. By the time she eventually diagnosed her own illness as endometriosis it was already so widespread and invasive that she was robbed of any chance of having children or ever recovering fully. Now she wonders why she didn’t insist doctors paid more attention to her complaints; back then ‘The proper attitude to doctors was humble gratitude; you cleaned the house before they arrived’. But the humiliation and shame of not being believed had a profound effect on her.

In spite of her frequent absences from school, she was clearly a very bright and able student, becoming head girl and entering law school. Once there, though, constant ill-health and an all-consuming passion for a young man changed the course of her life. They married while both still students, living in a hovel and close to the breadline. The marriage fell apart at one stage but some years later they re-married, and today she declares her worst fear is ‘losing my husband’, although curiously in the book she never gives him a name. His work as a geologist took them abroad for years – to Africa and Saudi Arabia – all rich fuel for Hilary’s active imagination and growing portfolio of writings.

Her body image was another ongoing issue for her. Following her diagnosis, a combination of medication and an underactive thyroid made her weight balloon. She went from being frail and skinny to being so large she had to move into ‘loose covers rather than frocks’. This affected not only her own behaviour – ‘When you get fat, you get a new personality’ – but also that of others – ‘When I was thin and quick on my feet, a girl with a head of blonde hair, I went for weeks without a kind word. But why would I need one? When I grew fat, I was assumed to be placid. I was the same strung-out fired-up person I’d always been, but to the outward eye I had acquired serenity. A whole range of maternal virtues were ascribed to me.’

Like many before her, Mantell was not always the hugely successful writer she is today. Publishers rejected her manuscripts – how sick they must be in hindsight! But perhaps the most surprising thing for me, reading her autobiographical account, is that she is addicted to colons and semi-colons, using them with an extravagance and abandon I have never seen elsewhere; I counted ten within two paragraphs early on in the book! A tutor on a creative writing course would make short shrift of that kind of obsession, but when you’re a writer of Mantell’s stature it seems it can become part of your signature.

On with the next ball of mohair!Charity knitting And the next book.

Knitting and latest book

 

 

 

 

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Life interrupted

Boy, what a sweltering July! Record-breaking stuff. The lawns are already brown but the flowers seem to be thriving …

LiliesA good time to be out and about ‘on holiday’ with the children rather than indoors trying to work. Water has featured rather a lot to keep everyone’s temperature under control …Cooling off in the seaanimals provided a happy distraction …Feeding goats by handand some daringly fast travel generated a welcome breeze …Go-kartingBeing in loco parentis to two of my grandchildren for a couple of weeks reminds me of how much effort goes into encouraging youngsters to be courteous, well-mannered and decent little people. We all want to be able to take them out into polite society and not be humiliated or embarrassed, don’t we? It’s not a big ask.

So what would you do if one of yours make rude gestures, or shouted obscenities at complete strangers in shops?  Or let out wild shrieks and blasphemy in a tranquil church? Or abused themselves in public places? What would you think of the parents if you were simply a witness to such behaviour?

No, I’m not describing life chez nous this past fortnight; my own personal experience of such things is limited to that of a passing stranger. But I’ve watched documentaries on the subject, and seen something of the horror for families dealing with compulsive swearing, shouting and antisocial behaviours. Somehow though, up to now my sympathy has been largely with the parents. I couldn’t imagine ever going anywhere with a child who screamed profanities or simply had to tap a door sixteen times, twenty-nine times a day. Or did antisocial things in public places.

My latest discovery, Life, Interrupted by James McConnel, is therefore, an instructive read, although I should probably add a caveat: it might offend the sensibilities of some. It tells the autobiographical story of award-winning composer, James, who started to twitch and sniff compulsively when he was six, and lived with increasing forceful and obsessive behaviours until he was eventually diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome at the age of thirty-two. (Hard to believe no one identified his problem earlier; his symptoms were classic.)

Now, I might as well confess from the outset, that I needed to hear this message for very personal reasons. I have a very low level of tolerance for perfectly ordinary nervous tics and repetitive actions – even harmless ones like squeaking shoes, sniffing, picking spots/nail/ears, flicking the pages of a book/end of a pen … I’m not proud of this failing; but it’s inbuilt and inherited, and it’s something I’ve had to live with all my long-legged life. The endless repetition drives me nutty inside; I’ve learned for the most part not to show my irritation on the outside – I think! And hope.

So I’m hugely admiring of the parents, nanny, teachers and fellow students, and girlfriends who managed to overlook the plethora of jerks, sounds and compulsive behaviours that James exhibits – the good and kindly ones at least. There are plenty of boys at his boarding school, similarly bound for Eton, who are merciless to the point of cruelty. And wherever he goes James himself harbours this deep sense that he doesn’t quite fit; he’s a ‘nearly person’. He repeatedly ‘fails’, adding each time to his growing sense of disappointment and rejection. He has no idea how to engage in normal social interchange with his peers; he simply can’t omit any of his rituals in order to get to a seminar on time; he finds it impossible to see past his obsession about the symmetry and rightness of words and numbers to answer exam questions.

Life, Interrupted, though, gave me a better sense of the stranglehold this condition has on the person himself, the premonitory urges he has to fight every single day, the aftermath and consequences of each outburst, the impotence he feels in the face of this compulsion.

James calls his nemesis ‘the Controller‘, and later ‘the Beast‘, and it’s small wonder that he seeks refuge from its pernicious influence in the two things that tame it: music and alcohol. The first soothes it, the second deadens it.

For him it’s more than the occasional shouted expletive or violent jerking; it’s a whole range of feelings which he must constantly fight against or appease:

‘I have this terrible urge to crush boxes of vibrating eggs, touch fridges, check under the bed for men in blue coats, check in lavatories for arse-pecking birds, smash glasses, count baked bean slogans, tap light switches, copy things people say, hold my breath until it hurts, jump off ski-lifts, smash teapots, jerk my leg, arm and neck, sniff almost everything, cough, make faces and grunt like a pig.’

James is an exceptionally gifted musician who studied flute, organ and composition at the Royal College of Music in London, but even here the Tourette’s threatened his success. Only when he was helped to understand his condition, to give it a medical name, and to make an informed choice on its management, did he start to take proper control of his life and career. Since then he has gone on to write hundreds of scores for the theatre, musicals, documentaries and dramas. What a triumph over adversity. His nemesis has become ‘the Brat‘, much more benign and less controlling.

A sobering read especially for an intolerant person like me.

This one (though non-fiction) joins the list that includes Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Jodi Picoult’s House Rules (featuring protagonists with autism); Lisa Genova’s Still Alice (dementia); Ben Elton’s Inconceivable (infertility), etc. All easy enjoyable reads that have helped me develop that little bit of extra sensitivity, understanding and tolerance. Which as you know, is my own aim as a novelist.

Now, back to full time grandparenthood … It’s the turn of the older two children this time, and they start off with more normal temperatures.

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Take it as read

It takes a while to catch up with news after a break away, but in this week’s trawl, two headlines in particular caught my attention.

The first was this one: Take it as read – good fiction teaches us how to be human beings, a thoughtful article by Graeme Archer in The Daily Telegraph, where he said:

‘… it’s not the novels where one sees oneself in a character that matter: it’s the ones where you learn to see properly, from the perspective of another. If we don’t see people properly, then we can never empathise with them, and if we can’t empathise with others then we’re not properly human. No matter how socially awkward you are, a great novel will train you to do this.’

Very much the premise upon which I write my own novels.

Indeed, I was thinking about this a lot while I was on holiday in Italy. I took the trusty Kindle well-loaded and managed to read two and a half novels in airports and trains and planes and odd moments of inactivity: Untying the Knot Emotional GeologyEmotional Geology and Untying the Knot both by Linda Gillard, and A Sister’s Gift by Giselle Green. Through these tales I was taken into the lives and minds of characters grappling with mental illness, obsessive personalities, infertility, conflicted family relationships, surrogate pregnancy. Easy reads all (as befits a holiday break), but it’s fair to say they enriched my understanding of the challenges and thinking of other people in these situations. I shan’t ever experience most of these things personally, but I’d like to think I’d have empathy enough should I come into contact with those for whom these things are a lived reality.

The second headline was attached to an article my daughter cut out of the newspaper for me: ‘Why did my brother die in agony?’, subheaded: ‘Terminally ill patients are suffering slow and painful deaths because doctors dare not fall foul of the law against assisted suicide.’  Yep, it instantly grabbed me by the throat, as she knew it would.

Well-known cookery expert, Prue Leith, was describing her brother David’s terminal battle with excruciatingly painful cancer of the bones. When the morphine was doing its job, he was pain-free, joking, and sharing quality time with his wife and four children. But the dosage of morphine was sufficient for only three hours out of every four for which it was prescribed. For that fourth hour he was in agony. The solution seems obvious and simple, doesn’t it? Naturally enough, various relatives appealed, nay, ‘pleaded’, for help. The answer though was what shocked me: the nurses ‘couldn’t’ give any more pain relief. They sympathised, even told the family they would personally be willing to increase the dose, but they were powerless to do so; the law precluded it. They also said, no one admitted these situations existed. (By this time I was at fever pitch!)

Now, of course, no one with warm blood coursing through their veins could fail to be moved by the obvious distress the Leith family all suffered. But the story left me personally feeling frustrated and vexed. This man clearly needed more medication. And it can, it really can be given without breaking the law. Palliative medicine is an extremely well developed discipline; dedicated teams of experts in pain management are fully empowered to administer effective measures (drugs and others treatments) in these circumstances, to ensure ongoing comfort and dignity and a peaceful death. Which they are able to do in all except a limited number of situations. And by Prue’s own admission, David’s pain came into the category of controllable by morphine.

Both the subheading and Prue’s concluding message – ‘The present state of affairs is monstrous. With 80 percent of the population in favour of assisted dying, what are they waiting for?’ – missed the point. It wasn’t assisted death this man needed, it was legal and legitimate, adequate pain relief.

There are indeed exceptional cases where the laws relating to assisted dying need to be challenged (I’ve discussed them at length on this blog in the past), but this is not one of them. Instead of saying they couldn’t give adequate medication, those staff caring for David should have been calling for a man/woman who could. Let’s not confuse the two issues.

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Bigotry? Intolerance? Prejudice?

We’ve heard so much negative comment lately about people with religious beliefs being bigoted and intolerant, I want to share an entirely different experience with you.

When last year I received an invitation to run a series of workshops on the challenges of medical ethics for a group of Christians (from the Christadelphian Church) near London in March 2012, I confess I hesitated for lots of reasons. But the organisers were very persuasive, and I eventually succumbed to their flattery.

The conference was this past weekend. And I’ve survived to tell the tale.

Life has been very pressurised of late and I had a lot of baggage to shed in order to free my mind up to facilitate group work effectively. So I used the journey south to unwind, visiting two magnificent National Trust properties. The first was Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire,Fountains Abbeywith its awesome architecture and stonework, and its dramatic cloister.The cloisterJust standing surveying all this ancient beauty, soaking up the centuries of peace and devotion, is balm to the troubled soul.

And then on to Ickworth in Suffolk, very grand, housing fabulous paintings, and also steeped in history.

(SORRY: photos inadvertently lost.)

Oh, and a quick trip to nearby Ixworth Thorpe to see the house where I was born. I’ve only visited once before, taking my mother round her old haunts, and it holds no memories for me because I was a mere babe when we moved from here, but it’s part of who I am. (No plaque outside yet though, I see!)

Anyway, suffice to say I’d shed a lot of tension before arriving at the High Leigh Conference Centre, in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. Another lovely building looking great in the sunshine.

From the moment I introduced myself the team couldn’t have been more welcoming and supportive. The whole atmosphere was warmly inclusive. So far so good.

I had five and a half hours to fill with my workshops so that took care of most of Saturday. My sessions are totally interactive and the course they run is partly determined by the cues I get from the participants, which means I have to be ready for anything. Fairly keeps the adrenaline flowing, I can tell you! But I take a few tricks up my sleeve in case things flag.

It’s my belief that, in order to understand the enormity of the choices relating to the big dilemmas of modern medicine, and to empathise with individuals and their families grappling with such questions, you need to engage emotion as well as intellect. So throughout the sessions, as I presented increasingly difficult scenarios, the delegates imagined how they might feel in such situations (eg being infertile, or dying from a degenerative disease, or suffering from psychiatric disorders, or listening to a child begging not to have any more aggressive treatment), and they moved on a continuum from very comfortable (represented by soft easy chairs with lots of cushions) to very uncomfortable (pebbles on seats and upended chairs). There was a fence to sit on for those who couldn’t decide, and we even introduced a moral high ground (high seat covered in a velvet cloth) for the few who took up a fixed moral position.

Were these Christians bigoted or intolerant? They were not. Were their minds closed to new ideas? Not a bit of it. Were they holier-than-thou? By no means. They were impressively honest and compassionate and realistic. Yes, they live to a high standard, based on a foundation of firm principles, but it was obvious there was no party line when it came to assisted dying, abortion, infertility treatment, organ transplantation … They thought for themselves. They might not agree on the solutions, but they challenged each other healthily, respectfully. They acknowledged their own prejudices, recognised the weaknesses in their arguments, and had the courage to admit there was room for change within themselves. Every single person allowed themselves to be uncomfortable, to alter their position. We laughed a lot. Some tearfully shared painful experiences. We engaged honestly with the issues. And the world is a better place because there are folk like this who have the courage and humility to accept that there are no easy trite answers, who are ready to really listen, to understand, and to support others going through life’s traumas, without thrusting their own opinions on them.

Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable and heartening experience.

Indian proverb: Judge no man till you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.

 

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IVF – a luxury or a right?

It’s odd how when your mind is steeped in a particular subject you see related things everywhere, isn’t it?

As part of preparing for the publication of Saving Sebastian I’ve been thinking a lot about fertility treatments, the rights and wrongs, benefits and risks, should we-shouldn’t we? Because as well as working on the book itself, I’ve had to bend my mind to the assorted peripheral tasks that dog any writer – publicity and marketing, updating my website, events, that sort of thing. Not nearly as much fun as the creative writing but just as necessary, I’m afraid. Anyway, I was deep into drafting questions for bookclubs, and challenges for teachers and students of related subjects, when lo and behold, two articles jumped out at me.

One was a news item saying that a Brazilian fertility expert – the very one who helped the famous footballer, Pelé, become the father of twins – is suspected of having deceived patients at his Sao Paulo clinic into raising children who were not biologically their own by implanting other couples’ embryos to boost his success rates. Wow!

And why did this leap out and sock me between the eyes? Because in Saving Sebastian, a Nigerian couple have twins through IVF – one black, the other coffee coloured – and there’s a big old stooshie going on in the fertility centre to establish just what went wrong. Was it deliberate? Was it a genuine mistake? Is there something else lurking in the undergrowth? Too bad real life beat me to it, eh? If my publisher had stuck to the original publication date of 1 May my novel would have been out a fortnight before this Brazilian story broke. Heigh-ho.

The other sucker-punch was by Daily Telegraph columnist, Dr Max Pemberton (16 May). He starts by saying he thought long and hard before writing this particular article because he knew he’d attract condemnation. OK, I’m listening, Doc. The gist of his argument – please note his not necessarily mine (I want to keep my powder dry meantime!) is
– the NHS is strapped for cash
– hard decisions have to be made about how to use limited resources
– there is now an expectation that the NHS will provide fertility treatment on demand and the belief that everyone has a right to be a parent
– childlessness is not a disease but a grief based on people being unable to have what they want
– in these straightened times life-threatening and debilitating diseases should take precedence
– therefore, he concludes,  ‘IVF is a luxury the NHS just cannot afford‘.

And the relevance of this piece? Well, in Saving Sebstian, Yasmeen and Karim Zair are fighting to have a baby by IVF who is the same tissue type as their son, Sebastian. The little lad has a rare blood disorder from which he will die if he doesn’t get stem cells from a saviour sibling. And already he’s having punishing treatment to keep him alive. At four years of age … imagine! Should they be allowed to have this treatment? There are plenty of people opposing them. What do you think?

Maybe reading the book will help to crystallise your own thinking so you can agree or disagree with Max Pemberton more logically. But in the meantime please do have your say on my blog if your dander is up, steam is exploding out of your ears, and you feel like adding to the debate right now! You can always publish an addendum or a retraction later. Remember …

The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind (William Blake).

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