Hazel McHaffie

moral dilemmas

Rights and wrongs

What a week! And still the debate about the rights and wrongs of Brexit agreements and arrangements grinds on … and on … and on. Conflict. Tension. Lies. Threats. Who do we believe? Who can we trust? Whose interests and rights should take precedence? Who/what are these politicians really acting for – themselves, their constituents, their party, their consciences, or what? How much is Joe Public entitled to know? What will history make of these unprecedented shenanigans?

I sigh for the simple philosophies of a McCall Smith character … Todd the surveyor in 44 Scotland Street, perhaps, reprimanding his dishonest employee caught out in a lie: ‘All of our life is based on acts of trust. We trust other people to do what they say they’re going to do.’ Hmmmmm. If only.

No one is immune to doubt and uncertainty. Those much feted and privileged royals, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, revealed in an interview this week that they’re both struggling with the conflict between their privacy and media coverage in their lives. Taxpayers contribute towards the upkeep of the monarchy, but does that entitle us to put them under the microscope? What should be considered legitimately in the public interest? Where do the limits lie? What if their mental health is less than robust? Is the loss of a parent in childhood an ‘excuse’ for the rest of one’s life? Should they have broken with royal tradition and confessed to human frailty? Is it different when a child is involved? And so on … and on.

Then there’s the Northern Ireland abortion laws, decriminalised this week, although implementation of the change is still hedged about with caveats and fraught with peril. Was it ever fair that a woman was legally prevented from having an abortion, even for a lethal fetal abnormality or when her pregnancy was the result of rape or incest? Is it right for Westminster to legislate for Northern Ireland coming into line with the United Nations rules on human rights? Should religious belief influence laws? Should someone else’s scruples limit my choices? If you’re pro-choice, this is a momentous victory for women’s human and reproductive rights; if you’re pro-life in all circumstances, it’s a sad day for Northern Ireland … Where do you stand?

Speaking of women’s rights … the jolly old debate around gender continues to blow my mind. Not only must provision be made for gender-neutral toilets and changing rooms; not only must transgender women be permitted to win the awards in female sport; but now a rapist must be recorded as female if that’s how they self-identify. What about the rights and feelings of the victims in all this? A quintessential female symbol has even been removed from sanitary towels – yes, you heard right, sanitary towels – by Proctor & Gamble, apparently because not everyone who has periods identifies as a woman. Hello?!! As a leading feminist campaigner put it: ‘We’re now moving towards the total elimination of women’s biology’ . The rights and wrongs, the questions arising, are too numerous to enumerate on this blog.

Welcome to my world – constantly asking what’s permissible, what’s morally right, what’s fair, what’s expedient? And nowhere do I probe more deeply than in my fictional characters’ lives. I have to be totally immersed in their emotions and thoughts and beliefs and experiences in order to make them authentic and believable. Their dilemmas haunt me day and night. Especially when the novel is at an early stage and I have no idea how, or ever whether, they’re going to survive or resolve or surrender to the pressures. Their pain and anguish swallow me whole.

Ideas for my twelfth novel are at an embryonic stage at the moment, so tender and fragile indeed that they might even miscarry altogether. I have several characters lurking around disturbing my peace, and eventually one group of them will send down roots and cling on with more persistence than the rest. Once they’ve claimed my full attention, and I know they’re here to stay, that’s when I’ll start to sink below the horizon of their stresses. All those what-ifs and rights and wrongs scrambling for answers. I might be gone some time!

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Going gently into that good night

Until this week I have to admit that I’ve never watched the soap, Coronation Street. But there was so much hype about Monday’s double bill featuring the suicide of a character called Hayley Cropper, that I felt compelled to see it. After all, exploring real moral questions through fiction is what I’m all about.

For those of you who don’t know, (as I understand it) Hayley (once Harold) is a transgender person who survived local prejudice, married cafe owner Roy, and developed pancreatic cancer. Monday was the day she had resolved to end her suffering by taking a self-administered (don’t even touch the glass, Roy) cocktail of drugs. Cocktail of drugsRoy is hoping against hope that when it comes to it she’ll change her mind and they’ll have longer together. ‘There’s still joy to be had.

I came to this my first episode without any emotional attachments to the Croppers, but the whole scene was handled so gently and sensitively that the millions of viewers for whom this represented a personal tragedy must have found it harrowing. It felt as if we were in that flat with them. The touching last conversations … Hayley’s struggle to iron Roy’s best shirt so he turns up respectably clad for her funeral … Roy’s decision not to have a ‘special’ on the cafe menu on this terrible day … the anxiety and concern of the neighbours … all provided heart-wrenching pathos to the last hours of this desperately sick woman. I haven’t been party to her struggles over the past few months but I have seen other real people die of this horrible illness, and in a way their suffering overlaid Hayley’s for me. Seeing her quiet smile as the music of Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending stole through the room, listening to her settled resolution, watching her determined drinking of that fatal cocktail, the peaceful waiting – I was willing all the assorted well-wishers not to disturb their precious last hours together. This was a moment for absolute privacy and solemnity. And from where I sat, ITV got most of it right.

Whatever we think of the issue of assisted dying, or suicide, or the right to die, this programme provided a useful vehicle to promote discussion. Of the tragic situations for which there are no good options. Of the emotional and physical impact of terrible diseases. Of our responses, our prejudices, our beliefs. Of the current law.

And indeed, Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor, is currently working towards launching another bid in real life to legalise assisted dying under certain clearly specified conditions which will reopen the hornets’ nest for sure. So, hats off to another screenwriter and to ITV for bravely raising the issue in such a way as to get ordinary people thinking about these vexed issues for themselves. If you cared about Hayley’s plight, if you were angry with her for doing what she did, if you threw things at the TV, if you wrote to ITV complaining about their depiction of a suicide … then spare a thought for those for whom such dramas are lived realities. What would your answer be?

A safe distance away I might share another such challenging film production – but that’s for another time. Today belongs to Coronation Street.

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Congenital defects and moral dilemmas

I couldn’t have dreamed up a better precursor for my forthcoming book Saving Sebastian, due out on 1 July. But honestly, I hadn’t so much as whispered in the ear of the BBC.

The documentary, So What If My Baby Is Born Like Me?, went out at 9pm on 19 April on BBC Three, but the main players were also interviewed on various newsy programmes. The story featured Jono Lancaster, and was both poignant and challenging. Jono has Treacher Collins syndrome, which essentially involves deformities of the face and ears, but normal intelligence. And Jono’s intelligence certainly shone through, as well as his honesty, courage and thoughtfulness.

The thrust of the programme was whether or not he should father a child naturally with his girlfriend of four years, Laura. They both want children, but Treacher Collins is hereditary, and they run a 50/50 chance of having a baby with the same condition. But no one can predict how severely it would be affected. As well as the distinctive facial irregularities, some children require tracheostomies and tube feeding, some are profoundly deaf, some have cleft lips and palettes. In the course of considering their options, Jono and Laura met a little girl, Maisie, and saw firsthand what such anomalies mean to parents. And to the child.

And Jono knows only too well the reactions anybody with the condition will encounter. He’s even been vilified for daring to have a relationship with a pretty girl! And Laura is indeed very attractive, as you can see. Jono’s own biological parents were so appalled by his appearance that they rejected him from birth. He was taken in at two weeks of age by an amazing woman who’s fostered over twenty children. She admitted that Jono had occupied a very special place in her affections and she’d formally adopted him. Watching them together was a delight.

But before you condemn his natural mother, ask yourself, how would you react to being handed a baby looking so different from your expectations? Or walking down the street with a child whom everyone stares at? Take a look at these photos and imagine the scenario; ask yourself the questions, if you dare. I studied dozens of them and I confess I didn’t like the answers.

However even Jono’s adopted mum couldn’t help him with the quandary he was in now. As she wisely said, you might think you know what you’d do in these situations, but no one can say for certain what they would do in reality. You can’t know until it happens.

It’s a tribute to her love and acceptance and sound common sense that Jono’s instinctive preference was to adopt. Laura though, wants her own child. In an effort to work though the possibilities, they seek advice and counselling; they visit families who’ve faced some of the same dilemmas. One option they have is to go for IVF with PGD – essentially this involves creating an embryo using their own sperm and eggs, then testing it to see if it carries the defective gene. Jono seems initially to be labouring under the mistaken idea that the faulty gene would simply be removed. When he finds that the whole embryo would be destroyed, he’s morally outraged. For him this is ‘an insult’, ‘disrespectful’ to all people with a deformity or genetic disorder. The fact that he himself wouldn’t exist if this facility had been offered, gives his outrage special emphasis and extra weight.

Listening to this young couple grappling with the dilemma was peculiarly arresting even for battle-hardened me. Something so natural as having a child is for them a major issue with endless questions, doubts and fears attached. Jono’s ‘morally wrong’ argument is a massive stumbling block to progress, but in the end their conclusion is that, for them, it feels right to go for IVF with PGD, to have a child without the defect. ‘Morally wrong’ for Jono it might be, says Laura, but even so ‘it’s right’. ‘Definitely right’ for the child, Jono concedes.

The scenario in my novel is different, though many of the issues and questions are similar. Sebastian is four years old, and he has a rare blood disorder. But he’s stunningly beautiful to look at. His parents are considering having a baby by IVF with PGD to save Sebastian’s life. They too have reservations … But in this case, I’m not going to tell you the outcome!
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