Hazel McHaffie

The Abortion Act

Future possibilities

There will never be a shortage of subjects for me to write about! I lose tracks of scientific breakthroughs and medical marvels. And today, given the breadth and range of material available, I’m not going to even attempt to link everything I mention to scientific papers – Google the key words and you’ll get the information if you’re interested.

When HIV/AIDS first came to our attention in the 80s there were doomsday predictions of biblical plague proportions and real-life devastating statistics. I was a researcher at the time and saw it, wrote about it, first hand. Then came huge public awareness campaigns … followed by the development of anti-retroviral wonder drugs … then combination therapies, that could hold the disease at bay. Now here we are, with stories of stem cell donations from people with ‘natural immunity’ rendering patients free from the virus. You could weave a pretty complex plot with that one! And in 2019 my file marked HIV/AIDS looks completely different from the slim wallet of 30 years ago.

Inside of Me coverThen there’s the transgender issue. Wow! So many dimensions. About young children wanting to transition. About people wanting to reverse the process; the irreversibility of some therapies. About misleading statistics. Eebie jeebie – how crazily tortuous a plot could you construct in that area. The imagination goes into overdrive. Makes my little sally into that world in Inside of Me, pale into banality.

It’s 41 years since the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was created, and infertility was very much top of my pile when it came to choosing subjects for my set of novels. Now despite widespread opposition, criticism, vilification, stigma, as many as 8 million babies have been born by IVF. And the endless thirst for knowledge and understanding, coupled with a bottomless pit of compassion, drives researchers and clinicians in this area to seek more and more solutions to the problems couples have in conceiving, or avoiding perpetuating deadly genetic diseases. There’s mileage for several more books to follow on from Paternity, Double Trouble and Saving Sebastian. Did you know, for example, that the success rate for assisted fertility is way way higher (50%) than for natural conception (25%) … plenty of scope to work up a story-line there, huh? Imagine a gang of 35-year-old career girls going to the freezer to select artificially-created sperm … or genetically screened/modified embryos … ticking selection boxes along the way for green eyes, athletic ability, fiery temperament …? Endless possibilities!

The statistics on abortion reflect changes in society’s mores and values; programmes like Call the Midwife have increased public awareness of how things have developed in a generation. Add in dating apps, modern career paths, cohabitation, social expectation, fertility statistics … I feel an historical reflective story coming on! I well remember, in the 70s/80s soon after the 1967 Abortion Act was introduced, women coming in for a second, perhaps even third, abortion were looked upon askance. Recent Government figures have highlighted that of almost 68000 abortions carried out in 2017, 1049 were undergoing their fifth abortion and 72 their ninth! And there’s a story behind every one.

Then there’s the horrific topic of female genital mutation … don’t get me started! The recent story of the first person to be convicted in Britain briefly reported in the national press was shocking enough – the little girl was three years old; the mother cut the child herself in her London home; indecent images and animal pornography were involved. I absolutely couldn’t go there with fiction. But … should our collective conscience be prodded?

Resources, caps on the cost of medical and social care … I’m somewhat allergic to numbers, but reading about the human consequences of budgetary restrictions brings out the indignant in me. And might just compel me to write about it if I’m around long enough to get to that file.

Even the topic of assisted dying – a recurring hot potato – has subtly changed since I published my novel on the subject, Right to Die, eleven years ago. The issue’s been described by lawyers for the Royal College of Physicians as ‘one of the most controversial and morally contentious issues in medicine’, but ongoing polls of both medical and public opinion show a definite move towards accepting the need for some change. This might be simply taking a neutral professional stand as against opposing it; or a swing towards legalising some form of assisted suicide in the UK. A novel today could look very different.

Yep, I’m endlessly adding to the possibilities in my files as medicine and science reveal more and more, and society’s tolerances and expectations change. This is just a superficial skim. Anyone out there keen to pick up the gauntlet?

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A Spark of Light: Jodi Picoult

Among the stacks of files for possible novels-I-might-write-some-day is one labelled ABORTION – a hot potato and one with evolving ethical and legal and philosophical issues.

I’ve personally lived through major change as a clinician in this area of practice. When I was in my early twenties, deliberately terminating pregnancy was illegal, and we midwives saw at first hand the damage done by so-called backstreet procedures carried out by unskilled hands. Then in 1967 the law changed to allow abortions to be carried out by trained professionals in certain circumstances. And gradually, over the years, those strict criteria have been relaxed. Nowadays, social circumstances and personal preference can be used as reasons to proceed; the mother’s mental well-being is invoked. But somehow a novel on the subject has slipped farther and farther down my priority list.

It remains a much more controversial issue in the States. Girls/women procuring an abortion have been incarcerated in prison for murder/homicide; professionals have been killed by ardent pro-lifers; centers offering the procedure have been attacked. (Jodi Picoult lists some of the sobering statistics in an appendix to her book on the subject.)

So perhaps it’s better that an American author has picked up the gauntlet and run with it. And I’d have said, Jodi Picoult was a natural choice to do so. She’s one of the four authors closest to my own genre of writing, and I’ve read (and own) pretty much all her books.

In A Spark of Light – just published – she’s tackled many of the issues I planned to include. The scene is The Center – formerly The Centre for Women’s Reproductive Health – the last standing abortion clinic – in Mississipi. The building is a hideous orange scar on the cityscape, everything inside it is run down, shabby, used. It’s protected by a perimeter fence, a border patrolled by zealous vigilantes /activists demonstrating outside it and against it.

Into this centre of controversy strides a very angry man with a gun and a personal agenda. He cold-bloodedly shoots some of the women and a male doctor before taking others hostage. His murderous rampage is fuelled by rage, because it’s in this place that the life of his own potential grandchild was taken; all he can think of is exacting revenge on those who were responsible.

Police negotiator Hugh McElroy is drafted in, initially unaware that his own teenage daughter and his sister are inside The Center. The two men establish contact. When he discovers that Bex (his sister) has been shot and seriously wounded, and that his girl Wren is being held hostage, it all becomes horribly personal.

The story unravels backwards in hourly increments. Hmmmm.

Picoult explores profound questions. Just where does the right to life end and the right to choose take over? When does killing for a cause (war, unwanted pregnancy) become murder? How can black and white legislation deal with the multiplicity of greyness that is people’s lives and experiences and beliefs? So far, so appropriate.

But sad to say this book did little for me. Sorry, Jodi.
Stylistically it simply doesn’t work. It starts with the shooting and unravels back to the reason each person is in that building at that time. Had I cared about any of the characters I’d have been interested in their backstory; but they were either too unbelievable or two-dimensional. As it was, with each chapter giving snippets about each one, I struggled to hold their identities in my head.
I was more concerned with how far the shooter would go, but then, blow me, after all that effort to follow the threads, the ending falls very flat. Promising story lines are left in limbo.
The agenda glares through the narrative, both visible and contrived.
The cod psychology is both intrusive and pervasive.
Everyone philosophizes and juggles competing ideals and thoughts and wise reflections, makes profound statements, encapsulates deep existential ideas in succinct phrases – completely unbelievable … especially in a crisis like this!
So disappointing.

So why do I offer such a negative review? Because the experience reminds me of the burden on authors – myself included. My own next book has the potential to disappoint my readership. I’ve strayed outside my comfort zone with this story and just this week one of my critics has pointed out many flaws – even questioned the appropriateness of the genre!  It’s on hold at the moment, but in the new year I’m going to have to forensically dissect it and try to up my game.

Oh, and I dare to criticise Picoult on two counts. I’ve given her plenty of positive publicity in the past. And she’s rich and famous and confident enough not to be derailed by my humble opinion!!

 

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