On the twelfth of March 2015, the book world lost a major figure among writers and the planet a thoroughly decent, funny and, for all his massive success, un-pompous human being. I speak of Terry Pratchett, fantasy book writer extraordinaire. I can’t write about him from the vantage point of friendship or even acquaintance; nor can I claim to have read any of his astonishingly prolific seventy books (the Fantasy genre is not my reading cup of tea).
But Sir Terry, second only to JK Rowling in success as a British author measured in book sales, undeniably gifted an immense amount of reading pleasure to millions of people worldwide.
However, I want to talk here about Terry Pratchett’s passionate advocacy of assisted dying. He spoke movingly of his own father dying in hospital, his end delayed by the pipes and tubes of technological ‘life support’; how he craved a quick, merciful release but was denied it.
Here is an extract from my diary of May 2011, with my musings on the subject. Along with the majority, I suspect, of people in predominantly secular Britain (not to mention the rest of Europe), I share Sir Terry’s strong views.
There was a very moving documentary on TV last night. The fantasy book writer Terry Pratchett, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008 (and will probably have passed away by the time this is read) made a documentary on a subject sadly relevant to his own situation: assisted dying. That sounds less brutal than ‘assisted suicide’, even though that’s actually what it is. He is a firm proponent of it. He takes the view that every person has the human right to order the time and manner of their own death, and I agree with him – as, I suspect, do many people. I can fully understand the worries of the Against lobby that the vulnerable could be at risk, but surely there could be very robust safeguards against that in place, and in the final analysis no government or church or other body should be able to deny anyone their ultimate choice. Which is what the present system does.
In the documentary, met with great hostility by the tabloid press, Pratchett meets three terminally ill men. One exercises his choice to die in a hospice in England but the other two elect to travel to Dignitas (who actually have very strict criteria for agreeing to assist) in Switzerland to take control of their own demise. The scandal is that both of them have to go there while they are still able to make the journey and still able to hold a beaker and swallow the deadly barbiturate. And still perhaps have a few more weeks of fairly reasonable quality of life. So they both have to go really before they might wish to. In that respect they are unable to choose their own time.
One of them, a man in his seventies with motor neurone disease, agrees to be filmed at his end. It’s harrowing and yet dignified, and very moving. He’s incredibly brave, calmly sitting with his wife waiting for the moment when he’s ready to swallow the fatal draught. Tenderly he bids her goodbye and does the deed. The Dignitas assistant, with immense compassion, strokes his forehead as he slips into coma and slumps against her breast, and a short while later his heart has stopped. Watching it made me cry, and writing about it now has done so again.
If when my time comes I find myself in intolerable distress, I feel pretty sure I’d want a doctor to administer a relieving, peace-delivering final injection, but it can’t be allowed. It wouldn’t be moral, apparently.
It seems that in the event, Terry Pratchett didn’t see his wish for an assisted death at a time of his own choosing come to pass after all. He died peacefully at home in his own bed, kept company by his cat and surrounded by his family. And that’s absolutely fine, if in the end that was his choice. Hopefully, in the end, he wasn’t faced with a terrible choice. Hopefully, his passing away was as comfortable, supported by good palliative care, as it could have been.
Hopefully, he did go gentle into his own good night. Whether time and place of dying is chosen or not, it’s quality of living (and dying) that’s at the nub of the assisted dying ‘debate’, really.
Now here is chapter eight of my novel Secret Shame (if you would like to begin reading it from the beginning, please click here). It has no connection with assisted dying. Its themes are not of a Good Death but rather a Good Life, as Terry Pratchett lived it, enriching the lives of many others. It explores other issues, but comes back to the point that we only have one life for a finite number of years. That the one life we have should matter in the intrinsically important ways. That even if it’s created in unorthodox or inconvenient or untimely ways, as long as new life is welcomed in love, with the potential for happiness, it’s precious.
Mother and daughter sat nervously together on uncomfortable chairs in the waiting room. Julie had Stacey’s hand in both of hers, gently massaging. Stacey’s other hand was gripping her mother’s bicep, hard, hanging on for dear life. Poor kid, Julie thought, she must be terrified. Julie glanced around the dreary room, with its lilac walls and scruffy skirting boards, adorned with skew-whiff posters extolling safe sex, avoidance of pregnancy, of Chlamydia, reassuringly advocating termination if the worse came to the desperate worst. She took in the sad potted plant in the corner, itself struggling for life; the box of tatty donated toys for tots who had made it into an uncertain existence all the same, their weary mothers now belatedly trying to close another stable door. The charity did its best to make the room homely-looking, she supposed, but it was rather a losing battle.
They were not the only clients there. A nervous, twitchy, skinny girl of around eighteen with dyed black spiky hair and nostril and lip rings sat in the corner keeping the spider plant company. A careworn-looking woman of twenty-five or so with two toddlers: a boy and girl with none-too-clean faces, who were noisily investigating the toy box, sat by the venetian-blinded window. Julie wondered idly how many more offspring she had. There were others at infant’s school, more than likely. Why else would she be here, after all? Memories came of her own youth and many siblings, who had arrived yearly and predictably, like the seasons. The woman looked a prime candidate for family planning advice anyway, Julie mused, and then mentally scolded herself for her superciliousness. Jesus; I’m no one to judge.
They both nearly jumped out of their skins and Julie’s heart dropped like a stone (so what must Stacey’s have done?) when the receptionist at the desk suddenly called, ‘Stacey Hawkins?’
Julie raised her hand automatically, although the receptionist knew perfectly well who they were. She’d ticked them off her list only ten minutes earlier.
The receptionist smiled; pushed her glasses up her nose; pointed. ‘Interview room two, please.’
Julie said ‘Thank you’ and pulled the reluctant Stacey to her feet.
The advisor was very nice though. Comfortably plump, smiling and middle-aged, she had slightly the air of a benevolent schoolteacher. She invited them to take easy chairs across from her at a low table. She glanced at her notepad. Julie had outlined the reasons for their visit when she made the appointment. The advisor introduced herself. ‘Hi, Mrs Hawkins, Stacey; I’m Sandy.’
Julie murmured ‘Hello.’ Stacey managed a tiny ‘Hi.’
Sandy looked at Julie. ‘So; let’s run over the facts. Stacey is definitely pregnant, then?’
‘Diagnosed by a doctor?’
Julie supplied it, and the name of the practice. Sandy added the information to her notes. ‘That’s fine. And how long is it since conception, do we know?’
Julie felt a little irritated. She wanted to get down to the serious talk, never mind all the preamble. ‘Er, well, we saw the doctor three days ago and she thought Stacey was about ten days pregnant then. Probably conceived on the twenty-third of September. That’s what she put down, anyway.’
‘Okay; so, two weeks, say.’ She wrote that down.
She sat back in her chair, smiling at each of them. ‘So; now have you discussed the various options amongst yourselves – including Mr Hawkins?’
She paused. ‘Um, I presume there’s a Mr Hawkins?’
Julie was indignant. ‘Yes, of course there is!’
Sandy passed smoothly on. ‘Fine. Good. Excuse the impertinence, but it’s important to know the full family situation.’
Julie said nothing. Sandy carried on, unfazed, ‘Right. And you have looked at the various routes you can go down then: termination; or going to term and giving up for adoption; or keeping the baby yourself?’ Sandy switched her gaze to Stacey.
Stacey could find no words. She felt completely out of her depth; frightened by the enormity of it all, utterly childlike. She wanted to leave the responsibility to her mum. She would know what was best, after all. Because she was a grown-up.
‘Yes, we have,’ Julie said.
‘And what’s the consensus?’
‘What? Oh, well we don’t want adoption, at all. I’m all for keeping the baby; helping Stacey look after it. But my husband thinks we should go for abortion.’
‘Mm. Sandy frowned, disliking the harsh term. ‘Well he has a point. An adolescent pregnancy is a huge disruption in a child’s life. There are many issues to consider, such as the impact on education and future life-chances, for one.’
She looked at Stacey. ‘How old are you now, Stacey?’
‘Right. And when will you be fifteen?’
‘Okay; so you’d be what, fifteen and something when the baby was born?’
‘Fifteen and just over three months,’ Julie said quickly, trying to put the best gloss on things.
‘Mm,’ Sandy murmured again. ‘That’s still very young, you know. You’d still be at school next year, wouldn’t you?’
‘And how do you get on at school? Do you have any ideas about a career?’
‘Erm, well I’d quite like to be a vet; somethin’ like that.’
Sandy smiled indulgently. ‘Yes, well that would take a lot of training. A university course. And you’d have to do well with GCSEs just to get into uni to begin with. My son had to.’
‘Yes, I know,’ Stacey said, disconsolately.
‘So you couldn’t really be looking after a baby and studying hard at school at the same time, could you?’
‘But she wouldn’t have a problem with child minding; I’d help her with that,’ Julie put in, aware of the pleading, persuasive tone in her voice.
Sandy looked mildly irritated. ‘Well, ultimately this has to be Stacey’s choice of course, even if she is a minor. And ideally, it would be better if her parents both agreed with each other and supported her in what she wants to do.’
She looked at Stacey. ‘And what do you really think you want to do, Stacey? Do what your dad thinks best, or what your mum thinks?’
‘I dunno, really,’
Sandy sighed, returning her gaze to Julie. ‘Do you mind my asking, Mrs Hawkins; are you religious?’
‘Well, I don’t go to church, but I was brought up a Catholic, sure I was.’
‘Ah; I thought that might be the case, as you’re Irish. I take it perhaps your husband isn’t, though?’
‘What, Irish or Catholic?’
‘No, he’s neither. He’s English, from Liverpool. And he’s not religious.’
‘Oh, I see,’ Sandy murmured, as if that explained everything.
She paused; looked at Stacey and then back to Julie. ‘Well, I can’t really advise you one way or the other in this, I’m afraid. It’s a difficult one. Common sense might suggest that termination would be better, for Stacey’s sake, all things considered. And the foetus is so tiny that it’s still at the stage where it might get spontaneously aborted anyway.’
Sandy looked at Stacey again. ‘And the procedure is very straightforward; there’s nothing to worry about; we’d refer you to the Women’s Hospital, and it would be quite painless with very little discomfort afterwards. Then you’d be able to resume your life. But on the other hand, it is a big thing to be considering. We are talking about terminating a potential life, after all. You’ve got to think how you might feel a few years down the line; whether you might come to regret it. Plus, I can tell you’ve got a good, supportive mum. It’s not as if you’d be on your own.’
Sandy returned her gaze to Julie. ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Hawkins. I know I’m sitting on the fence here, but it really does have to be a joint decision between the three of you. It’s not as if it were a case of rape; that would be a different thing altogether.’
She looked sharply back at Stacey. ‘At least I hope that wasn’t the case, was it, darling? Or you weren’t forced?’
Stacey managed a wan smile. ‘No, it wasn’t. And no, I wasn’t forced; not really.’
Sandy sighed, not entirely believing it. ‘Oh; right. Can I ask you how old the boy was?’
‘Nineteen; that’s what he said.’
Sandy looked at her in surprise. ‘Oh,’ she repeated. ‘It’s none of my business, but are you still seeing him?’
Julie did the answering, ‘No! Absolutely not! We made quite sure of that, sure we did!’
Sandy pursed her lips; looked back at Julie. ‘Mm. There might have been some coercion, perhaps, in spite of what Stacey says. And obviously the young man was committing an offence. It’s a tricky situation.’
She paused; concerned, sympathetic eyes back on Stacey. ‘Well, as I say, I can’t really advise you one way or the other. There’s no obvious course of action appropriate to your situation, really. I can only suggest you talk it over some more, the three of you, and if you do decide on a termination, come back and we’ll arrange it.’
Back home, Julie made them lunch. It was still only twelve-fifty. They had several hours to themselves before Emma and Darren (who were peeved that Stacey had had several days off school but they hadn’t) came home. They sat facing each other across the kitchen table as Stacey picked listlessly at her ham sandwich.
Julie watched her daughter; reflected on the clinic visit. Well, that was largely a waste of time! Nothing really decided. Weren’t they supposed to give advice? Isn’t that what they’re there for? Not that it’s a question of that, really. Derek’s made his mind up about what’s best. What’s best for Stacey. Or what he wants to happen, anyway. So, according to that Sandy, the ball’s in Stacey’s court. She has to decide. But it’s such a big thing for a child, isn’t it? So much to think about. So many considerations. So many consequences. God; what would I have done if I’d been faced with the situation at her age? Poor little love!
Uncomfortable, painful memories arose, unwanted, like ghost pain in an amputated limb. She smothered them. Never mind all that, I’ve got to think of the here and now. We’ve got to reach a decision. Grasp the nettle, one way or the other.
She spoke, gently, ‘Well what do you want to do then, Lovie?’
‘I don’t know, Mum. I really don’t.’ Stacey’s voice was flat, utterly dejected. ‘I thought it was all decided, but now that woman’s just confused things. I don’t know what to do.’
‘Yes, well I suppose she was just trying to give both sides of things, but she was saying that in the end, it has to be up to you.’
‘Well I don’t want it to be!’ Stacey said, her voice rising and trembling. ‘I’m only a kid, not a grown-up! I want someone to tell me what to do!’
Julie wanted to say, “I wish you’d thought that a few weeks ago,” but didn’t. There was no point in keeping on at the child. The situation just had to be dealt with as it was, no two ways about it.
Julie reached across to take Stacey’s hand. ‘Yes, I know, Lovie. I know it’s really hard for you.’
‘Yes, it is!’ Stacey was on the point of tears again.
‘Well all I can suggest is: do you feel more comfortable with what Dad wants to happen, or what I want? You know I’ll help you, lots. It doesn’t have to be difficult to look after a baby. I can show you what to do. Or if you have a termination: as Sandy said, it’ll all be over and done with and you can get on with your life again. Concentrate on your GCSEs, and never mind about boys, for a while. Hopefully.’
‘Yes but the trouble is,’ Stacey wailed, ‘whatever I do, it’ll upset either you or Dad. Why can’t you just agree about things? It’d be easier then!’
Julie sighed. ‘Sure I wish we could too, Stace. But he has his way of looking at things and I suppose I have mine. We can’t help being what we are. And he does like to have his own way. Typical man, I suppose.’
‘Yeah.’ Stacey agreed.
‘But it does make it hard for you; I can see that.’
‘Yes, bloody hard!’
‘Well; is there one view you sort of tend, a little bit, towards, do you think?’ Julie ventured, trying to be helpful.
Stacey thought about that. ‘Well, there’s that thing Sandy said about abortion. What she said, like, about how I might feel about it further down the line.’
Julie’s heart did a minor lurch. ‘Yes, Lovie,’ she said. ‘There is that. It’s like capital punishment in a way. Once it’s done, sure there’s no going back. You can’t undo it.’
Stacey went silent. Julie ventured, carefully, ‘So do you think you maybe come down on that side a bit?’
The silence continued.
Then, ‘Yeah; perhaps I do. I know I’m not Catholic, like you, but it seems wrong to kill a baby for no good reason, really.’
Julie tried to keep triumphalism out of her voice. ‘Mm. Of course it would have been better if you hadn’t been silly and fallen in the first place, but it’s not the end of the world, having a baby before you really meant to. It doesn’t have to completely ruin your life. And as I say; I’m always here for you.’
For the first time in many days, Stacey managed a small smile. But it quickly faded. ‘But Dad is all for me having an abortion though, isn’t he? I can’t really argue with him. He always wins.’
‘Yes, well leave your father to me.’ Julie felt suddenly, fiercely determined. ‘Like Sandy said, it would be good if we all agreed about what to do, but if we can’t, it’ll just have to be a majority decision, and if he doesn’t like it he can just lump it.’
‘But he does always do the deciding . . .’
‘Well this time he won’t. Our opinions are just as important as his. Especially yours, even if you are still a minor.’
Stacey looked doubtful. ‘I don’t want to cause a row though. Maybe it’s just easier to go along with what he wants. I hate having scenes . . .’
Julie laughed. ‘Well you two have had plenty in the past, so you have!’
Stacey smiled again, sadly. ‘Yes, but this isn’t trivial; it’s really important.’
Julie squeezed the hand she was still holding. ‘Don’t worry, Lovie. Sometimes you have to stand up for what you thinks’ right. I’m not going to back down over this, just you wait and see.’
Derek was home even earlier, as the enquiry, with little new to go on, had settled into hardly more than going-through-the-motions mode. Julie hoped he wouldn’t bring up the subject of the abortion until the two of them were alone later, although that wasn’t very likely to happen before Emma and Darren went to bed anyway. He wasn’t that inconsiderate. There was just a mute “well, is it arranged then?” question in his eyes when he walked in, to which she replied with a slight, non-committal shake of her head.
As soon as Emma got up to go to bed at eight-thirty (the younger Darren having gone at eight), Stacey sprang to her feet too, mumbled a goodnight and followed. Derek raised his eyebrows, waited a few minutes, lowered the volume on the television and then repeated his question, this time audibly but keeping his voice down. ‘Well? How did you get on? I’ve been thinking about you all day.’
Julie hesitated. This was going to be difficult again. She couldn’t meet his gaze. ‘You’re not going to like it, I don’t think.’
His eyes widened. ‘What do you mean? It’s been arranged, hasn’t it?’
‘Well, no, not really.’
His face contracted into a scowl. ‘What do you mean?’ he repeated. ‘I thought we’d agreed!’
‘No, Derek.’ Julie made herself look at him; steeled herself to be defiant. ‘You decided and I agreed with you, reluctantly. Stacey didn’t get asked her opinion.’
Derek snorted. ‘She’s only a kid! She’s got herself in the shit through being deceitful and stupid and acting like a little tart and now we’ve got to get her out of it. I don’t think her wishes really come into it!’
Julie tried to keep calm. ‘Yes, well that wasn’t what the woman at the clinic said.’
‘Oh? And what did she say?’ Derek’s tone was openly contemptuous.
‘She said we should all agree together. Including Stacey. I told her you and me didn’t agree though, and she said, well in that case it should be for Stacey to decide which of our opinions she wanted to take on board.’
‘But Stacey won’t join us in discussing it, will she, for Christ’s sake? She always buggers off to bed!’ Derek, predictably, was beginning to get annoyed.
‘Yes, and that’s because she’s afraid of you! She knows you’ll bully her to get your own way!’
‘What? Of course I wouldn’t! You know I wouldn’t!’
‘Yes you would though, even if you didn’t think you were doing. You’re a policeman, after all!’
‘What the fuck’s that got to do with anything?’
‘Well, it’s how you look at things. You deal with people doing wrong all day, don’t you? You judge people!’
Derek sighed heavily, exasperatingly. ‘No, Jules. I only nick the villains. The courts do the judging.’
‘Well you know what I mean!’
‘No, I don’t, but anyway, that’s beside the point. We’re supposed to be talking about Stacey. Okay then, so what does she feel about things?’
‘She’s coming round to thinking she wants to keep the baby.’
‘Oh yes?’ Derek didn’t attempt to hide his scorn. ‘And you haven’t been trying to persuade her to, of course? Now who’s doing the coercion?’
‘No, I didn’t!’
‘Oh, but you did! You two have been talking about it for hours, I expect, but she won’t speak to me!’
‘I’ve just told you; it wouldn’t be a discussion if she did that. It would be you telling her what to do. And anyway, no, I didn’t force my opinion on her. I really tried not to, at least. I said I thought the clinic was right; it was up to her at the end of the day, as you and me didn’t agree.’
‘But something’s made her change her mind, obviously!’
‘Well, it was something the woman at the clinic said; like how it was a very final thing, termination, and she might regret it later.’
‘What? I thought they were all for abortion!’
‘Sure she was just trying to be objective; show both sides of the argument. Which you don’t want to see!’
‘No, it isn’t that! I’m trying to be sensible about it and do what’s best for Stacey, that’s all!’
‘Well it isn’t only about “being sensible” Derek, I –’ Julie caught herself and stopped abruptly; hurriedly changed tack ‘– don’t think, anyway.’
‘What then? Oh yes, I know what you think,’ Derek sneered again. “Sanctity of life” and all that; isn’t it?’
‘Oh, don’t start on that again!’ Julie flared. ‘We’re going round in circles.’ They were both shouting now. Stacey and the other two too would be hearing the tirade.
Derek tried to lower his voice. ‘So; the two of you have decided then, have you?’
Julie moderated hers too. ‘No! It’s not like that! Stacey’s finding it really difficult, poor kid. She’s confused. She says she really just wants to be told what to do, which is a bit difficult when us two don’t agree. But I told her; in that case she’s got to decide whose opinion she’s most comfortable with. And if pressed she seems to know in her heart what she wants to do, which is keep the baby.’
‘Well I still think you’re wrong about it,’ Derek grumbled, missing the nuance. ‘And anyway, I don’t see why the hell I should support that nasty little bugger’s brat because he can’t keep his prick to himself.’
‘There’s no reason why you should . . . we should. He’ll perhaps pay some maintenance.’
Derek laughed sourly. ‘What, a nineteen-year-old? You’re joking!’
‘Well he should pay something, whatever he can afford, all the same. It’ll be his child too.’
‘Yeah, right. And I’ll make bloody sure he does, too.’
‘So does that mean you might come round to accept the idea?’
‘Huh; not really; no.
‘What else is it then?’
Derek shifted uncomfortably. ‘Well; it’s just a stupid situation, isn’t it?’
‘Well I know that. But it can’t be helped.’
‘And think of the embarrassment of it, too. I’ll be the laughing stock down at the station, and what’ll they think around here?’
Julie’s eyes widened with shock; jerked to lock onto his.
‘Well it will be, won’t it? And there’s my mum and dad to consider. I dread to think what they’ll make of it.’
Julie stared, incredulous.
‘I can’t believe you’re saying this! Bloody hell, Derek! Stacey’s going to go through this, have a child much too young, and all you can think about is how much it’ll cost, or your reputation with your workmates, or the neighbours, or your feckin’ parents? You’re not a little kid, having to please your parents. Jesus!’
‘So it’s just the way I feel, okay?’ Derek snarled.
‘No it’s not okay! Don’t be so sodding selfish! This is what wanting an abortion’s really all about, isn’t it? Nothing to do with Stacey’s welfare! Just quietly get rid of the baby, and no-one will be any the wiser. There’ll be no shame or embarrassment for you and we’ll just carry on as if nothing’s happened!’
Angry tears came now. Furious, Julie got up to find the tissue box; returned to her chair. ‘And switch that bloody television off, will you?’
Derek clicked it off. ‘I’m sorry, Jules – ’
‘No you’re not! Well if Stacey’s going to be such a bloody embarrassment to you, perhaps it’d be best if the two of us just buggered off out of your life, then she won’t be!’
He stared, aghast. ‘Now steady on! There’s no need to get like that! What is this now, blackmail? Fuck’s sake, Julie!’
‘Well, call it what the hell you like,’ Julie sobbed, ‘but if you’re making me choose between Stacey and you, so be it. I know where my loyalties lie!’
The colour had drained from Derek’s face. ‘You wouldn’t, would you?’
‘The way I’m feeling now, I just might, sure.’
He leaned forward, his eyes wide too, round with anxiety, closing the distance between their chairs; distance that suddenly felt like a mile. ‘I’m not asking you to choose, Loov. I’m really not. Bloody hell; don’t say things like that!’
‘Yes; well . . .’
‘Okay, okay. Let Stacey have the baby. Better that than lose you!’
‘Really?’ Do you mean that?’
‘Yes; really. Really. You’re right. I’m being a selfish bugger. Christ, Julie; don’t go!’
Julie’s anger began to melt. She couldn’t remain cross with him for long. His bluster had evaporated. Now he looked like a pleading, vulnerable little child.
‘Well alright, Derek. We’ll go with what Stacey wants then, will we?’
He exhaled lengthily, relieved.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes; let’s do that.’