Monday, 20 January 2014

Coronation Street breaks new ground on assisted dying

Coronation Street fans will have been gripped over recent months by the unfolding story about the death of Hayley Cropper.
Played by actress Julie Hesmondhalgh, the character of Hayley has been a stalwart of the show for the past 16 years. The latest plotline though brought that time to a sad end as the character took her own life by taking poison.
The plot line began some months ago when Hayley was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The script writers then built the tension, with viewers no doubt expecting Hayley, as with other past cancer based soap plot lines, to recover. Not this time though.
Coronation Street have trod new territory, with the character facing terminal cancer. Tension builds further, when having thought she had a few months to live, it suddenly becomes clear Hayley now has just weeks.
There is a debate between Hayley and her screen husband Roy about what is going to happen. They seek to make the best of their final weeks together but Roy is horrified when Hayley reveals her plan to take her own life. He initially won’t contemplate the idea but comes round to agreement after seeing the pain she is under. This culminated in the final scenes, where Hayley takes poison and dies.
Coronation Street has certainly broken new ground with the Hayley story, stepping into the controversial area of assisted dying and suicide. It will be interesting to see the impact the programme has on the debate. When soaps have addressed such controversial subjects in the past, like Eastenders taking on aids, via the character of Mark Fowler, it has had a huge impact. The soap plot had far more impact than any series of public service information broadcasts on the subject.
Like them or loath them the soaps draw huge audiences on a weekly basis. They also tread that somewhat strange territory of being fictional yet causing so many of the public to relate directly to the character’s experiences.
It is this power that makes this genre of drama so attractive to those with a public service message to get across. So issues like homosexuality, domestic violence, child abuse and rape have all found their way into the plot lines of the soaps over recent years.
Given the past impact of such story lines on real world scenarios, it would seem likely that this latest offering will reignite the assisted dying debate.
Indeed, Hayley’s story is likely to have more impact than any number of documentaries on the subject.
So how does the soap depiction of assisted dying measure up to reality? In the early stages of Hayley’s diagnosis she meets someone called Jane from a support group. Jane also has terminal cancer. This element of the story, together with the latter part of Hayley’s life show some elements of palliative care. The desire to make the best of the time left comes through in both the characters of Jane and Hayley. When Jane suddenly dies, it comes as a shock and really sets Hayley on the road to her decision to take her own life.
Hayley is supported by husband Roy and her friends. The whole community seem to rally round to support Hayley. She takes her decision in what appears a very rational and considered way.
The problem with this sort of depiction of assisted dying or suicide is that it can simplify the argument to one of a person with support, who just cannot take any more pain and wants to die.
The reality is that there are the cases of the individual who does not have that support network. The person with no friends or family, alone afraid in the hospital bed. There will be the support of medical staff but in these cash strapped times, this type of support is becoming less likely to be available. Indeed, the pressure on NHS resources is a great worry in terms of how medical staff come to evaluate life. We have already seen the way that the Liverpool Care Pathway has been misused on occasion to bring about early death. Some argue that any loosening up on the rules on assisted dying will be the first steps on the road to euthanasia.
Then there is the situation of the greedy relatives who have little concern for the person who is dying but simply want to get their hands on their money as soon as possible. This element was briefly touched on in the Hayley story, when her estranged son appears on the scene with two grandchildren she didn’t know existed. He manages to effectively emotionally blackmail Hayley to give him some money in return for seeing the children.
The threat though of the greedy relative in the real world, maybe less of an issue in the case of a terminal illness, especially when life expectancy is so short.
There has been no effort in the soap script to take in faith dimensions of suicide. This would have been difficult though as the character was never shown to have any religious intent. Indeed, dramatically, the initial abhorrence of Roy, an atheist, to the idea of suicide, gives real insight.
Overall, the production team at Coronation Street deserve credit for this excellent piece of drama. However, the concern must be that it will be used to feed into a building momentum in the secular media to push forward the cause of assisted dying. This ofcourse is not a reason to ignore the subject.
It is important though to remember that this is fictional drama not fact based reality. It contributes something to the national discourse on the subject of assisted dying but should not be used as a prop for those seeking to make it easier for individuals to take their own lives. Maybe in the name of balance the next soap on the subject should create the character of the terminally ill person with no friends or family stranded in the hospital bed – less gripping viewing maybe but a dose of what amounts to reality for many in our society today.

*universe - 26/1/2014

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