Between pro-life and pro-choice

Richard North Patterson tries to write a "fair" abortion novel in "Protect and Defend," but there's no such thing.

Published February 23, 2001 8:09PM (EST)

On Web site after Web site, pro-life forces routinely cast their crusade against legalized abortion as a moral battle, the equivalent of the fight to abolish slavery. They piously intone about their hopes that the political divide over the issue of abortion does not cause "another Civil War." One Cynthia Hallen, for example, posted a grisly takeoff on that self-congratulatory song of the Union cause, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Mine eyes have seen the gory pictures
of dismembered babes;
They have pulled them from their mothers,
and then harvested their brains;
They have burned them in incinerators,
dumped them without graves,
While Right goes marching on.

From the beauty of the body,
they are suctioned into bits;
Or they're sliced in ragged pieces
to a mass of broken limbs;
Or the saline poison stops their hearts
and broils their fragile skins,
But Right goes marching on.

It is also common for pro-lifers to claim that the Supreme Court's decision in Roe vs. Wade is the equivalent of its notorious ruling in Dred Scott vs. Sandford. The court's 1857 ruling justified the return of a runaway slave from a free state on the grounds that Africans were private property, subject to their owner's disposal and discretion, and not legally protected "persons" under the Constitution.

This emotionally powerful but misleading analogy -- which deliberately ignores all the most important differences between the two issues -- is typical of today's increasingly sophisticated anti-abortion rhetoric. Grotesque imagery and persuasive misdirection have often succeeded in producing what popular novelist Richard North Patterson, author of the current bestseller "Protect and Defend," calls "a yawning -- and frequently inhumane -- gap between myth and reality." Patterson's novel is intended to fill that gap.

Against the background of a new president's controversial Supreme Court nomination, "Protect and Defend" tells the story of Mary Anne Tierney, a pregnant teenager with a hydrocephalic fetus. Tierney is denied a third-trimester abortion by both the law and her parents, even though delivering the effectively brain-dead child at term might endanger her future fertility. With the help of Sarah Dash, a standard-issue Brilliant Young Lawyer, Mary Anne goes to court against her own parents -- pillars of the pro-life community -- in an attempt to overturn the law. The result is skillful and intellectually thorough, but also far too calculated, conventional and pious.

Patterson wants to educate and persuade his readers politically, and he isn't afraid to say so. He believes that American politics has fatally distorted the question of abortion, especially the two elements of the issue that are still in the legislative arena: late-term, so-called partial birth abortions, and parental consent. Patterson feels that here the pro-lifers have seized the imaginative initiative, reaching the public first with their own blood-chilling version of "the official story" of late-term abortion. Pro-lifers have, he writes, been able to "intimidate politicians while casting pro-choice activists as, at best, oblivious to the moral implications of abortion, even at its most extreme." Patterson designed "Protect and Defend" to tell the story of a contested late-term abortion in a way "that was neither pro-choice nor pro-life, but pro-truth."

Since all of our major religions use storytelling to frame their moral ideas, it makes sense that fiction, popular and literary, plays a role in how we understand moral, and therefore political, questions. As critic Susan Sontag put it in an L.A. Times symposium on "Politics and the Novel" last summer, "If you start with the concept of the truth, then fiction takes its place among other kinds of instructive testimonies."

Of course the political fiction that lasts tends not to be overtly polemical. From Voltaire's "Candide" (a kind of 18th century "Forrest Gump") to Robert Penn Warren's novel of moral crisis in the political realm, "All the King's Men," great literature recognizes the human frailty that propaganda prefers to ignore. Nevertheless, when we don't have personal experience of certain moral issues, and when we find it hard to imagine being entangled in them, a simple, well-told tale of Good vs. Evil can be much more persuasive than logic.

So it was with Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 anti-slavery melodrama "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Michele Wallace, professor of English at City College of New York, noted in a recent article for the Drama Review that Stowe's book appeared at a time when the philosophical debate between North and South had reached a deadlock. Republican rationality and abolitionists' religious arguments weren't working. "In their place," Wallace wrote, "Stowe substituted the moral power of sentimentality and domesticity, the authority of the human heart."

As a result, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" proved to be "the most influential novel of social purpose in the nineteenth century," according to Bill Andrews, Adams Professor of English at University of North Carolins at Chapel Hill. Abraham Lincoln credited the book -- an international bestseller that was promptly adapted for the stage -- with significantly increasing abolitionist sympathies in the United States. When Lincoln met Stowe at the White House while the Civil War was raging in 1863, he is said to have greeted her by saying, "So this is the little lady who started this great big war." Patterson can only dream of having such an impact.

Stowe, like Patterson, always claimed that she tried to present a balanced picture of slavery. True, she did portray several benign slave owners and some relatively contented slaves -- and the most beastly character, Simon Legree, was a Yankee -- but no one could doubt her novel's true intent. "Slave holders were not appeased," Andrews said, "and anti-slavery readers knew a condemnation of slavery when they saw one." "reader reviews" of "Protect and Defend" indicate that pro-lifers know a condemnation of their position when they see it, too -- even before they read it. "It appears that this book is for the left-wingers out there," said one potential customer from Texas. "Thanks anyway, I'll pass."

Patterson takes a more crisp and cerebral approach to his pet issue than Stowe took to hers, but his strategy is more or less the same. He introduces reasonably sympathetic pro-life characters such as Mary Anne's father, Martin Tierney, the equivalent of one of Stowe's sympathetic slave holders. Martin personally conducts the court battle to force his daughter to bear his damaged grandson. (Patterson was an accomplished litigator before he wrote the first of a half-dozen legal thrillers, and some of the most effective elements of "Protect and Defend" are its lawyerly intellectual precision and the realistic emotional ups and downs of the trial scenes.)

In the novel's central trial, Martin Tierney brings in witnesses to testify to the small possibility that Mary Anne's child may turn out to be normal after all (medicine does make mistakes), and to the idea that even if the baby does prove to have little or no brain, he might somehow be able to live a great life anyway. One physician's bleak estimate of the danger to Mary Anne's future ability to bear normal children is characterized as another potential medical miscalculation.

Tierney is essentially arguing that it's impossible to know the future, so we can't really judge ahead of time whether terminating a given pregnancy would be "for the best." Therefore, women must be forced to err on the side of uncontrolled nature, and to let their reproductive chips fall where they may. The fact that most people would not take this radically fatalistic position in any other aspect of their lives -- people can opt for a risky medical treatment, for example, without the assurance of a guaranteed outcome -- is, apparently, irrelevant.

Though we are clearly meant to grudgingly admire Martin Tierney's single-minded dedication to life -- any kind of life at any cost -- we still disdain his actions, because Patterson stacks the deck against him so meticulously. Given the situation the author sets up, Mary Anne's decision to terminate her pregnancy is just too easy, both morally and rationally. Her case is a flawless object lesson in the pitfalls of legislating on the basis of inflammatory, unexamined, one-size-fits-all assumptions, but so what? Real life rarely offers perfect examples like Mary Anne's; it tends to be messy. But "Protect and Defend" doesn't get into those gray areas, or into the larger, grayer area of how involved the state should be -- if at all -- in the enforcement of "normal" pregnancies.

In fact, Patterson deals somewhat dishonestly with the other, more routine abortions that figure in the book. The story's young, Kennedyesque Irish-American president, Kerry Kilcannon -- who takes the standard liberal "hate it but don't legislate it" attitude toward abortion -- is a case in point. We first met Kilcannon in Patterson's earlier political novel, "No Safe Place." (If you don't want to know important details of the stories in Patterson's earlier novels, you should stop reading now.)

In "No Safe Place," Kerry Kilcannon's bid for the presidency is threatened when his rival in the primaries leaks damaging evidence about him to an abortion rights group. Kilcannon had an adulterous affair with a political reporter, Lara Costello, and -- very much against Kilcannon's wishes -- Costello had an abortion and fled the relationship, thereby maintaining both his political viability and her own career. Costello's defiance of her lover's wishes is mirrored in "Protect and Defend," when a well-meaning, pro-life Republican senator's drug-addled daughter aborts her illegitimate child. Though the men in Patterson's stories always object strenuously to abortion, they nevertheless benefit from the independent determination of their women to undergo the procedure -- benefit, that is, as long as the abortion is kept secret.

Here's where abortion differs from slavery when it comes to political fiction. Slavery, for most of Harriet Beecher Stowe's readers -- even the people who considered themselves abolitionists -- was a distant and abstract thing. The majority had never even met a black person and had no personal stake in slavery as an institution, for or against. In the North, white individuals simply didn't have to take a position on slavery, and those who did generally approached it as a matter of passionate principle, not lived experience. What Stowe's story did was furnish her readers' imaginations with emotionally freighted images -- abused slaves and brutal masters -- giving them something, in modern parlance, they could "relate to."

However, most Americans have some kind of immediate experience of problem pregnancy and thus have a genuine personal stake in the abortion issue -- even if public dishonesty prevails. There have been some 35 million abortions in this country since it was legalized in 1973, so anyone who thinks he or she has never known anyone who felt compelled to end a pregnancy has probably been lied to at least once. Slavery was a very public, visible institution; abortion, even when legal, is not.

Men in particular are unlikely to know whether their female friends, co-workers or relatives have ever had an abortion, and they sometimes assume -- if they even think about it at all -- that the "good" women they know have never even considered the option. In those subcultures where abortion is most strongly condemned (the fundamentalist community, for example), the secrecy runs even deeper, which reinforces the political sanctimony. Thus we have the Amazon reader who thought that it was "over the top" for Patterson to portray three out of more than a dozen women in his book as having had an abortion.

The pro-life movement papers over this secrecy with a story as reductive as the romanticized and symbolic struggles of Harriet Beecher Stowe's characters. In the pro-lifers' favorite fairy tale, women seeking abortions are always the equivalent of Simon Legree: selfish, cruel and opportunistic. Their sexual irresponsibility, the story goes, results in pregnancies they find merely "inconvenient," and therefore these "bad" women should pay for their sins with pregnancy and childbirth.

Meanwhile, real women, sensitive to this widespread mythology, often avoid admitting their own experiences with abortion or even their intimate knowledge of another woman's abortion decision -- unless they can hedge it with elaborate disclaimers of disapproval. Given this climate, an abortion in a political candidate's past is guaranteed to sink his or her career, which is probably why Patterson lets Kerry Kilcannon and his fiancie "get away with it": Lara's abortion remains a secret and Kerry is able to maintain his virtually faultless public image. But by sparing Lara and Kerry the ordeal of public exposure, Patterson reinforces the idea that abortion is unspeakable. Of course, Roe vs. Wade defined the choice to have an abortion as a private matter. But the sad truth is that as long as abortion remains secret there's no way to counteract the pro-life movement's campaign to brand all women who seek abortions as capricious and morally unserious.

What's even worse is the way Patterson lets his heroes off the hook, that is, by means of an unlikely confluence of coincidences involving, among other things, blackmail, a lone gunman and a well-timed diversionary scandal (though, naturally, Kerry's underlings handle all the dirty work, just as Lara took on terminating her pregnancy all by herself). Because Kerry and Lara are too damn lucky, they never actually have to confront the unsolvable conflicts at the intersection of our unrealistic ideals, the public pretenses that we indulge in to maintain them and our "bad woman" abortion myths. The one woman whose past abortion gets plastered all over the newspapers in "Protect and Defend" is one of those naughty, alcoholic, irresponsibly sexual teens the pro-lifers seem to feel would most benefit from an enforced pregnancy. She winds up drunk and dead. Of course, if Kerry and Lara weren't quite so lucky, they'd be dragged through the mud too, and Patterson wouldn't deliver the happy ending his kind of fiction is required to have.

The African-American writer James Baldwin once famously dissed "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the whole tradition of "protest novels" in American literature -- including, shockingly, those of his mentor, Richard Wright -- for, as Bill Andrews put it, "schematizing American reality," concentrating on "issues" and what was essentially sociological observation rather than the portrayal of full, individualized human beings. Protest novels, Baldwin lamented, tended to reduce all of America "to the compulsive, bloodless reality of a guy named Joe." Ironically, this kind of simplification tends to reinforce the pernicious stereotyping it protests.

Likewise, Americans want our political campaigns and legislative battles to be a variation on the melodrama of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Protect and Defend," the equivalent of exciting Western shootouts, desperate romantic rivalries or come-from-behind sports sagas. We want to believe that virtue, however severely challenged by the forces of evil, will inevitably triumph and that losers just weren't "good" enough, and therefore didn't deserve to win. And to win, a hero or heroine has to be truly good, almost perfect except for a few likable shortcomings.

That's what makes for satisfying genre fiction and movies, but the laws that protect and regulate abortion don't get applied to perfect, fortunate characters like Mary Anne Tierney and Kerry Kilcannon; they dictate the lives of real, flawed, unlucky people. And as long as Patterson is writing about "ideal" cases like Mary Anne and Kerry, no matter how balanced he tries to be, he's not writing about the reality of abortion, and he still encourages us to believe that the world would be fine if we could just "fix" a few things politically, by tinkering here and there with our communal machinery. Meanwhile, our individual struggles with these official myths -- and especially the secrets we keep -- remain unchallenged and unchanged.

By Judith Greer

Judith Greer is a writer who lives near Charleston, S.C. She is a former Air Force officer and graduate of the University of Southern California's School of International Relations.

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