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Protect and Defend: The Politics of Abortion

Richard North Patterson explores the relationship among politics, abortion, and influence in his new novel Protect and Defend. A political novel at its best, Protect and Defend portrays Washington as the powerhouse of the wealthy and the breeding ground for ambition.

Patterson shows no mercy to the political figures he creates. Both the Senate Majority Leader and the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee are waiting to become President and, though espousing heroism and honor, are ready to manipulate almost every situation for personal gain. Even the President himself, the only seemingly likable public figure in the novel, is not immune to using his own power to manipulate the desires and misfortunes of others into political wins for himself. Constituent groups appear non-existent, and the central focus of Patterson’s key figures turns out to be their fascination with their own power or its tenuousness. Ambition and its literal costs are core themes in this novel, but in the midst of power plays and political schemes lies a fifteen-year old girl pregnant with a hydrocephalic fetus who desperately wants an abortion to protect her own health.

A Republican-controlled Congress has just passed the Protection of Life Act which forces minors to obtain parental consent before having a post-viability abortion. Shortly after, Mary Ann Tierney, a fifteen-year old girl with zealous anti-choice parents, discovers that her five-month old fetus has a grim chance for survival after birth and if brought to term could render Mary Ann infertile.

Coinciding with Mary Ann’s dilemma is the death of the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and the nomination of Caroline Masters, the first woman who would be Chief Justice. The novel launches into an exquisite drama when Mary Ann decides to challenge the constitutionality of the Protection of Life Act in order to have an abortion.

Most powerful in this novel is the Tierney trial. Patterson evokes a compelling connection between the reader and Mary Ann herself, and Mary Ann proves to be one of the most complex characters in the novel. Patterson gives her the will to defy her parents in court, but never forgets that she is a fifteen-year old girl. She struggles with her decision to abort and worries about the morality of her decision and how it has affected her relationship with her parents forever. In Mary Ann, the reader has the opportunity to play out her own possible moral conflicts with abortion. In Mary Ann, the reader also finds true heroism and courage.

One of the lures of the Tierney trial as a whole is its timely subject matter. As Protect and Defend went to press, President George W. Bush promised the American public that he would pass legislation banning late-term abortion. Patterson’s triumph in this novel is that he helps us imagine the possible repercussions of this type of law. He also forces the American public to humanize the issue while implying that government can no longer do so because it is controlled by interests who ensure the power of those who have sold their votes and who seem to control justice itself. As one Senator’s wife says about the Senate, “Big boys, playing big games. What does a teenage girl matter?” (157).

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