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Protect and Defend by Richard North Patterson covers the complex, and in the current climate politically relevant issues of partial birth abortion and the legal and ethical dilemmas surrounding it. Add to that the political intrigue about the nomination of a woman as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of United States of America, and the first days in office of the new President Kerry Kilcannon whose main rival Senator Chad Palmer could turn out to be a friend in disguise. Here's a short summary of the story, without giving too much away. I will then discuss some of the ramifications of what this book is about. Interestingly President Kerry has some startling similarities with the current contender for the US Presidency John Kerry that are worth looking out for!

The book revolves around the case of 15 year old Mary Ann Tierney. A night of indiscretion with Toby, the boy she believed loved her has left her pregnant. But a sonogram reveals that her baby is hydrocephalic and will be born without a brain, and probably die as soon as he is born. Worse, her only option is a classical C-section which might impair her ability to bear children in the future. Congress has recently passed the Protection of Life Act which dictates that for a viable foetus in a late pregnancy, a minor must obtain the consent of her parent before abortion. Now Mary Ann Tierney wants to challenge that- but there are huge obstacles.

First, her father Martin Tierney is a professor of law in Ohio, a gentle man, a loving father and a committed pro-life campaigner. Brought up as a strict Roman Catholic, Mary Ann's parents never even told her about sex, let alone birth control. Now she turns to Sarah Dash, a young attorney and gives her the power to challenge the law. The case has the potential of going right up to the Supreme Court and challenging the legal bases of Roe v Wade. Dash is apprehensive about what this will do to Mary Ann, her family, and whether her firm will take it on. When the firm does agree, it is clear that Sarah has more than a battle on her hands- she must tread a cautious line between being Mary Ann's lawyer, and making Mary Ann her 'cause'. More importantly, she must fight right wing Christian groups that picket outside her house and shout 'baby killer' into the night. Finally, her links with the next potential Chief Justice will also become a cause for speculation.

There is another element to the story- Caroline Masters is selected by Kerry Kilcannon to replace the conservative Roger Bannon as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. A surprise choice, every move that Masters makes or has made now will become public scrutiny and open knowledge. Masters has secrets of her own, as does Kerry's rival- Chad Palmer. Together they try to outwit Macdonald Gage, the Majority Leader in the Senate. The story revolves around how Mary Ann's case becomes intricately entwined with Masters' future, but along side that deals with the potentially divisive issue of abortion and teenage pregnancies.

Like many of Patterson's other books, this one too has received rave reviews- it is meticulously researched (he thanks both George Bush and Bill Clinton in the same paragraph in his acknowldgements!) and takes the reader through the maze that is American politics and justice. My only grouse would be that it tends to glorify the position of the American president, and puts a halo around his power and position. But if you ignore that aspect, then the most compelling part of the book is where he deals with Mary Ann's case. He treats the pro-lifers, not as fundamentalists but as concerned citizens whose moral arguments one often has trouble shaking.

What drew me first to this book is of course the abortion issue. In the last few days I've been having furious arguments with friends over the question of abortion, partial birth abortion, the role of the Supreme Court in the United States and so on. One of my friends, whose an active anti-war campaigner and very left liberal, has been strangely angry about the 1.15 million who marched for their reproductive rights in Washington D.C. In an angry email he says to me that the issue seems to him to be about women demanding to have sex without taking note of the consequences. Comparing it to the meagre crowds that have turned up in recent times for some anti war protests, he goes on to ask whether the right to promiscuity is far more important than the plight of dying brown babies?

I disagree. I was uplifted by the sight of the 1.15 million who marched, I was reassured that perhaps there is hope yet. But I was also forced to re-examine my own views on abortion. This book has pushed me further ahead in that process. It is clear to me now that abortion is a far more complex issue than either the pro-life or the pro-choice side would make it out to be. It's not just about the life of the foetus, nor is it just about the right to 'choose'- it involves deeper, more fundamental issues about women's health, access to healthcare, dissemination of knowledge and so on. Mary Ann's case is particularly poignant and I believe not that unusual. Her parents never talked to her about sex, and the young boy she slept with, who then promptly disowned her, persuaded her that having sex would make him love her more. A confused 15 year old, she succumbed only to pay the ultimate price. The book contains harrowing stories of other such young mothers, but also an uplifting one, about a young girl who decides not to terminate, and gives birth to a defective child. The book also raises the all important issue of eugenics and under what conditions of 'mental and physical health' the mother should have the right to abort the foetus.

I'd recommend 'Protect and Defend' to anyone who is concerned about the attack on Roe v. Wade, about the nature of partial birth abortion and when it is used, or just wants to see both sides of the picture before making his or her mind up.

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