“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them. Every day he was reminded of their grit, their courage in the face of obstacles, the quiet grace with which they shouldered their troubles. They were stronger than any man he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger then the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they had designed laws specifically to keep women down.” 325
A mentally unstable, religious fanatic enters a women’s health center — the last center in the state of Mississippi that offers abortions — with a gun and opens fire. What follows is a blood bath, for certain, but also the author’s exploration of the private lives some of many, many women (and men) who visit, work at, and rely on women’s health centers across the country.
Going a step further, Picoult also attempts to explore the rationale behind the pro-life protestors who work tirelessly (outside the clinic and in the Mississippi state legislator) to block access to abortions; the mindset of the loved ones of the women who visit the Center; and even the women who cannot get care at places such as the Center and the dire choices that they face due to lack of access.
“[The doctor] imagined what it felt like for them — to have made a decision that came at a colossal emotional and financial cost — and then to have that decision called into question. Not to mention the implication that they were not capable of managing their own healthcare…Those white men with their signs and slogans were not really there for the unborn, but there for the women who carried them. They couldn’t control women’s sexual independence. This the next best thing.” 58
When George Goddard drives hours from his home in rural Mississippi to the Center in Jackson, he has only divine vengeance on his mind. His reasoning: the people in the clinic end lives and, as a punishment, God has ordained him to end theirs. He has no real understanding of what happens in the clinic — despite his pastor’s attempts to convince George that is is a factory in which women are unwillingly forced to have gruesome and nearly fatal abortions — and so the situation he finds inside the Center is confusing for him.
“[George] had pictured himself like an avenging angel, swollen to comic-book-hero proportions, bursting through the doors of the clinic and leaving destruction in his wake. Revenge, in theory, throbbed with adrenaline and was clean with conviction. In reality, it was rushing into a house on fire and forgetting to map out your exit.” 103
He does not find a torture chamber, staffed with evil doctors; but instead a small women’s clinic, staffed when nurses, social workers, doctors. The Center is being visited not by those imagined “loose and immoral women,” but regular women. Some of those women are there for abortions, but George cannot make sense of the others– some very young, some much older than he expected — who are there for other types of care. This confusion does not stop George from firing into the clinic: killing many, leaving some wounded, and taking the rest of the people hostage. He is not there to try to understand the other side of the issue, he is there to play God.
As readers get to know the people inside and outside of the Center, Picoult begins to introduce some of the many, many paths that have led them there on this fatal, terrible afternoon. There is the doctor, who performs abortions in the hope that he will spare women the terrible fate that befell his own mother, who bled to death trying to end a pregnancy that could have led to her being lynched. Or the elderly cancer patient, who is seeking care from a old friend, a women who just happens to be a nurse at the Center. There is a young girl, trying to do the right thing and get on birth control before becoming sexually active and her caring Aunt who brought her. There is a woman there to have an abortion to preserve her dreams of finishing school and building a future; and even a pro-life activist who thought to expose the Center as illegal, who instead finds herself inside a totally unexpected nightmare.
The story is told in reverse, with the final moments of the stand-off opening the story and the author, slowly, slowly reversing time, revealing to readers what led George and the hostages to be in the Center that day.
Picoult is attempting to humanize the extremely complicated issues surrounding abortion; to move the dialogue from “right versus wrong” and try to show readers that reasons for abortion are are diverse as the women who seek them. She also attempts to show that women’s health centers — like the Center in the book — are often closed or so highly regulated that life-saving healthcare for poor or rural women is eliminated. Her characters diversity are an effort to show that there is no “one kind” of woman who seeks to end a pregnancy; nor is abortion the only reason that women seek out services at places that offer them.
Notably almost all the characters in the book — even those who are pro-choice — seem in their hearts slightly conflicted about whether terminating their pregnancies is the right thing to do. I feel that this oversight eliminates the point of view of the millions of women who aren’t the least bit conflicted about abortions: the women who have them without regret, for whom the only emotion they feel afterward is relief. If the picture is to be complete, then we must extend all women’s points of view into the dialogue in order to prevent readers from assuming that it is always — at least a little bit — the wrong decision.