Anti-abortion activists are fond of likening themselves to abolitionists: like the ante-bellum anti-slavery agitators who recognized a slave's humanity, pro-lifers understand that a fetus is a human being, not merely a non-viable blastula. And, a 150 years from now, when legalized abortion is a faint memory, Americans will look back in unanimous horror and wonder how so many people--generally upstanding, moral folk--could have accepted abortion, advocated abortion, and even performed or had an abortion, just as today Americans agree that slavery was, in Henry Adams's phrase, the cancer that sickened America's otherwise healthy body politic.

Folks on both sides of the abortion debate have spun out books and pamphlets defending their position, just as abolitionists and pro-slavery divines churned out tracts. The ante-bellum writers favored fiction: Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was the most famous abolitionist novel, and Mary H. Eastman's "Aunt Phillis's Cabin" the most famous fictional pro-slavery response, but Stowe and Eastman were just two of many women who wrote novels about slavery.

Most fiction about abortion has been no less tendentious. But "Deep in the Heart," the first novel by acclaimed short-story writer Sharon Oard Warner, is a fine-grained evocation of love, family discord, and the aftermath of abortion that should be read by pro-choicers and pro-lifers alike.

"Deep in the Heart" tells the story of two families in Austin, Texas who meet when a pregnancy puts them on a collision course. Penny Reed, a young fundamentalist florist and her grandmother Mattie, are devoted members of a non-denominational church headed by Dr. Bill, a pro-life activist and preacher with a wild past who has begun courting Penny. Hannah and Carl Solace are a 40-ish couple in their second decade of a failing marriage when Hannah gets pregnant.

Carl, who has all the makings of a great dad, desperately wants her to have the child, but Hannah isn't so sure. She consults a counselor to discuss abortion. Uncertain if she has it in herself to be a mom, she hangs out with her sister, a savvy mother of three. Then, early one morning, without telling Carl, she slips off to an abortion clinic. Notified of Hannah's plans by her sister, Carl rushes to the clinic to stop her, but he arrives too late.

Dr. Bill, Penny, and other folks from church are at the clinic that day, protesting, and Dr. Bill decides to make an example out of Hannah. He litters her lawn with signs screaming "baby-killer," and he stages a noisy protest outside the high school where Hannah is vice-principal.

The Solaces' marriage cannot weather the strain, and Hannah moves out, while Carl falls in love with Penny. The consequences of Hannah's decision play out to no one's ennoblement, neither validating nor condemning her choice. Abortion is portrayed as a complex personal and moral decision, far messier than the neatly politicized boxes of either the left or the right on this issue would have us believe. There is a touch of the cliché in "Deep in the Heart." At one point, Hannah invites a pregnant teen-ager to live with her. The young woman is determined to keep her baby but has been pressured by her father and friends to have an abortion. "You have an abortion, Dr. Solace, and that's the worst thing," says the teen in her impassioned speech. "`Selfish,' they say, `so selfish.' And I don't have one, and that's the worst thing, too..Is it age? At your age, any baby should be a blessing. At my age, no baby should be? Is it being married? Anybody's who's married should want a baby, and anybody unmarried shouldn't? Where'd all these rules come from?"

This impassioned set piece is played opposite the frothing anti-abortionism of Dr. Bill and his followers. Where, one wonders, are the reasonable anti-abortion activists? Dr. Bill and his crowd, are strident fanatics, more interested in ruing lives than saving them. Nonetheless, Sharon Oard Warner makes a point that activists on both sides of the abortion debate would do well to take seriously. Pro-life propagandists would have us believe, for instance, that most women have abortions because their callous and irresponsible husbands and boyfriends talk them into it-but the most sympathetic character in "Deep in the Heart" is a husband who wants just the opposite.

"Deep in the Heart" will disappoint both sides in the abortion debate. Pro-lifers will say abortion looks too rosy, while pro-choicers will chafe at the implicit message that abortion destroys marriages and renders women unfit to be a wives (The true pro-choice novel is one in which abortion is takes no more than three paragraphs.) But "Deep in the Heart" gets at a truth that most Americans-who, studies show, are somewhere in between NARAL and Focus on the Family-recognize, if Phyllis Schlafly and Patricia Ireland do not-lives, if not a life-are at stake.

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