The Making of a Martyr 

Holly Patterson's death devastated her family, but gave new life to longtime foes of RU-486.

Page 9 of 10

Debbie Patterson was not pleased to learn that her daughter's name was being used without her input. Although she and Monty retained joint legal custody of their children, their split was acrimonious and they rarely speak. This may explain why -- until she was contacted by the Express -- Debbie had heard neither of Holly's Law nor her ex-husband's public support of it. She was surprised by the national attention her daughter's death has received, angered that she hadn't been consulted about the legislation, and upset that her former husband's new wife was being deferred to as though she were Holly's parent. "Anything done on Holly's behalf needs to go through the father and the mother," she emphasizes.

Nevertheless, Debbie Patterson agrees that the dispensing of RU-486 needs to be reexamined. "I really, truly believe that until more information is found that this pill needs to be stopped dead in its tracks right now," she says. "I'm not saying it's good or bad, but it's not being handled right."

Then she reconsiders her statement. "Is there a safe use for napalm?" Debbie says. "You know, I lost not only my daughter but my grandchild. If I could look back on things I would have said, 'If you didn't want this baby, I want this baby. It's my grandbaby.' But we never had the chance to talk. We were never faced with that. It's hindsight."

For his part, Holly's grieving boyfriend cannot bring himself to speak too harshly of medical abortion. "I'm bitter that Holly is gone, but with all the research that I've done I don't feel that the pill is that unsafe. It seems to have a decent track record," he says.

Ehsan thinks the process, not the pill, was at fault. But while he believes Mifeprex patients should be more closely monitored after leaving the clinic, he has a hard time pinpointing exactly what needs to change. "The FDA and the drug company and Planned Parenthood are in disagreement with each other," Ehsan says with a sigh. "Everyone thinks someone else made the mistake. I'm sure a mistake happened somewhere, otherwise Holly would be alive. But I just don't know who made the mistake and what that mistake was."

Nor does anyone else -- yet. The FDA, Planned Parenthood, the California Department of Health Services, and Valley Care Medical Center are all conducting investigations. The medical center has called on the FDA to respond formally to the CWA's petition and lay down ground rules for how hospitals should handle Mifeprex-related emergencies. "Valley Care feels that we did everything correctly and that we did the best treatment we could for her," spokeswoman Kathy Campbell says. Nevertheless, she adds, the hospital wants better instructions. "If it goes awry, and the patient comes in, we want clearer definitions of what to do," she says.

That hardly seems unreasonable, given the coroner's findings that Holly died not from Mifeprex itself, but from an infection caused by remnants of an abortion. In the eyes of the drug's defenders, this demonstrates that DeMint's proposed legislation is a purely political play, not a genuine attempt to improve women's health. "There is no scientific proof that Mifeprex caused the infection which caused Holly Patterson's death," Saporta argues. "Would a surgical abortion or another surgical medical procedure have resulted in the same outcome? It's a tragic situation, but it's certainly not a reason to take a safe and effective method of early abortion away from tens of thousands of women who would choose it."

DeMint's people insist they're not the ones playing politics. "It doesn't matter whether you're pro-life or pro-choice -- why would you not support the best possible safety guidelines?" Hart asks.

But really, who in the abortion debate isn't playing politics? And the louder the debate gets, the more Holly Patterson risks becoming the next Polly Klaas, the next "Megan" we know only for the law named after her, or the "Amber" behind the Amber Alert System -- just another pretty young woman whose death flattens her into a symbol for a larger cause, devoid of the complexities and nuances that made her a unique person rather than simply a victim.

That process may already have begun -- some of the officials contacted for this story mistakenly pronounced Holly's last name "Peterson," perhaps conflating her with Laci Peterson, the pregnant Modesto woman who was murdered last year and has also become a namesake for legislation designed to protect unborn children.

"The people and groups that are pro-life are using Holly, my girlfriend, as almost a martyr, their way of attending to their own agenda," Ehsan says. "That's fine, because I understand that's just politics and it's nothing personal. But at the same time, this is the United States, the land of the free, and that's why I'm pro-choice. I think women should have the choice of deciding what should happen to their bodies."

Ehsan worries that all the attention will reduce Holly's memory to nothing more than "this person who died from taking an abortion pill." At the same time, it has exposed her most personal affairs to the world. Both he and Holly already have been the target of scrutiny and judgment, much of it unkind, from abortion foes posting on the Internet; these Web pundits have called Holly a whore who deserved to die and portrayed him as a callous opportunist.

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