Buffalo and beyond: a life touched by the abortion wars

Review Divided America

February 19, 2006|By GLENN C. ALTSCHULER | GLENN C. ALTSCHULER,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America

By Eyal Press

Henry Holt / 284 pages / $25

Famous for its Bills and its blizzards, Buffalo became ground zero in the abortion wars Oct. 23, 1998, when a sniper shot obstetrician Barnett Slepian in the back just after he arrived at his suburban home and put a bowl of soup in the microwave. A few days later, Shalom Press, the remaining abortion provider in the city, was warned that he was "next on the list." In Absolute Convictions, Eyal Press, Shalom's son, provides a deeply personal narrative, based on interviews with partisans on both sides, about the volatile conflict over abortion in the blue-collar city where he grew up.

Acknowledging that he is not a dispassionate observer, Press, a magazine journalist in New York City, tries to get inside the heads and hearts of anti-abortion activists, whose sincerity he grants. But in the end, though he gives them a human face, Press draws the familiar conclusions that they are fundamentalists and that the abortion wars divert attention from the economic ills besetting millions of Americans.

Buffalo, Press believes, was "just the kind of place" where anti-abortion groups could attract a following. By the 1970s, the city's once-powerful unions had far fewer members and much less clout. As the gap between rich and poor grew, conservative strategists used culture wars to trump class consciousness. They linked the insecurity of blue-collar Americans to the "snooty elite" that supported abortion rights, homosexuality and gun control. Entrenched in the mainstream media, universities and government, this elite was responsible for the nation's moral decline.

A realignment occurred in the 1970s and 1980s as working-class Americans, in Buffalo and around the country, gravitated "from the brotherhood of labor to the fellowship of Christ" and from Roosevelt to Reagan. Abortion mattered, of course, but Press maintains that "the city could benefit from focusing on other things" - like disintegrating public schools, a fraying safety net for the poor, and racial segregation.

With Randall Terry's Operation Rescue in town and protesters outside every clinic, abortion providers needed intestinal fortitude just to come to work. Although Eyal Press begged his father to retire after the murder of Slepian, he felt "a powerful surge of pride" when Shalom refused. The courage of Shalom's convictions, Eyal believes, came from his upbringing in Israel. A stoic, little prone to self-reflection, Dr. Press felt the pressure. But he refused to back down in the face of threats: "It is what every Israeli was taught never to do."

Although delivering babies was "his most satisfying thing," performing abortions made the biggest difference to his patients. Shalom rejected challenges to his authority as a physician and the moral agency of his patients. Eyal agrees: "In no other circumstance does society require one person to provide another with life support."

That opponents of abortion have a coherent worldview, Eyal believes, makes them all the more dangerous. Some activists are "dazed and confused" children of the 1960s and 1970s, who traded one rebellious community, bound together by an alternative set of values, for another. All of them feel the frustration of a world "of hard decisions and uncertain consequences, of tremendous openness and freedom."

It is possible, Press repeats, to summon the patience and perseverance to channel opposition to abortion "into permissible forms of activism." But "in these radical pockets of pure belief, the logic of violence flowed from a set of absolutes, a Manichean view of reality in which doubt was eliminated and militant action urged." It compelled James Kopp, a born-again drifter, to shoot Slepian because the physician spent almost every waking moment "killing kids or rushing up from killing kids."

The anti-abortion activist Karen Prior told Eyal Press that the possibility that her red-hot rhetoric triggered Slepian's murder made her feel "awful." And she began to sob. Press sensed in Prior feelings of compassion and remorse "that transcended the barriers of a conflict that all too often prevented people from recognizing the humanity of their adversaries." But he resisted the impulse to comfort her.

The chasm between "pro-life" and "pro-choice" advocates, then, remains as large as it has been for 30 years, and Absolute Convictions, despite its good intentions, implies that it is not possible to reach across it.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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