April 13, 2006
Abortion Doc’s Son Weighs Thorny Past
"Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City and the Conflict That Divided America" by Eyal Press (Henry Holt and Co, $25).
Every father should be a hero to his child. But a child's hero and an adult's hero are often two different people, even when they inhabit the same body. Eyal Press, in his debut book, undergoes the difficult but riveting task of reconciling those two versions of his father, whom he clearly holds in heroic esteem. As the child of a Buffalo, N.Y. gynecologist who performs abortions, Press had a front-row seat for the abortion debate during its most tumultuous and violent years of the 1980s and '90s, peaking with the 1998 assassination of Dr. Barnett Slepian, Press's father's colleague. Gunned down in his home by an anti-abortionist sniper's bullet after attending Friday night services, Slepian became a symbol of the violent wing of the movement to oppose abortion.
The release of "Absolute Convictions" could not be more auspiciously timed, given the recent passage in South Dakota of the most far-reaching anti-abortion legislation nationwide. That law, and proposed bills in other states, has reignited debate over the future of Roe vs. Wade. The case, decided in 1973, "would turn tens of thousands of Americans, some of them housewives, others previously disengaged evangelical Christians, into full-fledged crusaders," Press writes.
It would also deeply affect the career of Press' father and the life of his family -- who arrived in Buffalo in February 1973, just three weeks after the Supreme Court's decision came down.
Over the next three decades, the Presses would find themselves at the center of an increasingly shrill and dangerous abortion debate, one that would lead to the death of their colleague and bring terms like "24-hour surveillance" and "death threats" into their own lives. Less than a decade after Slepian's death, Press returned to his hometown to dive into the cavernous questions of "life," "choice" and "freedom" that the abortion debate encapsulates. The book, a well-reported work of journalism with a personal heart, is not content to simply recount the fear and chaos that followed Slepian's murder, but instead seeks to understand how such a violent act came to pass in the first place. The great strength of this fine book is that it successfully presents twin narratives: a clear-eyed journalistic look at the evolution of a movement -- political and religious -- to oppose legalized abortion, and the story of a son coming into an adult's understanding of his father and the role he played in that larger drama. Press, a left-leaning investigative reporter who has published in The Nation, the American Prospect and The New York Times Magazine, adeptly mines his family's history while never losing his journalistic passion for social policy issues.
Press writes of his admiration for his father, Israeli-born Dr. Shalom Press, in somewhat simple terms -- the pride a child feels in the vague sense that his dad does something worthwhile for a living. Throughout "Absolute Convictions," however, Press's admiration graduates from that youthful feeling of "My dad does the right thing" into an adult appreciation that enables him to report and reflect more thoroughly on the history and meaning of the anti-abortion movement.
The moment in the book when Press embraces this mature and more complex view takes place in the Rev. Rob Schenck's Washington, D.C. office. Schenck is the founder of the evangelical advocacy organization Faith and Action and a leader in the pro-life movement. Sitting in Schenck's office, listening to him describe with exhilaration and passion why he felt that protesting abortion clinics -- including Press's father's practice -- was "one of the most spiritual exercises [he] had ever engaged in," Press is forced to admit that there is genuine conviction behind the pro-life perspective.
"If I place myself in Schenck's shoes, I can imagine his sense of exhilaration," he writes. "At the time, I could not contemplate the idea that a noble impulse might be motivating the protesters -- they were doing their best to make my father's life miserable. But if I step into the moral universe Schenck described to me -- a world where every unborn child represents God's creation and life begins at conception, where this is not a matter of debate but of truth as handed down in Scripture -- the ethical imperative is clear."
At a moment when all eyes are cast forward, Press' account is a wise attempt to look back, reminding ourselves of how this issue, which once attracted the attention mainly of Catholics, became the center of the moral and political universe for so many evangelical Protestants -- some of whom demonstrated their convictions through violent means. Press's complicated journey takes his readers to that murky crossroads where religion, politics, family and law all meet.
Article courtesy The Forward.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington, Mass.