While this past year saw a glut of books about abortion, first-hand stories from the front lines of the debate are rare. Eyal Press’s Absolute Convictions -- available in paperback this month -- stands out. The book is a memoir-cum-social history of the abortion wars in Buffalo, NY, where the author’s father worked as an OB-GYN and abortion provider for many years. Dr. Shalom Press is a fascinating study, a native-born Israeli who moved his young family to Buffalo in 1973 to pursue a residency, and never left. The life of this man could easily be the sole focus of a book, as could the turbulent history of blue-collar Buffalo. Eyal Press, a journalist who writes regularly for The Nation, balances the personal and political aspects of his story without letting one trump the other.
Abortion is one of the most common surgeries performed in the United States, but this fact has been eclipsed by controversy since even before Roe v. Wade. In straightforward prose, Press traces key political divisions back several decades, weaving them together with the history of Buffalo, Israeli history and the struggle for abortion rights. All these elements came together tragically in 1998, when Buffalo abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian -- a colleague of Shalom Press -- was murdered by “pro-life” fundamentalist James Kopp. With that, a city that had already played uncomfortable host to spectacles like the “Spring of Life” was seared into the national consciousness as a place of political friction.
“My father has often insisted that the political member of our family is not him but me: the son with a penchant for turning dinner conversations into heated discourses, the journalist drawn to stories about injustice,” Press writes. “I now know better than to believe it. There is a vast difference between writing about divisive political issues and living them out.” Press gracefully connects his personal anecdotes to a national context, and his attentiveness to intersecting issues sets his discussion apart from the usual reproductive rights discourse. His accounting of the pro-choice movement’s inadequate attention to race and class over the years is particularly honest, and illuminating. Despite good intentions, pro-choice advocacy groups of the '70s were overwhelmingly made up of people who were white and middle class. And by the late '80s, mainstream pro-choice groups had ceased any fledgling attempts to link reproductive rights to broader goals of economic, racial and sexual equality.
Dr. Press didn’t start out thinking about the political implications of abortion. He loved the happy occasion of delivering babies, but generally did not make much of a distinction between the different tasks his job involved. Perhaps naively, he understood abortion as just one of many services he offered to patients. The political circumstances in his adopted city did not let this pragmatism go unchallenged. But even while wearing a bulletproof vest to work, the doctor was relatively impassive. The younger Press attributes this in part to his father’s roots in Israel, a place where conflict was a fact of daily life. Even if Dr. Press had never expected to face this kind of situation in America, he was well equipped to deal with it. And although he was angered and even bewildered by what was going on, Press was more successful at containing his frustration than Dr. Slepian.
Like Dr. Press, Dr. Slepian was Jewish, and pro-life haranguing brought this identity to the fore of their professional lives. Anti-abortion protestors used the doctors’ religion both as a means of appealing to them, and as a way to demonize them. The protesters referred to abortion as the “American Holocaust.” The Press family (including Dr. Press’s wife Carla, a Holocaust survivor born in a work camp run by the Nazis) would sit down to dinner while protestors waved placards outside. Vigils for “the unborn” were held in front of the doctors’ homes and offices on Jewish holidays. A demonstrator once shouted at Dr. Press, “You are a Jew with a circumcised heart!”
After Dr. Slepian’s murder, the elder Press received a letter from a friend and Holocaust survivor urging that, for the sake of safety, the doctor stop performing abortions. Though he was sympathetic to the idea that survival was more important than principle, another impulse won out: his quintessentially Israeli refusal to give in to terrorists. Even as his family respected his conviction, it struggled with his decision. “The murder of Dr. Slepian touched on a division within my family about where to draw the line between high-minded principles and the bare necessity of surviving in the world,” Press writes. “Now that… the protagonist in the story was not a human rights activist in some remote country but my own father, what I wanted was for him to relax his standards -- even as I knew that he would not.”
The usual understanding of “the personal is political” imagines a reciprocal relationship. Press’s experience of that classic feminist axiom is marked by a fierce tension between his own life and his political principles. It is this tension that resonates most powerfully here. Caught between the instincts of Holocaust survivors and Israeli settlers, Press has written a truly unique examination of what he deems a “peculiarly American story.”
Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America by Eyal Press