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Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America
For the past thirty years our country has been embroiled in a discussion about abortion. Eyal Press tells this story from the perspective of a son of one of the remaining abortion doctors in Buffalo, after Dr. Bernard Slepian is murdered. Absolute Convictions is a bold attempt to balance the polarized national debate with the private dilemmas faced in an individual?s life. A must read as we wait for our current Supreme Court to add another chapter to this epic struggle.
Synopses & Reviews
On October 23, 1998, the Buffalo abortion provider Barnett Slepian was killed by a sniper’s bullet fired through the kitchen window of his home. Days later, police informed another local doctor, Shalom Press, that they had received a threat warning that he was “next on the list.” Within hours the Press household was under twenty-four-hour federal marshal protection. America’s violent struggle over abortion – which had already claimed the lives of five doctors and clinic workers – had come to Buffalo.
In Absolute Convictions, Eyal Press returns to his hometown seeking to understand how an issue many people thought was settled decades ago could inspire such rage. Press combines a retelling of his family’s experience with firsthand accounts of protesters arrested outside his father’s office, patients who braved the gauntlet of demonstrators, and politicians who attempted to appease both sides. Through the Press family and the city of Buffalo, a blue-collar town undergoing wrenching economic changes, we see, as never before, the people behind the absolute convictions that have divided our nation for the past three decades.
With remarkable sensitivity, Press has written both a gripping narrative account of a family and a city caught in the crossfire of moral fervor and individual rights, and an incisive history that offers new insight into the economic and social roots of America’s most volatile conflict.
"In this inside look at a battleground of the abortion debate — Buffalo, N.Y. — the son of an abortion provider examines both sides of the culture clash that envelops his Israeli father's life. Drawing comparisons with the religious fundamentalism of his father's homeland, Press takes the reader on a brisk, compelling tour of a city that saw both Operation Rescue's massive 'Spring of Life' protests in 1992 and the 1998 murder of abortion provider Barnett Slepian. Both events swirled around the lives of Press's defiant father, Shalom, who 'at the core of his identity' couldn't 'back down in the face of a threat,' and his mother, Carla, a Holocaust survivor who endured comparisons of abortion clinics to Nazi death camps. Part memoir and part reportage, Press's book provides a piercing look at local leaders of both camps and follows the dramatic arrest, confession and sentencing of Slepian's killer, James Kopp. While more insight into his father's experience would have enhanced the story, Press's incisive account of an immigrant family at the center of an American culture war is a gripping read." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"On Oct. 23, 1998, in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, a sniper shot Dr. Barnett Slepian as he stood in his kitchen. Slepian, an obstetrician and gynecologist who devoted part of his practice to performing abortions, bled to death in front of his wife and four sons. That murder led Eyal Press, the son of a colleague of Slepian's, to explore one of the most contentious issues of our times. The... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) story he tells in 'Absolute Convictions,' Press writes, is 'a peculiarly American story, for while many Western countries have legalized abortion in recent decades, only in the Unites States has an issue sparked turmoil and violence on such a scale.' Other countries may view abortion as a simple medical procedure, but in America it has become symbolic 'of liberation and empowerment to some, of spiritual and moral degeneration to others. It is also a prism through which debates about sex and gender, religion and politics, and ... race and class have long played out.' The author's father, Shalom Press, came to Buffalo in 1973 for postgraduate training in obstetrics and gynecology just as Roe v. Wade made history. Rather than returning to his native Israel, Press decided to go into practice in Buffalo. In the early days, few patients asked Press to terminate their pregnancies. But in later years, that same office where he practiced all facets of his specialty was labeled an abortion clinic. 'Medicine was not a political calling to my father,' the younger Press writes. 'But it was a barometer of virtue to him, a measure of the kind of person he could claim to be, which he viewed as a function not of whether he was pro-life or pro-choice but of how attentive he was to the people in his care, and how hard he worked.' By the 1980s, leadership of the pro-life movement was, ironically, passing to men, and in Buffalo these leaders were Rob and Paul Schenck. Twin brothers, the Schencks had grown up in a Jewish home, but after a rebellious adolescence, they converted to Christianity and later became pro-life activists — 'fiery young lay ministers who were, at heart, rebels, willing not only to raise their voices but also to break the law in order to purge America of the vices in which they had themselves once indulged.' In September 1987, Paul Schenck conducted a mock funeral outside Dr. Press' office. Subsequent 'rescues' made it physically difficult for women to enter the clinic. The campaign to intimidate physicians extended to the places where they lived. Dr. Press, perhaps because of his hardy upbringing in Israel, became determined not to give in: 'My father had not suddenly become a feminist. But he didn't need to be a member of NOW to understand that the protesters were challenging his authority — not to mention the moral agency of his patients, who, like him, frequently had to run a gauntlet of protesters on their way to his door.' Slepian's murder left Shalom Press the only local doctor who performed abortions in his office. The author effectively uses the events in Buffalo to illustrate the broader story of how Supreme Court rulings, national initiatives by new administrations, and the strategies of pro-life and pro-choice groups played out in American culture. Acknowledging his inherent bias, Press notes how easy it was at first to 'think the intolerance in the abortion conflict existed solely on one side.' But he reached a larger understanding: When a pro-life activist described being ostracized by her colleagues in academia — 'people who claimed to be open minded (but) preferred to dismiss her as a reactionary zealot rather than engage her in dialogue' — Press 'realized that I had come to our meeting holding some of the same assumptions about her myself.' When he interviewed Rob Schenck, he found him so engaging that 'several hours into the meeting, it seemed we were fast becoming friends.' Among the many levels at which the title of the book resonates is that of irony: Few of our convictions are absolute. Many obstetricians and gynecologists are pro-choice, but they choose not to provide abortions because the very word, not to mention the procedure, is stigmatized. Conversely, many people who are pro-life are not about to demonstrate in front of abortion clinics; the majority abhor the violence and the murder of physicians. Even Rob Schenck concedes that, 'I don't think that most abortion providers go into an abortion saying, "Let me just murder this pre-born human being,"' and yet, in Schenck's eyes, that is just what they do. Abortion is a tricky topic, and Press is brave to take it on. In many ways, he succeeds, elegantly capturing the emotions, myths and realities that surround this issue. Will this book change a reader's mind one way or the other? Probably not. Nevertheless, it will allow a much deeper understanding and a better appreciation of both points of view. Abraham Verghese is Marvin Forland Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Humanities at the University of Texas' Health Sciences Center in San Antonio. His books include 'My Own Country: A Doctor's Story.'" Reviewed by Abraham Verghese, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
In 1998, one of only two doctors in Buffalo, New York, who performed abortions was shot dead by a radical antiabortion activist. The son of the surviving doctor now presents a gripping account of a family and a city caught in the crossfire of moral fervor and individual rights in the fierce battle over abortion.
A Booklist Editors' Choice of the Year
On October 23, 1998, Barnett Slepian, an abortion provider in Buffalo, New York, was killed by a sniper's bullet. Days later, another local doctor, Shalom Press, received a threat that he was "next on the list." Within hours, the Press family was under police protection, and America's violent struggle over abortion had come to the blue-collar city of Buffalo. In Absolute Convictions, Press recounts his family's experience with protesters outside his father's clinic, patients who braved the gauntlet of demonstrators, and politicians who attempted to appease both sides. With remarkable sensitivity, Eyal Press "plunges into, and transcends, a polarized debate that makes partisans of us all" (The Nation).
On October 23, 1998, the Buffalo abortion provider Barnett Slepian was killed by a sniper's bullet fired through the kitchen window of his home. Days later, police informed another local doctor, Shalom Press, that they had received a threat warning that he was "next on the list." Within hours the Press household was under twenty-four-hour federal marshal protection. America's violent struggle over abortion - which had already claimed the lives of five doctors and clinic workers - had come to Buffalo.
In Absolute Convictions, Eyal Press returns to his hometown seeking to understand how an issue many people thought was settled decades ago could inspire such rage. Press combines a retelling of his family's experience with firsthand accounts of protesters arrested outside his father's office, patients who braved the gauntlet of demonstrators, and politicians who attempted to appease both sides. Through the Press family and the city of Buffalo, a blue-collar town undergoing wrenching economic changes, we see, as never before, the people behind the absolute convictions that have divided our nation for the past three decades.
With remarkable sensitivity, Press has written both a gripping narrative account of a family and a city caught in the crossfire of moral fervor and individual rights, and an incisive history that offers new insight into the economic and social roots of America's most volatile conflict.
About the Author
Eyal Press is a journalist based in New York City. A regular contributor to
The Nation and The American Prospect, his articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Mother Jones. He was a finalist for the 2004 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and has received the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, the Science-in-Society Award from the National Association of Science Writers and Editors, and an Open Society Institute fellowship.
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