Circa 1970, one pro-choice activist explained the significance of abortion this way: “We can get all the rights in the world,” she said, but “none of them means a doggone thing if we don’t own the flesh we stand in.” Abortion mattered just as deeply to its opponents, including future Buffalo, New York, mayor Jimmy Griffin. “I suppose I’m a square,” Griffin said around the same time, “but I see these plans to liberalize abortion as another sign of the permissiveness, the decay of our society.”
In Absolute Convictions journalist Eyal Press documents the battle born of these irreconcilable outlooks. His interest is more than that of a detached reporter: Shortly after women’s libbers and squares declared war, his father, Dr. Shalom Press, unwittingly sauntered onto the battlefield. Dr. Press emigrated from Israel to Buffalo in 1973 and soon began performing abortions in addition to delivering babies. No one told him about the passions and meanings attached to this operation in his adopted country. In the decades to come, he would brave death threats, protests outside his office, and the 1998 assassination of a colleague, Dr. Barnett Slepian. An unflappable sabra, Dr. Press resolved to continue what he saw as a necessary service. But he had started because, as he told his son decades later, “It was work.” Deftly integrating personal and social history, Press junior chronicles his father’s path to accidental heroism (or villainy, according to the graffiti on his car).
As it happened, the author’s hometown was a hotbed of pro-life activism. Abortion was legalized in New York State in 1970, despite opposition from heavily Catholic Buffalo. Press’s analysis of Buffalonian conservatism smacks of Thomas Frank: Apparently, what’s the matter with Kansas is also the matter with Buffalo. In the ’70s, following the exodus of factory jobs, resentment began to build against an immoral elite. But the anger (manipulated by conservative politicians, Press suggests) was directed not at union busters and fat cats, but at the homosexuals and “pro-aborts” who were sending the culture to hell.
Press shows that amid all the “absolute convictions,” the people who make abortion possible tend to be pragmatists, not ideologues. Many physicians, like Dr. Press, think of abortion as merely a medical procedure. Those who have come to feel strongly about reproductive rights—again like Dr. Press—were swayed by their exposure to the need. Some older physicians support legalization for different practical reasons. Theirs is the coat-hanger rationale: They’ve seen the bloody consequences of criminalization.
The other pragmatists in this story are the patients, several of whom Press interviews at his father’s clinic. Catholic “Jessica” had passed out pictures of aborted fetuses to high school classmates a few years back. Her positive pregnancy test had changed her views. She tells Press that, at age 19, “I’m just not ready to be a mom.” The two others, already mothers, can’t afford to add another kid’s worth of expenses to their debt. To these women, abortion is not a symbol.
To its most extremist foes, abortion isn’t necessarily a symbol either. That it’s murder is grounds enough for fervent opposition—and for, well, murder. Press believes the protests against doctors, especially the acts of violence, have had a “chilling effect.” Between 1992 and 2005, Press writes, six doctors and clinic workers were killed—including Buffalo’s Slepian—and hundreds of abortion providers closed shop. But the same forces have galvanized some doctors. When Shalom Press retires, abortion will be legally available in Buffalo thanks only to a few physicians who fly in from other states—a testament to the success of the scare tactics as well as the commitment to neutralize them.
A scrupulous reporter (and regular contributor to The Nation), Eyal Press is more comfortable with facts and political commentary than with feelings and storytelling. In emotional territory, he resorts to cliché—chills run down his spine, he gets knots in his stomach—and his descriptive prose often seems forced. Still, the memoir component is sufficiently well executed to provide an absorbing narrative, and his father emerges as a courageous character. Besides, the author’s aversion to navel-gazing—not to mention his fidelity to facts—is refreshing. Also refreshing is his even-handedness. While clearly pro-choice (he never says so explicitly), Press acknowledges that in the pro-life moral universe—”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.”
Ironically, if there’s a lacuna in this book, it’s that the pro-choice argument is not spelled out in its full complexity. Press doesn’t cite the most eloquent pro-choice partisans—such as his Nation colleague Katha Pollitt—to explain why abortion can be the moral option for women and for a society with limited resources. In part, that’s because his focus is on the movement whose activities have so disrupted his father’s life, while pro-choice activism plays a far smaller role in his story. Indeed, he refers to the “complacency that Roe had bred” in the pro-choice camp. But as Press makes clear at the end of his account, the momentum has shifted. Now any complacent pro-choicer is as naive about the issue as Shalom Press was when his plane landed in Buffalo.