What's the matter with Buffalo?

The son of an abortion doctor uses his dad's story -- he faced death threats -- to show how his hometown became ground zero for clinic violence.

By Lynn Harris
March 9, 2006 4:25PM (UTC)
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On Feb. 28, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that federal extortion and racketeering laws cannot be used to stop antiabortion extremists from violent or intrusive clinic protests. While this ruling is a giant bummer for the National Organization for Women, which has devoted two decades and immeasurable resources to the case -- and while we do, of course, still have plenty of other reproductive rights matters to worry about -- it's not as if bombs and blockades (which have not disappeared) are now suddenly legal. Thanks to the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act -- which, every time I think about it, boggles my mind with the sheer necessity of its existence -- violence and vandalism against clinics and their patients and employees is not protected as "free speech."

There was no such thing as FACE, however, in 1992, when antiabortion activists invaded Buffalo, N.Y., for the "Spring of Life," a series of large-scale attempts to shut down the city's abortion clinics. (I was there, having schlepped from Boston as part of NOWs counter-presence.) Then again, even FACE couldn't have saved the life of Buffalo physician Barnett Slepian, who performed abortions as part of his OB-GYN practice. In 1999, abortion opponent James Kopp shot Slepian through the window of his kitchen while the doctor was heating up some split-pea soup.


There now remains only one Buffalo physician who performs abortions: the Israel-born Dr. Shalom Press. (A handful of others fly in from neighboring states.) Fortunately for those with an interest in the anatomy of the antiabortion movement, and in how "pro-life" came to mean murder, Dr. Press' son is a journalist -- one who has long been haunted by the too-close-to-home assassination of his father's colleague. In "Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America," Eyal Press, a writer for the Nation, uses his family's story -- which includes death threats, perceived and actual, against his father -- to help illustrate Buffalo's transformation into a crucible of clinic violence. Buffalo also becomes a parable not only for the crystallization of large-scale, often violent antiabortion activism, but also for late 20th century America itself: "a place," Press writes, "where issues of morality and culture would come to supercede those of class."

"Absolute Convictions" is one part memoir (a genre that seems to have sparked its own opposition movement) to about four parts social history and reportage. The book opens with the murder of Dr. Slepian and ends with a rather chilling account of the apprehension, trial and sentencing of his killer. In between, Press weaves together the multinational history of his family, the urban history of Buffalo, the legal history of Roe v. Wade, and the cultural history of the American "morality" movement, with opposition to abortion as one of its cornerstones. Where these strands come together is in Press' account of how Buffalo, a prime candidate for populist power struggles, became instead a destination for conservative religious activism (not just the carpetbagging Spring of Lifers, but also local groups that led the daily harassment of Dr. Press and his colleagues -- including a series of circuslike protests six months after Slepian's murder).

What's the matter with Buffalo? There as elsewhere, union leaders -- thanks in part to McCarthyism -- lost their edge: The church came to replace the CIO. "Perhaps it's no surprise that, in a city where people had good reason to want to believe some higher force was looking after them, more and more would gravitate from the brotherhood of labor to another kind of fraternity: the fellowship of Christ," writes Press. At the end of the 20th century, this shift played nicely into the hands of conservative power: "As the chasm between rich and poor widened, conservative activists would hone a language that linked the insecurity many Americans felt to the depredations of an immoral elite: not the economic elite nineteenth-century populists had inveighed against but a cultural elite. Not to financiers and robber barons but liberals, homosexuals, and feminists. Not the people who had moved Buffalo's factories to the Sun Belt and decimated its unions, but the ones who supported abortion rights and could be blamed for the nation's moral and spiritual decline."


But there are people who oppose abortion, and there are people who blockade clinics -- and there are people who kill in the name of "life." (NARAL's tally: seven physician or clinic-staff murders since 1993, 17 attempted since 1991 -- never mind the arson, vandalism, blockades and trespassing.) Is there a difference among these groups? Yes and no, Press says. He argues that the perpetrators of violence, like Slepian's killer, are not just loony anomalies; that many antiabortion activists who claim to abhor all killing can distance themselves only so far from such murders. Press writes: "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."

Home to so many narrative elements, "Absolute Convictions" is densely populated indeed. Yet sprawl is not a problem. Press' structure is clear, his narrative cogent. The one section that falls flat, curiously, is one that offers tremendous opportunity for pathos. This chapter begins with a mea culpa: Only when the doctor reminds his son "to speak to a group of people whose voices have been oddly absent from the debate about abortion" does it occur to the younger Press to interview women in his father's office who are awaiting abortions. For his own near-oversight, Press blames both the media -- which is often more comfortable with talking heads than real people -- and the "enduring veil of shame and secrecy" still surrounding abortion.

It's appropriate, in principle, to include these women in the book, but the way it's done -- herding them into a chapter of their own -- is awkward. One by one, Press either describes them lazily ("she looked like a typical suburban soccer mom") or overreaches: "the faintness of her voice and the meekness of her manner conveyed something rarely seen in women from more privileged backgrounds -- a sense of shame, a feeling that she'd screwed up and had only herself to blame. Perhaps Tracy understood how little sympathy a woman in her circumstances could expect about the predicament she faced. Perhaps..." Perhaps she's just shy! Or perhaps you should just ask her.


There's also this weird moment: "She told me she worked as a bartender, at a bar I later found out featured table dances." Maybe Press is just doing somersaults to be accurate; after all, the woman herself did not tell him the bar featured table dances. But Press' phrasing somehow makes him sound like a mustachioed detective recounting a crime, or at least a journalist drumming up sympathy for a barmaid with a heart of gold.

I'm guessing that Press didn't feel entirely comfortable speaking to these women, and it shows. What these interviews do contribute, however, are real-life rebuttals to assertions made by the antiabortion activists with whom he speaks. "Somebody's intimidating them, somebody's bullying them," Rev. Rob Shenck, a founder of the Christian lobbying group Faith and Action, says of women who seek abortions. Press counters: "None of the women interviewed claimed her decision was anyone's but her own." (He also cites this comment made to a reporter by antiabortion leader Joe Scheidler: "the gals usually know what they're doing and want to do it ... But if we started saying that women who have abortions should be sent to jail for life, we'd get into a real beehive." Mmm-hmm.)


Overall, I wouldn't call Press a beautiful writer; the drama of this book is in its content, not its form. But save for a few clunky moments not already cited ("When I heard the news [about Slepian] my heart stopped"), he is a skilled writer, with particularly sound judgment about when, why and how much to insert himself into the narrative. In short, he does not make the book about him. His own family history is certainly relevant, and not least for the opportunity to note that the opposition's habit of calling abortion an American "Holocaust" did not go over so well with his mother, who was born a prisoner in a Nazi work camp. Press' admiration of, and concern for, his father -- who, at least initially, saw abortions as simply, and necessarily, part of his job -- enlivens his portrait of a stoic Israeli who was not brought up to back down: "My father's safety was what mattered most to me ... although the thought of urging him to stop doing something he believed was right made me feel queasy," Press writes. "To do so would violate the ethical code I knew lay at the core of his identity, a code that had shaped me as well. To back down in the face of a threat or otherwise alter one's conduct in the face of danger: it is what every Israeli was taught never to do."

When Press inserts himself into interviews with antiabortion activists, he lapses once or twice into snooze-worthy details that a copy editor should have caught ("[Schenck] apologized for not remembering my name, which I had left with a receptionist a few weeks earlier when I'd called to arrange the interview"). But he uses one particular moment to excellent effect. When he and Karen Swallow Prior, former spokeswoman for Operation Rescue in Buffalo -- and a later organizer of a Pro-Life Alliance for Non-Violence -- start to discuss Slepian's murder, tears fill her eyes. "The idea that I might have anything remotely to do with that is just really ... is ... awful," she says, breaking into sobs. Press, taking her tears as evidence of sincere sympathy for the Slepian family and sadness for a movement she loves, wonders, fleetingly, whether to take her hand in comfort. But he does not. While moved by her reaction -- "an expression of compassion -- and of remorse -- that transcended the barriers of a conflict that all too often prevented people from recognizing the humanity of their adversaries" -- he admits that at that moment, he does not want her to feel comfort. Thinking of the home-picketing, the threats, and other violent tactics with which she'd aligned herself, he wonders, "Had it really not occurred to anyone that these actions might precipitate violence?"

This moment illustrates the core strength of this book. What Press does with his profiles of antiabortion leaders -- and his portrayal of their movement as a whole -- is something that many other journalists seem to have forgotten is not only possible, but necessary: He is both entirely fair and appropriately damning.


"Fair," let us recall, does not necessarily mean that the writer is a disinterested observer. (First, how could Press be? And second, who is?) Nor does "fair" (or, for that matter, "balanced") mean that when we report the "other side's" point of view, we are prohibited from questioning or criticizing it. Acknowledging the fundamental "pro-life" position, Press writes, "in 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." His interviews with antiabortion leaders are gracious and expansive, with nary a cheap shot.

But Press also calls bullshit when he must. Without picking unwinnable fights (he mostly saves his rebuttals for post-interview commentary), he doesn't let anyone get away with the term "partial-birth abortion"; he does not fail to counter the cruel assertion that most abortions are about "convenience." And, as noted above, he shows that women seeking abortions are made "victims" only by those who would stop at nothing to prevent them.

"Absolute Convictions" reminds us that, for reasons right and wrong, the controversy about abortion is neither only about abstractions nor only about the women who need the procedure. Today, it is about an entire constellation of people: doctors, cops, judges, fathers, the sons and wife of Dr. Slepian. The book ends post-Roberts, pre-Alito, at a time when the antiabortion forces have moved, largely, from the streets to the courts and legislatures. "One can only hope," Press writes, "that those who feel compelled to express their beliefs, no matter where they stand, do so in the only manner befitting a democracy -- through words and principled action, not bullets or bombs -- which is also the only method with the true power to persuade." Indeed, one can only hope that the abortion ban recently passed in South Dakota, which carries a prison sentence of up to five years for performing an abortion, will not further legitimize the violence-prone. Because, now, it's not just fringe militants who are targeting doctors; it's the law itself.

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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