What’s the matter with Buffalo? The city was once the manufacturing capital of upstate New York, an industrial hub whose factories assured prosperity and a stable workforce. But its midcentury boom came to an end in the aftermath of Vietnam, and as plants shut down, unemployment rates shot up to twice the national average. Democrats in office, blamed for the economic slide, were soon replaced by Republicans, thanks in part to the support of blue-collar “Reagan Democrats.” Rather than tackling Rust Belt doldrums, though, the new conservative leadership launched an attack on cultural elites. A moral campaign against women’s reproductive rights received official sanction when the city’s mayor welcomed Operation Rescue’s high-profile Spring of Life protest in 1992, and it reached its terrifying peak in 1998 when James Kopp, a pro-life fanatic, murdered a local abortion provider, Barnett Slepian.
In his captivating new book Absolute Convictions, Nation contributing writer Eyal Press explores the links between his hometown’s post-Vietnam decline and its emergence as a battlefield in the national crusade against choice. Unlike the social critic Thomas Frank, Press does not dismiss this culture war as a faux-populist platform designed to turn working-class voters against their economic interests. Instead, he accepts the seriousness of antiabortion zeal and engages those whose values he rejects, struggling to understand why so many Americans are so fiercely opposed to reproductive freedom. Tracing the ascendancy of the Christian right and the radicalization of the pro-life movement, he makes a critical–and easily blurred–distinction between ardent opponents of abortion rights who pursue their aims through civil disobedience and demonstrations (however menacing) and the zealots in their midst who take up arms in a holy war to “save” the unborn. As Buffalo languished, Press reveals, the city became a breeding ground for both factions.
Abortion politics are, of course, intensely personal. Frankly acknowledging that he is by no means a neutral guide, Press shares source material culled from his family archives and offers firsthand testimony on a murder that continues to haunt him. Folded into the narrative is an admiring portrait of his father, Shalom, an obstetrician in Buffalo who has endured harassment at his clinic–and, not infrequently, on his front lawn–for the abortion services he offers, and who was put under federal marshal protection after the killing of his colleague Slepian.
In a particularly tense exchange, Karen Prior, an Operation Rescue activist, bursts into tears as she admits that, since the murder, she has come to regret her earlier support for intimidating OB-GYNs. “I told Prior that seeing her reaction moved me. But I did not reach across to comfort her,” Press writes. “The reason, I realized afterward, is that a part of me didn’t want her to feel comforted at that moment: the same part of me that thought about how I would have received her words had the victim of the shooting been my father.”
Reflecting on his personal history, Press draws some suggestive connections between his family’s Israeli roots and their involvement in the American struggle over abortion. Shalom came to Buffalo from Israel in 1973, the year of the Yom Kippur War and the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Ironically, one of the reasons he immigrated to the United States was to escape the messianism gaining ground in the Middle East. For Eyal, Slepian’s murder brings into sharp relief not only Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a right-wing Jewish extremist but also conflicting tendencies within his bloodline. His father’s hard-nosed Zionism strengthened his resolve after Slepian was killed, making him more determined to continue his work in the face of violent threats. But his mother, a Holocaust survivor, found her husband’s stoic defiance troubling, and urged him to reconsider his decision. “Wasn’t my father right that giving in would send whoever had shot Dr. Slepian the message that violence worked?” Press asks. “But wasn’t my mother also right to demand that, for her sake as well as for his own…he consider his safety for once?”
By honoring the courageous work his father has done, Press makes a strong case for defending abortion rights against perennial assault. And by seeking to understand, rather than simply condemn, his father’s intransigent adversaries, he presents a refreshingly complex portrayal of the antiabortion movement, one that must be reckoned with if prochoice advocates hope to stand their ground. Navigating such slippery terrain is a tough challenge, but Press meets it with uncommon sensitivity and skill. Deeply researched, deftly told, Absolute Convictions plunges into, and transcends, a polarized debate that makes partisans of us all.