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"Absolute Convictions" by Eyal Press Book Review

March 5, 2006
'Absolute Convictions,' by Eyal Press
New York Times
The Doctor Will See You


The 1998 murder of Barnett Slepian, an obstetric gynecologist who performed abortions, was intended to induce panic. The assassin waited in the woods behind Slepian's suburban Buffalo home on a late October night, sighted the doctor as he stood in his kitchen on the far side of the backyard, killed him with a single shot from a Russian-made assault rifle, then slipped into the darkness a self-styled soldier of God doing his duty in defense of the unborn.

A few days later the police heard through an anonymous source that the sniper was planning to strike again, with another area gynecologist, Shalom Press, heading his list of targets. When the police informed Press's wife, Carla, she went pale and slumped to her knees. His grown son Eyal shook uncontrollably. But the doctor himself seemed remarkably unperturbed. "O.K.," he said when his son told him the news. "Don't be nervous."

Shalom Press's sang-froid infuses "Absolute Convictions," Eyal Press's memoir of his father's experiences in the abortion wars. In the 1980's and early 90's the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue raged through Buffalo. Protesters blockaded the entrance to Shalom Press's office, occupied his waiting room and picketed his home. Radio ads labeled him a baby killer; he received threatening letters; activists harangued his wife for having married a murderer. Through it all Press maintained his equanimity meeting his patients, making his rounds, doing his best, Eyal Press says, "to tune the message out."

In part, Shalom Press was able to distance himself from the controversy because he did not see himself as an abortion advocate. Some of his colleagues opened clinics because they were determined to provide women with the freedom of choice that Roe v. Wade gave them. Not Press. He began performing the procedure because he considered abortion a routine part of a gynecological practice, a service to be offered to patients who requested it. And he continued, despite the threats and intimidation, not to uphold a political principle but because of his deeply ingrained stoicism. A first-generation Israeli, born in Jerusalem in 1940, he was used to meeting fierce conflict with stony resolve. On the few occasions he offered his opinion, it was invariably moderate. "I respect people who are opposed to abortion," he told a reporter at the height of the protests. "It's their view, their right. But it's unacceptable to me the way they're trying to impose it on other people."

Eyal Press is very much his father's son. Although he was a teenager when Operation Rescue began, the campaign did not seem to bother him much. He rarely asked about the blockades that disrupted his father's practice he preferred to talk about the Buffalo Bills and when the protesters gathered at the end of his driveway, praying and singing hymns, he ignored them. Not until he began working on "Absolute Convictions" did he meet the militants who orchestrated the protests. Even when he was sitting down with people who had charged his father with infanticide, Press conducted himself with unfailing civility and flashes of sympathy. At one point he interviewed the woman who served as Operation Rescue's spokeswoman in Buffalo, and discussed whether her inflammatory rhetoric might have inspired Slepian's assassin to commit murder. The possibility haunted her, she said, as she began to sob. Press writes that he had to fight back his inclination to put a hand on her arm and tell her everything was O.K.

PRESS'S emotional balance, admirable though it is, drains his story of some of its drama. Several times he says that a particular incident left him enraged or terrified. But he never quite makes the reader feel that anger or fear. Even the story of Slepian's murder is told at a slight remove, as if Press is recounting a terrible event that happened to a neighbor he does not really know. And when the threat comes home a scene that should be the centerpiece of the book it is not his mother's terror but his father's quiet determination that sets the tone.

But Press's evenhandedness has its advantages. Operation Rescue, like so many of the participants in the abortion debate, sought to obliterate nuance. Press relishes it, searching for the subtlety lost amid all the vitriol. He shows that conservatives exploited abortion to rally their base, but he also acknowledges that those opposed to abortion were drawn to the movement by moral imperatives. And he understands that their moral certitude fostered both violence and doubt. He admires abortion rights advocates, but he has profound respect for his father's apolitical professionalism. By balancing all those perspectives, Eyal Press manages the extraordinary feat of bringing light to a political issue that for far too long has generated nothing but blistering heat.

Kevin Boyle teaches American history at Ohio State University. His most recent book, "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age," won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2004.