Short Takes: Book Review – Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America

Beth Wellington is a Roanoke, Virginia based poet and journalist. She is a contributing editor to the New River Free Press, a book reviewer for the Roanoke Times and a member of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (SAWC) and the Appalachian Studies Association. From 1980 to 1997, she was the founding Executive Director of New River Community Sentencing, Inc. in Christiansburg, Virginia and its predecessor, New River Community Action’s Community Sentencing Program. She contributes to both and Beth’s blog on culture and politics is The Writing Corner.

This month, amid polls have shown that abortion opponents have eroded the American public’s support for Roe v. Wade, I want to recommend Nation and American Prospect writer Eyal Press’s his first book, Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America. I first learned of this book on March 2, as I listened to Fresh Air’s “The Abortion Debate Through a Son’s Eyes”, Terry Gross’s interview with Press. South Dakota’s governor Mike Rounds was soon to sign the bill outlawing almost all abortions in his state on March 6.

The bill’s sponsors intend to pave the way for a Supreme Court challenge to Roe v. Wade, and I went on to interview Jennifer Ring, director of the ACLU of the Dakotas, on her organization’s evaluation of the measure’s passage. Since that time, as evidenced in the above-mentioned polls, most people still find the South Dakota law too extreme.

Press tells the story of his father, an OB-GYN practicing medicine in Buffalo, New York and his determination, not only to share in the joy of delivering babies but to provide abortions to women facing a sad choice and shaken by the demonstrations of Operation Rescue. Press’s family is Jewish and his mother a concentration camp survivor, so they are especially bruised by comparisons of abortion to the Holocaust. As a journalist, Press had never wanted to cover the divisive issue until the 1998 sniper murder of Barnett Slepian, another Jewish Buffalo doctor who provided abortions.

In the book, Press explains, “Naturally, I’ve thought often about why my father has persisted in doing something that so many other doctors in his line of work have for good reason given up. I’ve thought as well about what I would do in his shoes. My father insists his decision to remain an abortion provider is not a political act but a function of his professional responsibilities. But are those professional responsibilities worth risking his life for?

“To know that one’s parents will not live forever-that they are mortal, like everyone else-is part of what it means to be an adult. To imagine they might be targeted by an assassin on account of a commitment to some abstract principle is quite another. Theoretically, such a thing ought to fill one with pride. But who among us would like to see a parent become a martyr?

“In a way no abstract situation could, my father’s experience has forced me to think hard about the tension between remaining true to one’s convictions and the practical necessity of surviving in the world. This is something that has always fascinated me, perhaps because, as Dr. Slepian’s murder would reveal, it touches on a rift within my family: between the defiant Israelis on one side, and those with a vivid memory of surviving the Holocaust on the other.”

Press interviews people on both sides of the issue and traces its development from the time that the American Medical Association lobbied to restrict abortion for proprietary reasons through the passage of Rove v. Wade. He then details the Supreme Court decision’s effects on the movements for and against choice, until the present day. He also provides an interesting history of Buffalo, and of his family. While Press supports and admires his father’s choice, he has given a sympathetic voice to people all along the continuum on both sides of the issue, with the exception of those promoting violence.

As his father nears retirement and the fate of Roe v. Wade “may well be determined in the near future by the views of a man born in Buffalo, John C. Roberts,” Press concludes that, “One can only hope that those who feel compelled to express their beliefs, no matter where they stand, do so in the only manner befitting a democracy-though words and principled action, not bullets or bombs-which is also the only method with the true power to persuade.”

Press quotes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1961 speech, “Love, Law and Civil Disobedience.” “In the long run of history, immoral destructive means cannot bring about moral and constructive ends.”

He concludes, “That their wisdom continues to elude us does not diminish their relevance and truth.”
A long excerpt from the book was published by the New York Times Magazine on January 22, 2006, under the title “My Father’s Abortion War.” To see other Fresh Air programs, check its archive.

Posted in: Ethics, Supreme Court