Eyal Press

My Father’s Abortion War

January 22nd, 2006

Permalink to original article publication

On Oct. 23, 1998, a Friday evening, at about 6, Barnett Slepian, an obstetric gynecologist from Amherst, N.Y., called my parents’ home. He was phoning because, that weekend, as on every third weekend of the month, he was scheduled to cover deliveries for my father. A few hours later, after attending a memorial service commemorating the death of his father, as he stood in his kitchen waiting for a bowl of split-pea soup to heat in the microwave, Dr. Slepian was shot in the back by a sniper hiding in the wooded area behind his home. Within a few hours he was pronounced dead.

I found out about the murder the next morning, after having breakfast with an old friend from college. I was living in Brooklyn at the time. When I first heard the news, my heart stopped. I had never met Barnett Slepian, but I was well aware of who he was. I knew that he and my father shared something besides covering for each other on certain weekends: both were OB-GYN’s who devoted part of their practices to performing abortions, which is why, for more than a decade, they had both been subjected to abrasive treatment – protests in front of their offices and homes, harassment of their patients, death threats. I had witnessed some of this firsthand while growing up. I’d like to say that standing there in the street trying to make sense of the fact that now someone had made good on one of those threats, the first thing I felt was anguish and sympathy for Slepian’s family: his wife, Lynne, who had just lost her husband, and his four sons, who had watched their father bleed to death on the kitchen floor. But my initial reaction was more selfish. What I felt at first was fear – that the murder might upend my parents’ lives; that another shooting might follow in its wake.

More than seven years have passed since that morning, and viewed one way, everything about the abortion conflict in the intervening period has changed. The mood of futility and desperation that fueled the violence aimed at abortion providers in the mid-90′s – a spate of attacks that left six doctors and clinic workers dead – appears to have lifted somewhat, which is perhaps one reason the attacks have abated. The number of abortions performed in America has steadily declined. Among right-to-life advocates, the focus of energy has shifted from the doorways of clinics to the corridors of Congress, which in 2003 passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, and the Supreme Court, where, with the addition of Samuel A. Alito Jr., two presumably sympathetic new justices will be in place. Abortion remains legal in all 50 states, but on this, the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the prospect of the court’s curtailing, possibly even overturning, the decision no longer seems far-fetched.

Yet there is one thing about the abortion conflict that has remained stubbornly persistent: its centrality and uniquely polarizing place in American life. “No other nation obsesses about abortion the way we do,” the columnist Michael Kinsley noted recently. Not Italy, home to the Vatican; not France, England or Germany. Only in America is a medical procedure that was legalized more than three decades ago at risk of once again being criminalized. Only here have doctors routinely taken to wearing bulletproof vests and hiring armed guards for protection.

 

 

My desire to understand what accounts for this did not begin on the morning I learned that Barnett Slepian had been murdered. It started years earlier, as I watched the abortion conflict engulf and divide my hometown, Buffalo – the City of Good Neighbors, as its boosters liked to say, yet a place where, as in Wichita, St. Louis and countless other communities strewn across the country, the social fabric was rent as the culture wars caught fire. In 1992, six years before the murder, Buffalo played host to the Spring of Life, a campaign of clinic blockades that brought right-to-life demonstrators from throughout the country to western New York. In the years leading up to this, protests and sit-ins erupted on what seemed to be a daily basis in front of abortion clinics and doctors’ offices. The unrest clogged the city’s court system, pervaded the headlines and thrust elected officials and ordinary citizens – some sympathetic to the protesters, others infuriated by them – onto opposing sides of a battle that many of those in the trenches framed as a war long before real bullets started to fly. My father was one target in that war.

Like many people, I assumed at first that Buffalo was a flash point because of the generations of Irish, Polish and Italian Catholics who had made the city their home through the years and whose faith taught that abortion at any stage of pregnancy, for whatever reason, is wrong. Yet during the 1970′s, when the opposition to abortion indeed came almost exclusively from Catholics – the Catholic Physicians Guild, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo – the right-to-life movement wasn’t terribly radical. There were few street demonstrations back then. There were no blockades or sit-ins. In the local papers, news about abortion was confined to the back pages of the metro section, overshadowed by what seemed to be a far bigger story in Buffalo at the time: the fate not of the unborn but of the city’s manufacturing plants, which had begun fleeing western New York in droves.

The relative calm can be traced partly to the fact that the revolt against Roe v. Wade took time to build. Few people in Buffalo appreciated at the time that by removing the issue from the legislative process, the Supreme Court would leave millions of Americans feeling that they were denied a say over what they viewed as a life-and-death matter. By short-circuiting a debate that was only beginning (not unlike the issue of gay marriage today), Roe would escalate the very conflict it was designed to quell. Another reason the streets were quiet at first is that the Catholic housewives who led the right-to-life movement in its early phase strained to avoid being too pushy or aggressive, not least because they often found themselves accused of trying to impose their religious beliefs on a diverse society. Right-to-life advocates in these years went out of their way to frame their arguments in the language of science, not Scripture.

By the mid-1980′s, however, the mood was changing, thanks to a development that would transform the face not only of the right-to-life movement but also of modern conservatism and, in turn, America: the political reawakening of evangelicals. Joining the Catholic housewives, born-again Christians started filtering into the movement. Many were in their early 20′s and 30′s, young women and (increasingly) men fresh out of Bible colleges, often affiliated with charismatic churches whose growth was by no means confined to the Bible Belt. It was such a church, New Covenant Tabernacle, an Assemblies of God congregation situated in a former Jewish funeral home in Tonawanda, a suburb north of Buffalo, that helped to spearhead the clinic blockades in western New York. Its ministers, twin brothers named Rob and Paul Schenck, were personal friends of Randall Terry, a born-again Christian who in 1986 began organizing sit-ins at an abortion clinic in Binghamton. What was new about people like Terry was not that they had found inspiration in the Gospels but that under the influence of evangelical thinkers like Francis Schaeffer, they began waging war against the tide of secular humanism sweeping the culture, something evangelicals of an earlier generation would have considered a waste of time. Terry soon founded Operation Rescue, an organization that turned civil disobedience into the right-to-life movement’s signature expression. It is a tactic the new wave of advocates in Buffalo took up with verve.
By the time the rescues began, my father had completed his medical residency, spent a few years working at various gynecological clinics run by the Erie County Department of Health and opened a medical office. It was on the ground floor of a two-story redbrick building that bordered a Mobil gas station, on the corner of Kenmore Avenue and Colvin Boulevard. It wasn’t an abortion clinic but a regular OB-GYN practice, and most of his patients came for routine gynecological checkups. Many were women whose babies he delivered. Abortions were performed on certain days.

As strange as it may seem, my father arranged things this way without considering the political consequences, much less the possibility that doing so might one day bring protesters to his door. This is partly because there were no protesters back in the 70′s, when he was completing his professional training. It is also because he had come to Buffalo from another country, Israel, a nation racked since its founding by turmoil and danger – which my father grew accustomed to weathering with the steely resolve all Israelis of his generation were expected to display – but not on account of abortion. Until 1977, abortion was banned under Israeli law. Yet it was an open secret that many doctors performed abortions in their private offices. My father had seen that unplanned pregnancies were a reality. It made sense to him that given its intensely private nature, the decision to have an abortion should be left to the pregnant woman and her doctor, not to a government bureaucrat.

A shy man whose command of English was (to put it generously) rudimentary, my father took pride in starting his own office. For several years things went smoothly. His volume of patients grew. He was on his way to building a successful practice. Then one day in fall 1987, a group of demonstrators showed up in the parking lot to conduct a mock funeral. A few months later, more protesters appeared, this time to occupy the entrance and prevent any women from passing through.

Like several other places in western New York where abortions were performed, my father’s office soon began to resemble a battle zone, replete with cameras, police paddy wagons and throngs of demonstrators. In a law-and-order city like Buffalo, a place where residents didn’t generally go around breaking the law to get their points across, many people assumed that the turmoil would quickly die down. This is what my father thought. What everyone underestimated was the depth of the protesters’ beliefs, absolute convictions rooted not in the cold logic of abstract reasoning but in something altogether more powerful and, in America, pervasive: spiritual faith.

 

 

Not long ago, I paid a visit to Grand Island, a suburb across the Niagara River from Buffalo, to meet with Mickey Van de Ven, a right-to-life advocate still active in the movement. She greeted me at the entrance to St. Stephen’s Church, a sprawling brick edifice on Baseline Road, where she works part time and attends Mass every Sunday. A shy, soft-spoken woman with brown hair, hazel eyes and a warm, matronly manner, Van de Ven directed me into a small white-walled room, where we sat on a pair of light blue armchairs. Between us were a tray of cookies and a thermos full of coffee, which she politely offered me.

Back in the 80′s, Van de Ven started serving as a “prayer warrior,” meaning that she stood outside abortion clinics and prayed the rosary. She didn’t participate in rescues, she told me – blocking doorways and being arrested was not for her – though she supported the people who did. Later she began sidewalk counseling, trying to dissuade women from carrying through with their abortions, something that did not come easily to her, since, as she told me, “I’m not very forward.” Sitting next to her, straining at times to hear what she was saying because her voice was so soft, I found it hard to imagine Van de Ven doing any such thing. Her approach was not to scream “Don’t kill your baby!” at the women passing by, as some protesters did. She preferred asking, “Can I offer you some information?” If the woman nodded, she said, she would hand her literature like the pamphlet she gave me explaining the various stages of fetal development. (“I’m here!” it began. “At the moment the nuclei of the father’s sperm and mother’s egg unite a new and unrepeatable human being comes into the world.”)

I asked Van de Ven if the method was effective. She pulled out a blue spiral notebook and, smiling, showed me photographs of various “saves” – women who decided to carry their pregnancies to term. There was a pretty brown-haired woman holding a blond-haired girl in pigtails. There was a light-skinned African-American infant. Van de Ven stared at the photographs as if the children were her own.

Afterward, we drove out to Buffalo Womenservices, a fortresslike brick compound on Main Street equipped with 24-hour surveillance cameras and armed guards. It is the abortion clinic where Dr. Slepian once worked. We walked over to an area near a gas station where Van de Ven normally stands. It was a good distance from the clinic, because demonstrators are now forbidden to cross a 15-foot buffer zone protecting entrances. I asked Van de Ven if her routine changed at all during the winter, when people in Buffalo did their best to avoid spending prolonged amounts of time outside. She shook her head. I asked her if it ever occurred to her to quit. She shook her head again, saying that this is what she felt God had called her to do.

 

 

In her quiet, understated way, Mickey Van de Ven is living proof of the dedication and perseverance that religion can inspire. No one who speaks to her can come away doubting that her opposition to abortion is rooted in a desire not to curtail the rights of women but to save what she views as innocent life. The movement she joined was not the first in recent decades to be propelled by faith. Meeting her reminded me in some ways of the civil rights demonstrators I had read about in the historian David L. Chappell’s book “A Stone of Hope,” people who often came into the movement straight out of churches and who made no secret of the fact that God inspired them.

Yet as the scholar Jessica Stern notes, there are two sides to religion – “one that is spiritual and universalist, and the other particularist and sectarian.” The flip side of the desire to rid the world of evil in accordance with your spiritual beliefs is the impulse among some of those convinced of their righteousness to demonize, and in extreme cases to want to eliminate, anyone who does not subscribe to them, something that, as I saw up close in Buffalo, is not a mind-set unique to Islamic fundamentalists. When the police removed protesters from a clinic in Buffalo one time, a spokeswoman for the local branch of Operation Rescue likened them to Nazi storm troopers. When a group of local religious leaders sympathetic to abortion rights held a meeting on another occasion, a protester assailed them as “ministers of Satan.” Driving past my father’s office while still in high school, I saw the signs emblazoned with his name. “Murderer!” “Baby-Killer!” On several Jewish holidays, including Yom Kippur and Hanukkah, a group called Project House Call organized demonstrations in front of doctors’ homes, choosing as their targets two local physicians who happened to be Jewish: my father and Slepian. Later, during the Spring of Life, radio ads blared, announcing: “Some doctors deliver babies. Some doctors kill babies!” My father and several other physicians were singled out by name. On the corner of Maple and Exeter Roads, a quarter-mile or so from my parents’ home, a six-foot red banner reading “Press Kills Children” was unfurled. In case anyone missed the banner, leaflets were distributed throughout the neighborhood.

In his typically stoic manner, my father never complained, but I know the pressure wore on him, as perhaps it would have on anyone. “Psychologically, it hurt,” he admitted when I asked him recently what it was like to pass by the protesters every day. I know, too, that he worried about how the unrest might affect his practice. At the time the protests began, he was dividing his time between his own office and a group practice he had joined on Delaware Avenue, near downtown Buffalo. As far as he knew, all the doctors there supported abortion rights. Some even performed abortions on occasion in the city’s hospitals. But they didn’t do them at the office on Delaware, for reasons every OB-GYN in America is only too conscious of today. “Death threats, obstruction and broken windows have taken their toll,” Time magazine reported in a 1992 article chronicling why, despite surveys showing that a large majority of OB-GYN’s advocated abortion rights, fewer and fewer performed abortions. There was another, more mundane reason for this, Time noted: “Many doctors are inclined to see abortion as routine work that’s poorly paid by their standards.” It was true that – as the protesters never seemed to tire of pointing out – my father did perform abortions for a fee. But it was also true that, particularly as the turmoil escalated, including abortion in his practice was something he could easily have avoided if money and the stability of his career had been the sole considerations. At one point, after signing an agreement to purchase a 1,600-square-foot office space in a plaza, he received a call from the owner telling him he couldn’t sell him the property, since protesters had warned him that doing so would bring large disturbances with it.

 

 

But my father didn’t quit; in fact, he grew only more commited. The reason is that, through years of treating women in his practice, he developed some strong convictions of his own about abortion. In a video of one protest at his office, the demonstrators barged through the doors and occupied a waiting room. They sat on the floor and prayed until the police began removing them.

At one point a patient entered. “You O.K.?” a nurse asked her.

“No!” she exclaimed. “Outside, they were screaming at me!”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” my father said, trying to calm her.

“Don’t they realize we have a choice?” she snapped, unappeased.

“I’m just as mad as you,” he told her. And he was. Nothing upset my father more than to see patients arrive in such a state. Nothing did more to deepen his resolve.

Had the women choosing to have abortions in Buffalo been free-love advocates for whom the procedure seemed a mere matter of convenience, he would not have been so angry. But few of the women he saw fit this stereotype. Some were married and living in the suburbs. Others were single moms juggling multiple jobs and struggling to raise families on their own. Some were white, others black; some well educated, others less so. They looked, in short, like a cross-section of Buffalo: ordinary people making hard choices in a world where opportunities were often constrained and not everything went as planned. It was no secret to my father that for many, the decision to have an abortion was a freighted, difficult one. Some cried afterward; others were deeply shaken. But many also thanked him. Not a small number said they had always been firmly opposed to abortion – until they found themselves in a situation that had led them to make an appointment to have one. It was precisely because choosing to have an abortion was difficult that my father felt that such women deserved sympathy and support, not scorn.

“I respect people who are opposed to abortion,” he said in an interview with Gene Warner, a reporter from The Buffalo News, in November 1988. “It’s their view, their right. But it’s unacceptable to me the way they’re trying to impose it on other people.”

Of course, the “other people” being imposed on included not only his patients but also himself. He reacted to the pressure the way people who feel themselves being pushed into a corner often do. “It’s probably made me more determined,” he told The News. “If I think I’m doing something right and somebody’s harassing me for that, it will make me more determined.”

 

 

He would respond the same way to Dr. Slepian’s murder, by which point, in Buffalo as throughout the country, the crowds of protesters had diminished noticeably. Court fines and internal feuding had taken a toll on Operation Rescue. Congress passed and President Clinton signed the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which made blockading the entrance to a facility where abortions were performed a federal crime, effectively bringing the rescue movement to an end. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this new law might precipitate a more ominous phase of the conflict – leading some frustrated advocates to conclude that violence could achieve what civil disobedience had not. Soon, stories broke of doctors and clinic workers being shot in Florida, Massachusetts and Canada.

At least one physician in Buffalo saw what was coming. In August 1994, The Buffalo News published a letter by Barnett Slepian. “The members of the local nonviolent, pro-life community may continue to picket my home,” he wrote.

“They may continue to scream that I am a murderer and a killer when I enter the clinics at which they ‘peacefully’ exercise their First Amendment Right of freedom of speech.

“They may do all of the above to me and other abortion providers in this community. But please don’t feign surprise, dismay and certainly not innocence when a more volatile and less restrained member of the group decides to react to their inflammatory rhetoric by shooting an abortion provider.”

 

 

Four years later, the deed he warned might happen did. I flew home to Buffalo on the Monday after Slepian’s murder. When my father came home that night, I gave him a hug at the door. He put his briefcase down and shook his head; he looked pale, tired, somber. We sat down for dinner, during which he poked at his food distractedly, preoccupied by incredulity and grief: at the sudden loss of a colleague, at the thought of what Slepian’s children and wife, whom my father told me he went to see the previous day, were going through.

After dinner we went upstairs. “Dad, you’re not a young man anymore,” I told him. He nodded. “You’ve been through a lot” – I paused, trying to think of a subtle way to put it – “maybe it’s time to leave this part of your practice to some younger doctors.”

There was silence. He cupped his chin in his hands and sighed. Then, looking over in my direction, with weariness but no hint of acquiescence in his eyes, he started telling me about his upbringing in Israel, how he got used to living in a world full of danger and not allowing it to deter him from doing what he felt was right.

“It’s wrong, wrong,” he said.

“What’s wrong?”

“To give in to fanatics, to terrorists.”

The very next morning, around 10, as I was talking to my mother, the phone rang. She picked it up.

“Death threat?” she said. “Death threat?. . .Excuse me, you’ll have to speak with my son.”

Her hand shook as she passed me the phone. It was a detective from the Police Department. He was calling to inform us that a newspaper in Hamilton, Ontario, which days earlier received a package containing a photograph of Slepian with an X drawn through his face, had just received an anonymous threat that my father was “next on the list.”

The next morning, the story that another doctor had received a death threat was splashed across the front page of The Buffalo News. By week’s end, my parents were living under 24-hour protection by federal marshals. Their two-story house in the suburbs was converted into a bunker – cameras on every corner, the shades drawn, an armed guard out front.

 

 

The wave of violence that erupted in the mid-90′s did not succeed in extinguishing the entire supply of abortion providers in America. In western New York, Buffalo Womenservices is still operating. A Planned Parenthood clinic in nearby Niagara Falls has been providing abortion services since Dr. Slepian’s death. In many cities, including Buffalo, branches of the group Medical Students for Choice have formed to train young physicians to enter the field. As it has throughout the country, the number of abortions performed in the Buffalo area has declined over the past decade, but the reason owes to a host of other factors (fewer overall pregnancies, wider access to birth control, improved sex education) rather than to violence.

Even so, the years of unrelenting pressure have created a stigma that has pushed abortion, if not into the back alley, then into an increasingly marginalized corner of the medical world. Back in the 70′s, two-thirds of all abortions in western New York were performed in hospitals. Today, hardly any are. Between 1992 and 2000, more than 250 hospitals and 300 private practitioners across the country stopped performing abortions. Many others never started. Not long ago, I spoke to a young OB-GYN, a friend of my family’s, who belongs to what is perhaps a silent majority of physicians in the field. He told me that he supported abortion rights and that he felt the decision about abortion should be left to a woman and her doctor. But he didn’t perform the procedure himself. He had a family to raise, a growing practice and he had watched with open eyes what happened in Buffalo.

My father, for his part, is now nearing the end of his career, aware that fewer and fewer physicians are willing to integrate abortion into their practices; that even as the ranks of demonstrators on the streets have thinned, offices like his are fast becoming a thing of the past. The isolation of abortion from mainstream medicine, the preference of many doctors who believe it should be legal to refer women to specialized clinics rather than to serve as providers themselves, distresses him, which I can understand. On the other hand, I can also understand why many doctors prefer to steer clear of the controversy. I have often wondered whether, if I were in their shoes, I would do the same thing.

The reverberations of the abortion conflict have reached far beyond the medical community, beyond the halls of Congress and beyond protests like the annual March for Life that, as always on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, will take place in Washington this Monday. On a recent trip home, I passed by some vacant storefronts in downtown Buffalo, then drove along the East Side, through a once-stable Polish neighborhood now filled with boarded-up buildings. How different might the city look, I wondered, if some of the passion that over the years had been poured into the abortion conflict had gone instead toward addressing other problems: blighted neighborhoods ravaged by disinvestment and deindustrialization; a child-poverty rate in 2002 of 38.7 percent, the sixth-highest in the nation.

Why abortion doesn’t play such a divisive role in countries like France and Italy may have something to do with the fact that, as The Economist pointed out in an article on the 30th anniversary of Roe, these nations didn’t legalize the procedure by declaring it a constitutional right. Most European countries did so “through new legislation and, occasionally, referenda,” decriminalizing abortion on the grounds of health rather than rights and leaving open the possibility that, should popular opinion back them, right-to-life advocates could reverse the status quo through conventional political channels.

Not a few commentators lately, including some who support abortion rights, have suggested that it would not be the worst thing if the availability of abortion were left to state legislatures to decide, which is what will happen if Roe is overturned. Overnight, they note, middle-class women who take their reproductive freedom for granted no longer would. Republicans who tailor their rhetoric to the religious right would have to consider whether, in a country where 70 to 80 percent of people favor keeping abortion legal all or some of the time, they really want to endorse a blanket ban on the procedure. At the same time, Democrats would have to contemplate what, in light of medical advances and popular opinion, reasonable limits on abortion are. (Most European countries have implemented limitations that in America would be deemed unconstitutional because of Roe.) A debate currently framed in absolute terms – the right to choose versus the rights of the unborn – may begin to reflect what polls suggest most Americans, including a majority of Buffalonians, believe, which is that abortion should be legal but regulated.

It might even become possible for Americans to have a more practical conversation about how to create a society in which fewer unplanned crisis pregnancies happen in the first place. According to Stanley Henshaw, an analyst at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the one exception to the trend of declining abortion rates in America is women below the poverty level, among whom the numbers have actually increased. Grappling with the reason for this, and how it might be addressed, would force both sides in the abortion debate to wrestle with things they might not like to. Among advocates of reproductive rights, it would mean acknowledging that in an ideal world, having an abortion is something that most women would prefer to avoid, and that the decision to raise a child is often the one that seems most impracticable to those who are disadvantaged. Among opponents of abortion, it would mean dropping the puritanical crusade against over-the-counter contraceptives and for abstinence-only sex education, as well as thinking seriously about whether they should support policies like those tucked into the recent Republican budget, which will leave states with billions of dollars less than what experts estimate they’ll need to maintain child care for low-income working families in the years to come.

In reality, though, overturning Roe v. Wade will not end the abortion conflict. It will probably transform it from one battle into 50 smaller ones raging across the states. Women who thought they had secured a right several generations ago would have to fight for it again. In the meantime, the least privileged (those who live in remote areas, those who can’t afford to travel) would face barriers to access far more restrictive than those in place in many states today. Many people believe that Roe is more likely to be chipped away at over the next several years than overturned. Whether they are right will rest in the hands of a Supreme Court seemingly more skeptical about abortion than any in recent history, one headed by a strongly observant Catholic, John G. Roberts Jr., who was born in Buffalo.

Eyal Press is a writer who lives in New York. This article is adapted from his book, “Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City and the Conflict That Divided America,” which will be published by Henry Holt in early March.

Read more from 02 The New York Times, Articles.

« »