Dr. Willie Parker, 54, has became one of the most prominent abortion providers in America, operating in an increasingly hostile atmosphere that has led to the assassination of 11 people since the passage of Roe vs. Wade, and claimed the lives of thousands of desperate women in the decades before it was legalized. Thanks to a decades-long campaign by the religious right, America is dangerously close to returning to the days of back-alley abortions. At this critical moment in history, Parker has published a memoir, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument For Choice, in which he seeks to offer a counter narrative to anti-abortion activists: that abortion is an act of compassion in accordance with Christianity.
In a national debate deeply fractured by perceived divisions between science and faith, Parker’s unique perspective as a devout Christian, a black man, and a physician offers a new framework with which to view and discuss reproductive rights. Parker was raised by a single mother in a poor community in Alabama and became a fundamentalist Christian who preached the teachings of Jesus door-to-door as a teenager. He became the first person in his family to attend college, attended medical school, and went on to become an obstetrician. But Parker did not have to seriously grapple with his views on abortion until 2002, when a new “Bible-believing Christian” administrator at the Queen Emma Clinic in Hawaii, where Parker worked, banned abortions. Parker was no longer insulated from the increasing anti-abortion rhetoric and legislation spreading across the country. “It was not lost on me, an African-American man from Birmingham, Alabama, descended from slaves, that new legislation aimed at telling women what they might and might not do with their own physical bodies looked a whole lot like men owning women’s bodies,” he writes in his memoir. Parker then “decided to exercise Christian compassion not by proxy but with my own capable hands.” He later ditched his private practice and returned to the Deep South, where he now travels between Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama to provide increasingly endangered abortion care.
Countering those who invoke Christianity and God as their principle argument against abortion, he writes, “A pregnancy that intimates a baby is not more sacred than abortion. To Parker, what’s sacred‚ what’s most Godlike, is a woman’s agency—“the part that makes a choice.” Jezebel interviewed Parker about his religious evolution, the moral argument for abortion, and how racism factors into anti-abortion movements ahead of his book launch at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on Thursday.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In your book, you write about how the religious right has hijacked moral authority over the abortion debate and that the left has failed to come up with a similar moral argument. What moral argument should the left present?
The left has failed to come up with an argument because the left has conceded on the basis of, what I think, is an intellectual arrogance. They think that the facts will speak for themselves and they think that religion is so antiquated—some people even think that we live in a post-religious world; that nobody really believes in God or prayer. That has opened a space that the people who are opposed to abortion have been more than willing to fill with misinformation and encroachment of other peoples’ ability to make their decisions.
The argument that I have, with regard to abortion being a moral issue (and not necessarily a religious one) is that I believe that men and women are equal in their agency. If women have moral agency and autonomy, that means that all processes that occur in their body should be governed only by that woman’s decision-making. So what that means is that people should not be able to have laws that will allow them to be preoccupied with the well-being of a fetus that a woman’s carrying than they are with the woman. You can’t care more about the fetus that a woman’s carrying than you do about the woman who’s carrying it.
If you fancy that that fetus has rights, and you call that fetus a person and a baby, I don’t agree with that from a scientific or even from a religious standpoint. But we can debate about whether or not a fetus is a person. But there’s no question that a woman is a person. And so the question is: At what point is a woman not a person? At what point does a woman lose her right to be self-governing and to have bodily integrity? Does pregnancy trump the rights of a woman to be entitled to decisions about her health and her body? Well, people who pass these laws believe so. But if it means anything to have personhood, agency, and autonomy to the degree that men have that, women have to have it, or it means nothing.
I think we live in society where we are tolerating injustice on the basis of gender and sex and I think that injustice is immoral, and so unless we secure the liberties for women, then we live in an unjust society. And that makes it an immoral one. So in order to restore that morality, we have to ensure that women have the same rights and privileges to self-governance that men have.
Can you talk about how you went from being a fundamentalist Christian who may have once opposed to abortion to becoming somebody who advocates for it now?
I was never opposed to abortion. I never questioned a woman’s right to make that decision. I was simply morally conflicted about what it meant to me to provide abortions given that I had not thought critically about what it meant to be an abortion provider, which I didn’t have to think about until I became a physician and chose to become an OB/GYN and had women presented to me on a regular basis with unplanned, unwanted pregnancies. So I had to wrestle with what it meant to be a women’s health provider and to have to say no to women when they presented with that need and asked for my help. I felt increasingly uneasy about not allowing my actions to match the compassion that I felt for my patients. I had to keep thinking about that, and for 12 years as an OB/GYN I wrestled with that, and my breakthrough finally came when I listened to a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about what made the Good Samaritan good. The sermon that you know as the “Mountaintop Sermon,” the very last sermon that he preached on the night that he was assassinated—within that sermon, he described the very familiar story of the Good Samaritan who stopped to help someone who had been robbed and injured. Everybody passed that person by and refused to help. The Samaritan stopped and helped, and Dr. King said what made the Good Samaritan good was that person reversed the question of concern, whereas everybody else said, ‘What will happen to me if I stopped to help this person?’ The Samaritan asked, ‘What will happen to this person if I don’t stop to help him?’
As an OB/GYN seeing women, I saw myself in that story and became convinced that not only was it appropriate for me to care about the well-being of my patients, but I now had a moral imperative, if you will. It became to me more important to think about the well-being of my patients than what might happen to me for providing this care. So I had to see my religious understanding in a different way. I never had any desire to abandon Christianity. And so what became more important to me in a conscious way was embracing the compassion and the moral obligation to respond to the need of your fellow human being than the judgment and the rigidity around interpreting isolated passage of sacred texts to leave you unable to respond to the needs of other people. And in my case, as a women’s health provider, the need that I felt most called to respond to was that of women with unplanned pregnancies when they asked me to safely end their pregnancy that they didn’t want or that they were unable to continue even if they wanted it.
In your book you discuss the “black genocide” anti-abortion argument. Can you talk about racism and the legacy of slavery, and how that affects the abortion debate?
The basic reality is that if a woman doesn’t control her fertility and her reproduction, she doesn’t control much else about her life because her life will be contextualized by when she becomes a mother. So if she has aspirations to be a journalist [motions at me] her aspirations are modulated by if she becomes a mother first. It becomes this competing interest with what your aspirations are. That women are making efforts to control their lives and their fertility—as a man who will never have an unplanned pregnancy and won’t have a direct experience for what it’s like to have somebody else try to control your life—as a person of color and descendant of slaves, I do know by history and by lived experience, living in economic disparity and situations where discrimination occurs. I do know what it’s like to have somebody control your life aspirations, so invoking slavery—which some people consider to be bombast—I don’t think it’s bombastic if you can draw analogies to where people can understand what it’s like for one human being to control the life and aspirations of another. If you can’t understand that that’s what slavery is about, then you probably won’t understand why women take great measures to control their fertility and will pursue abortion at all costs.
With regard to the mischief around considering abortion as black genocide: White patriarchs—who are really preoccupied with the fertility of white women—are concerned about race suicide paranoia, which is what all the anti-immigrant, kicking people out of the country, only deporting brown people [is about]. It’s interesting that they’re all brown and so it seems like their real transgression is that they have brown skin in a society that’s becoming increasingly preoccupied with white privilege and feeling vulnerable because by 2050, there will be no clear-cut majority group in this country. If you are concerned about becoming racially obsolete and white women are having jobs and careers and they are rejecting their primary maternal role, the only fertility that you really care about is that not enough white women are having white babies.
It’s interesting that you would frame abortion as black genocide and allege that you care about the birth of babies while at the same time cutting off all of the vital aid that would be necessary to raise a black baby. That makes that disingenuous. But it makes a lot of sense if you’re racially paranoid about becoming obsolete and the white fertility rate is falling so that you want to control the fertility of white women. You understand that you can’t directly take on white women because they are too powerful, but you will do a bait-and-switch. You will frame abortion as a racial issue in a society that’s paranoid about talking about race. And you are also picking a very vulnerable population that can’t fight back politically. If you understand that you undermine abortion for black women, you undermine it for all women, because once abortion goes away, it becomes equally hard for women to get it and then that achieves your goal of forcing them into motherhood and having the white babies that will replenish the population.
You grew up in poverty and got out of it by excelling in school and receiving help by mentors. But even those mentors, you say, may have treated you differently had you been a woman who was pregnant or could have gotten pregnant around that time.
I can only speculate based on the way in which we perceive sexuality as pursued by males and females differently. I don’t think there would have been as much compassion or interest in someone being willing to help me if I had been a young female with an unplanned pregnancy. I have seen women who have continued a pregnancy and it wasn’t the end of their career, and so the antis will try to take a single case like that and they will extrapolate towards their interest in creating a certain narrative. But I have seen young women—if they weren’t sidetracked all together—if they stayed their course, their pathway was much more complicated.
I sometimes speculate about what would my path have been like, because when I see young women who are ambitious and they are 19 years old and they are pregnant, I was 19 years old with the same ambitions, right? Why should they be any less entitled to their future than I was? Why should they be condemned to a more difficult path, simply because they became pregnant? I can’t say for sure, but as I speculate, I like to believe that my path could have been a whole lot different, if not impossible, if I’d been born female.
It seems like we are living in times right now where abortion access is more threatened than it’s ever been, since right around Roe vs. Wade.
You are correct.
So how do you counter that?
One, you can’t get what you don’t have. And so I think people have to be hopeful. I think we have to draw from the legacy from people who lived with their backs against the wall. Mainly, captured Africans who came to this country and who were enslaved for hundreds of years. But somehow, they maintained the hope and the resilience that came from that hope that someday they would not be enslaved.
I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been to overturning Roe and making abortion dangerous again. We’re not going to make it less common, we’re just going to make it dangerous again. But I think we have to understand that since January 22, 1973, which is when Roe passed, there’s not been one day where people opposed to abortion have taken the day off. So what we’re seeing is the culmination of a long 40-plus year strategy of working towards this day where they can have a president who would not veto a bill that would come from a Congress that is full of conservative folk that would go over to a Supreme Court if it was challenged, and it would be upheld. We’re closer to that than ever. However, close is not there. So just like it took a sustained strategy to bring us to this point, it’s going to take a consciousness-raising, and a deeper dive politically in a sustained way to move us back from this ledge.
As a doctor, you make it clear that you don’t really bring religion into the room with the patient. But in other conversations you have with people, especially people who are Christian who completely disagree with you—what are those conversations like, and have you ever convinced anybody who identified as Christian but believed the opposite of what you believed on abortion?
When it comes to engaging people publicly in dialogue around abortion, having recovered from my fundamentalism—I used to be a proselytizer; I used to try to convince people that they needed to know Jesus and the whole nine—one of the of the things I now understand is that you can’t really convince anybody. You can give them exposure to facts and to truth and create opportunities for them to change their own minds, because you really can’t change anybody else’s mind. I remain willing to dialogue in talk with anyone. When I do so, I try and set the ground rules of under which I will engage. If I get the sense that someone is wanting to talk at me versus with me and that they’re not open to honest disagreement, then I won’t pursue that conversation. But if we strike a tone of mutual respect, and that we can have a conversation. What I hope is that after our conversation is that they could approach the conversation in a more critically thoughtful way.
I think part of the problem is the issues are framed in such a polarizing way and with such a false equivalence, you can’t have honest disagreement. I’m pro-life as somebody who provides abortion and you’re telling me that I can’t be, because when you say pro-life, what you actually mean is that you’re pro-fetus and anti-abortion. I’m pro-life and I’m pro-abortion. But pro-abortion doesn’t mean the promotion of abortion. The relationship that I have with abortion is the same relationship that a cardiothoracic surgeon has with heart transplants. Cardiothoracic surgeons don’t promote heart transplants, but they want to make sure that somebody with cardiac disease can get a heart transplant if they need one. I feel the same way about women having access to abortion. Abortion’s not bad, it’s not good, it’s a biological reality. And I’m in favor of making sure that women have access to the things they need to thrive and to be healthy. So if we can have that conversation, if you can hear me out through that, and I’m going to hear you, it’s going to be a dialogue. But usually, in that conversation, when I introduce this new concept of how you look at science and religion at the same time, they do more listening than they do talking because it’s something that they’ve not entertained before.
With this administration especially, it’s getting harder and harder to have conversations like that right now.
I think my voice is not the only voice. My voice is amplified in my book, and I think one of the things about leadership and one of the things particularly is there are people who may feel similarly, and they don’t have the temperament to be the first one, but when they know that they’re not the only one, they’ll speak up. So I’m hoping to amplify the moral voice, and in my case the religious voice, around conscientious provision as opposed to conscientious objection to abortion. Most people think that if you are Christian, or if you are a religious person, you cannot support abortion. I’m saying if you are Christian and you feel called and compelled by the compassion that’s found in our tradition, how could you not help somebody if they need that type of help?
Dr. Willie Parker’s book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument For Choice, is available in book stores and online.