Dr. Willie J. Parker has been an outspoken advocate for access to abortion services and is also an abortion provider himself in Washington, DC. In fact, he's one of the few doctors in the country who will perform late-term abortions. He is also one of many people who is opposed to Congress's awful plan to ban abortions after 20 weeks in the District of Columbia. But Dr. Parker makes a particularly convincing case because of his history. He is a Christian who was raised in the south to be very anti-abortion. It was only after working for years as an OB/GYN that he came to be convinced that providing abortions was the right thing to do. Far from being an evil death monster, as some anti-abortion advocates might label him, he is a man of great compassion who has based his decisions on what he sees in his patients' lives, not on some inflexible ideology. The New Jersey Star-Ledger interviewed him recently, and the points he makes are an excellent reminder that the abortions happen in the real world— they're not just some theoretical thing that whores and lazy sluts do for fun.
It may seem odd that he would have switched sides in the debate halfway through his 20 year career, but when asked why he changed his mind, Parker explains that it was seeing his patients face impossible situations. He says,
I saw the dilemmas that women found themselves in. And I could no longer weigh the life of a pre-viable or lethally flawed fetus equally with the life of the woman sitting before me.
That shouldn't sound as shockingly reasonable as it does. He also says he came to a new understanding of the role his religion played thanks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King:
King said what made the good Samaritan "good" is that instead of focusing on would happen to him by stopping to help the traveler, he was more concerned about what would happen to the traveler if he didn't stop to help. I became more concerned about what would happen to these women if I, as an obstetrician, did not help them.
Imagine valuing the life of a person that's already living and then treating that person with compassion because it's the right thing to do. What a revolutionary notion! It seems like all the Christians who are so busy yelling at people for doing something wrong might want to take a second to take a look at themselves and see how they stack up in the compassion department.
Dr. Parker is particularly poignant when explaining why he has chosen to become one of only about 11 percent of abortion providers that perform abortions after the 20th week. For him, it's because they're the women most in need. They don't have access to care or don't know enough to realize they're pregnant until it's too late. He also tells the story of two of his patients. One was a 32-year-old successful lawyer who found out in her 21st week that she was pregnant with a baby who had a lethal developmental abnormality. She didn't abort until the 23rd week because she wanted the diagnosis to be absolutely confirmed before she proceeded. The other was a 13-year-old girl who was very shy and well behaved. It turned out she was being molested by her uncle, who was staying with her family, but she didn't tell her parents until well after he'd left. She'd hid her pregnancy until 19 weeks, and she terminated it when she was at 20 weeks. He describes these as "typical circumstances" in the patients that seek second-trimester abortions—not exactly the terrible, irresponsible people that anti-abortion activists are so fond of using as examples.
While most states restrict late-term abortions, six states have banned abortions after 20 weeks because they claim the fetus can feel pain. Dr. Parker disputes that, as do a hell of a lot of other people, since there's no evidence that shows it's true. But he says he won't perform abortions after 24 weeks and 6 days, simply because that's the legal limit. Beyond that a fetus can be considered viable, and he won't terminate in that case, unless a woman's life is at risk or the fetus is "fatally flawed." But as far as restricting access to abortion between the 20th and 25th week, Parker is troubled by it because, he says,
It creates a duty and obligation for a woman to make her decision in a time frame acceptable to people other than herself. That time frame may or may not be realistic, and it fails to take into account the complexity of decision-making when it comes to abortion.
As people sit around, and theorize and debate about what should be a reasonable or common ground, the voices of the people who are most affected by this decision are lost. They aren't represented in these dialogues. Their specific realities don't count.
Amen to that, but it's worth remembering that Parker isn't just talking to anti-abortion activists and lawmakers here, he's also addressing those on the pro-choice side of things who have, in the course of debates over laws restricting access, opted to concede later-term abortions as a way of securing other kinds of access. He makes a valid point:
[C]onversations that feel like progress actually end up with restrictions in place on women in desperate circumstances. They don't reduce unintended pregnancies, they don't create more access to medically accurate sex education and modern forms of contraception — but they do result in restrictions and rules that push women to desperate measures.
While it's obviously a messy process, and it would certainly be ideal if pro-choicers didn't have to cede anything, it's true that these decisions do have dire consequences for the people most in need. Of course, none of this would even be an issue if we all were able to look at the realities of abortion and allow access to the real people who need it to address real problems instead of writing incredibly restrictive laws that deal with a mythical land where everything is black and white. But until that changes, at least we have people like Dr. Parker who are willing to not only speak out for what they believe in but also take on great personal risk in order to give their patients the care they need.
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