A little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. when the oral arguments for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt were presented before the Supreme Court. I’m a clinic escort at one of the clinics that was central to the case, and after two frustrating years of political ping pong, it felt good to just stand outside the Supreme Court and rally with our people. In the midst of it all, I spotted Dr. Willie Parker nearby, at which point I fangirled hard and ran over to ask to take a selfie with him.
In the reproductive justice world, Dr. Parker has celebrity status. He’s an outspoken black abortion provider in the South, and after being featured in Dawn Porter’s documentary, Trapped — which, by the way, is on Netflix — he became an even more recognizable figure in the fight for abortion access. He’s also an outspoken Christian who applies his religious beliefs as a type of liberation theology towards reproductive justice. It’s a radically different take on what people imagine in regards to abortion clinics and religion (trust me: as a clinic escort, I see and hear the shaming, fire-and-brimstone versions of “Christianity” outside the clinic with relative frequency).
But, as Dr. Parker writes in Life’s Work, he wasn’t always like that. He grew up in a Christian household and ended up converting to a more fundamentalist form of Christianity when he was a little older. When his own sister ended up getting pregnant and wanting an abortion, he was horrified and refused to support her.
With time and life experience, his views began to shift. He went to medical school and became an OB/GYN, and he eventually landed a cushy job in Hawaii. It was there that he got to see firsthand some of the hardships that some people faced and was forced to truly confront his own stance on abortion (which, by then, was that women had a right to get an abortion, but he didn’t want to perform them). His changing views were also guided by a story of the Good Samaritan in one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermons. And so, he left his job in Hawaii and went back to the United States, ultimately ending up where he started: back in the South. He now travels between clinics in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia — deep in red state territory — providing abortions and advocating for reproductive justice issues.
Dr. Parker’s spiritual journey and his current work are informed by his religious beliefs and his knowledge of the civil rights movement. Throughout the book, he addresses the ways in which the current iteration of mainstream conservative Christianity is neither Christian nor pro-life:
My inclination to feel on the “outside” of this sweeping conservative Christian movement had to do, of course, with the environment in which I was raised. The anti-abortion movement was launched and promulgated mostly by whites, triggering in me a nausea and a primal loathing that I believe is the reasonable response of someone who grew up among folks who carried with them in their bodies the memories of lynchings and the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan…The assaults on abortion clinics that started in the late seventies and continue to this day are nothing short of terrorist acts, targeting powerless people…And most of these crimes were committed in the name of God.
In reference to the potential danger he faces as a high-profile abortion provider, he again references Dr. King:
Dr. Tiller‘s execution served as a stand-up call, not a wake-up call. When Dr. King alluded to death threats during the Montgomery bus boycott, he described incessant calls to his home…Dr. King had a newborn baby at home in those days, and he recalled that, in moments of crisis, the voice of God was as audible for him as it ever was. It said, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even unto the end of the world.” That response seemed relevant in the fight before us.
Life’s Work is a wonderful memoir/manifesto, especially for those might say, “I’m pro-choice, but.” Really, there is no “but.” There is no “when.” By discussing the wider impact of anti-abortion legislation, and by applying science, civil rights ideology, and yes, religion, Dr. Parker makes it pretty clear: abortion access is a moral imperative. Period.
Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice was released on April 4, 2017 by Atria/37 Ink.
Also (just because I still kind of fangirl over it):