For decades, Dr. Willie Parker has been a devout Christian, while also serving as one of the United States’ most respected reproductive rights advocates, traveling between Mississippi and Alabama to provide abortion care to women there ― one of just a few doctors who do so.
To Parker, there is no contradiction between his faith and his ability to provide compassionate abortion care, and in his new memoir out this week ― Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice ― he defends his work and the rights of women to control their own bodies. “Abortion is the only personal decision that is subjected to this level of government oversight,” he writes. “The law requires [women], like bad little girls, to ‘prove’ to authorities that they have thought carefully about what they’re about to do. In health care, no other medical condition is treated this way.”
We spoke to Parker about his work as an abortion provider in the deep South and about the current climate we live in.
We’ve all been told that abortion is too polarizing an issue, that there’s no way of convincing, say, someone who is anti-choice because of religious beliefs to support abortion care. Do you really think you can change people’s minds?
That’s not really my goal. You have to change your own mind; I’m trying to encourage people to think and to visit the facts. We’re now in an era where we have said that facts don’t matter ― we can create alternative facts ― but facts do matter. If they didn’t, [anti-choice legislators] wouldn’t try and mimic them. People know you can’t walk into a political assembly and say, ‘I prayed and God told me that abortion was immoral.’ But people can try and fabricate and create harm with junk science, saying abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, or that women have psychological issues following abortion. The data and the science refutes all of that. They create a false equivalency by saying, well, you have your facts and I have mine.
The goal for me is to explore the interface between science and religion and spirituality. This book comes at reproduction from a scientific standpoint, as I am a scientist. But I am also a person of faith, in particular, Christian faith.
You spend a good deal of time walking readers through the nitty-gritty of an abortion is like, and at one point you write that it is uncomfortable, if not painful. Aren’t you worried “antis” will seize on that?
There has been this sense that you can’t tell people what an abortion is like, but I think that in the absence of truth antis have been able to spread misinformation. When I was an OB-GYN resident, someone gave me a pin that said ‘no pain.’ I had a professor who very graciously pulled me aside and said, ‘We have to talk about your button.’ The point she stressed is that it creates the expectation that a woman can go through labor and child birth and not have any pain or discomfort, which is a misrepresentation.
I think we do the same thing with abortion. It’s not a cake walk. And it’s also not an excruciating, horrible experience. Most women feel relieved. Most women tolerate a little bit of cramping, which certainly dulls in comparison to labor. I just think the truth will do, and we have to trust people enough to deal with the truth.
You also explicitly single out liberal women ― who are pro abortion rights― and live in parts of the country that aren’t affected by the harshest anti-choice laws, and remind them that they’re partially responsible for the “raft of new laws” restricting abortion because they find it too easy to “look away from the plight of their sisters.” Can you talk about what that means?
If you’re not mindful of your position, if you assume that the resources you have are available to everyone, you have blind spots to the ways your privilege is achieved at the expense of other folks. If you live in New York City, you can walk in and find out you are pregnant, make your decision, and have the abortion on the same day. So when you hear about a mandatory waiting period somewhere else in the country, you might say, “What’s wrong with having a waiting period so people can be sure?” What’s wrong with that for some women it can mean losing the opportunity to have an abortion in their area, or a wait means that on the day you have your procedure you have to find childcare, coordinate with your job ― all of that.
Privileged women have to understand that the context of their life is not generic and universal.
And what can they do to help?
If you understand that women in the South have limited access to abortion and that for many women there are financial barriers, you should be arguing for policies that reduce those barriers and, within your means, should support local abortion funds. If you understand that a waiting period is going to unnecessarily delay a woman, you should be making sure your congressperson understands how you feel. In your personal relationships, rather than judging a woman for ending her pregnancy, understand that she has reasons that only need be known to her.
It feels, to an awful lot of people, like we’re in a crisis point in terms of abortion access. Are we?
I think we are where we have always been. What do I mean by that? Since Roe passed there has never been a day when the right of a woman to have an abortion hasn’t been contested. I don’t think we’ve ever been this close to abortion becoming illegal. I don’t think we’ve ever been this insular and this nationalistic. But it’s also where we’ve always been. We’re just seeing it now more explicitly.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.