When reproductive-rights activist, author, abortion provider, and outspoken Christian Dr. Willie Parker walked onstage at the Free Library of Philadelphia in April, he got an immediate standing ovation from the packed auditorium.
“I don’t always get that kind of love, so I’m going to remember that,” he said, before settling in to discuss his new book, Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, with interviewer Dr. James Peterson (host of WHYY’s The Remix podcast and director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University).
Read Parker’s book and you’ll get an idea of why the Planned Parenthood Margaret Sanger Award winner doesn’t live steeped in applause. In a career that has taken him to hospitals and clinics from Washington, D.C., to Honolulu, gauntlets of anti-abortion protestors are part of the commute: a virulent mix of what Parker calls anti-woman “psychoterrorism” and blatant racism.
When he worked for 18 months at Chicago’s Family Planning Associates, Parker describes seeing a man who appeared every day, in all weather, to watch the doctor enter the clinic.
“You filthy Negro abortionist!” the man would shout.
Parker’s book is about his own personal and professional life story as well his unusual faith-based crusade for abortion access and women’s rights, in a country roiled by the dual realities of increasingly restrictive laws and the fact that one in three American women will have an abortion in her lifetime.
“I’m your mommy and your daddy,” Parker’s mother used to tell him. Born in 1962 in Jefferson County, Alabama, he’s one of six children raised by a hardworking single mom and their extended community. “The nuclear family is overrated,” he told the Free Library audience.
He grew up attending the local Baptist church, and details the experiences of two formative “conversions” at different points in his life. First came a personal Pentecostal conversion in his teens. Later, years into his medical practice as an OB-GYN, he woke up to his current calling, transforming from a doctor who refused to perform abortions on religious grounds to one who realized that dedicating his career to abortion care and advocacy was a moral imperative. Now he spends most of his time on the road, working in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia’s last remaining abortion clinics.
Inside Life’s Work
Parker’s book offers a humane and level-headed tour of the realities and controversies of abortion: the particulars of the procedure; a history of the anti-abortion movement of the late 20th century; the fatal terrorism U.S. abortion providers often face; the facts of conception and pregnancy; and his conviction that true Christian faith means equality for women, with absolute agency over their reproductive choices. The book is shot through with absorbing real-life anecdotes about Parker’s patients (from a 12-year-old rape survivor to an Olympic runner) and his own experiences on the job.
The book is full of worthwhile social and historical insights, like how the blatant misinformation about human fetal development peddled by today’s anti-abortion activists could actually be a throwback to the 16th-century “homunculus” (a theory of pregnancy in which a tiny human being is produced and implanted by a man to grow inside of a woman), with the same implication that women are men’s vessels, without inherent value.
The author also fearlessly explores the racial quagmires that have sprung up around abortion, debunking the so-called “black genocide” critique of abortion to convincingly reveal the white supremacist underpinnings of restricting those rights. He also draws a direct parallel between America’s history of slavery and its widespread legislative efforts (enacted largely by wealthy white men) to hinder abortion access in ways that profoundly disrupt and derail women’s lives. It’s almost as if those legislators think they own the bodies of female constituents.
The Philadelphia connection
Life’s Work is an especially worthwhile read for Philadelphians. Parker practiced in Philadelphia and expounds on the Kermit Gosnell case, in which grisly illegal abortions made national headlines. He says that anti-abortion activists often conflate his work with Gosnell's because they’re both African American.
“We made them desperate,” Parker said at the Free Library, of why low-income women with no other options ended up with Gosnell: We’re forcing women into that choice and then blaming them.
The author also reminded potentially complacent liberal Philadelphians that pointing out how women in other states might have it worse when it comes to reproductive rights doesn’t help anyone. He’s provided abortions in Pennsylvania as well as in the deep South, and our state is on the front line of some of the nation’s most restrictive laws.
A religious read
For a secular reader like me (and perhaps for other non-Christian ones), one drawback to Parker’s treatise is its overt Christian themes -- although, given the beliefs of many of the country’s most strident opponents of reproductive justice, this Christian perspective is perhaps necessary. Parker is now doing brave and essential work, but there is still enormous privilege inherent in spending a large chunk of his career as an OB-GYN blind to reproductive justice in the name of his faith, recasting his values in his own good time, and then comparing his work since that conversion to the actions of figures like Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr.
I would rather be worthy of reproductive justice in an intrinsic way rather than at the behest of God or of one interpretation of Christian faith, however radically inclusive Parker’s God is.
But Life’s Work is worth the read, and we were lucky to hear from Parker here.
“I’m pro-life. Pro-life for the woman,” he said. For him, there’s a more salient question than at what point a human fetus has rights of its own. If you don’t think a woman should control her own body, “Tell me when a woman is not a person.”