Dr. Willie Parker on Why the Democratic Party Cannot Shy Away From Abortion Rights

April 26th 2017

In some ways Dr. Willie Parker, 54, fits neatly into the mold of an abortion provider — a compassionate, apt doctor, who fiercely advocates for women's reproductive health. However, he's often defined by what's seemingly unconventional: His deeply-held Christian beliefs and the lens of morality that he brings to the discussion of abortion rights.

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The fact that a moral argument for abortion seems so unusual speaks to the current conversation about a woman's right to choose. During the late 1970s and early 1980s the "moral majority" reshaped the abortion conversation around religion. In his new memoir, "Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice," Dr. Parker brings morality — and nuance— back into the pro-choice conversation.

In the book, abortion is a shown as a medical procedure — one described in detail — a matter of socioeconomic justice, and a common, "clear-eyed" choice that one-in-three women will make in their lifetime.

"It stands to reason: women's sexual independence is the thing that men have always wanted to control," Dr. Parker writes in his prologue, which is dedicated to the women he serves as one of the few abortion doctors in the Deep South. "But for the women in the abortion clinic waiting room, the sex itself is history and totally besides the point. They are here to pursue their lives."

Dr. Parker was born in Birmingham, Alabama — a state that he's returned to in order to provide abortion care. "I’m of African-American descent," he explained to me over the phone. "I was born in poverty, no tradition of education or wealth in my family, and had a very fundamentalist Christian upbringing," including what he calls a "personal religious conversion experience at the age of 15."

He said he didn't have strong feelings about abortion growing up, attending college at Berea College in Kentucky, or in medical school at the University of Iowa. Even at the beginning of his career as an OB GYN, Dr. Parker did not perform the procedure.

It wasn't until 2002 when he was teaching at University of Hawaii, and a new administrator wanted to discontinue providing abortions on moral grounds, that Dr. Parker decided he would learn how to perform the procedure. Listening to a speech from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about the "Good Samaritan" helped crystallize that decision.

"It challenged me to look deeper into my Christian identity and to find compassion and the ability to act on behalf of people needing my help," he explained, "in this case as a women’s health provider, women needing abortion."

ATTN: spoke to Dr. Parker about his book, the biggest threat to Roe v. Wade, and how he feels about the recent debate about the Democratic party over anti-abortion candidates. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. (You can also hear this interview on our podcast "Got Your Attention," which can be found on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayStitcher, and SoundCloud.)

Sarah Gray: I remember being younger and having a very narrow view of abortion, and I grew up in a very liberal household, and so I'm not even sure where I heard that "abortion was murder, and it would be murdering babies." [Editor's note: It's not.] And I remember at, like, eight- or nine-years-old saying that in front of a family member, who I later learned had had an abortion. And obviously my own thinking has evolved, but it was very interesting because, like you mentioned, we don’t hear a lot from women who have had the procedure, and one in three American women has had one or will have one.

And obviously you said in your book that you’ve performed probably over ten thousand, and so I wanted to ask you about general communication and messaging. What was so compelling in your book, is the way that you injected a level of nuance into this very black and white conversation. How do we change the narrative?

Dr. Willie Parker: So I think the very concrete literal thinking is a function of normal maturation, and so just in general in a non-religious sense, are the opportunities for us to learn to think critically are undermined even in our educational system. And so without that ability to think abstractly and to kind of recognize subtle differences between things that appear to be alike, we lose the possibility of navigating a world that’s becoming increasingly more complex.

And so there’s been this — with this explosion of information both by the internet but also by the scientific method that’s given us much more information about the physical world, there are people — sometimes many people feel overwhelmed and they long for much simpler times, and I think for some people take a very fundamentalist literal approach to religious understanding, [which] lends itself very well to not having to think very complexly about issues. Life is black and white, right or wrong, good and evil. And that just breaks down when you live in a world that’s much more complex than that. So the capacity to think in a more nuanced way, I think, people are challenging, so that when people can do it, it’s certainly by no shortage or affront by them personally to kind of struggle and deal with the world as it is versus how they want it to be. But I think a distance enough to do that is the fact that fundamentalist religion, which is different from conservative religion. I think many people are morally conservative, even people who aren’t necessarily religious. But that doesn’t necessarily equate with political conservatism. And so what happens is when you take fundamentalist religion and then politicize it, it becomes a tool for power-brokering. You then have the conflation of issues that should not be moral issues framed as moral issues because they move people politically. And that’s exactly what happened with the whole — the notion of abortion becoming murder, which is considered a moral evil. 

Sarah Gray: With Jerry Falwell.

Dr. Willie Parker: Right. It coincides exactly with the rise of the "moral majority," which became a player in the 1980 election with President Ronald Reagan. So the craving — the notion that abortion’s been a moral issue, if you take that and you have people using their religious authority to tell people that if you believe a certain way you have to vote a certain way, it all lends itself from discouraging people from thinking critically about issues and thinking about what’s in their own interests. And so you have people who are voting, thinking that if they vote for a certain party that they will outlaw gay marriage, that they will outlaw abortion and things of that sort, but when they’re actually voting against their own interests. So I think one of the ways we have to — if we’re even going to begin to change the narrative and the conversation, we first have to understand the conversation that we’re having, and that is that things have been overly simplified and they’ve been reduced to slogans and jingoes which short-circuit critical thinking, so first you have to realize what you’re dealing with. And when you realize that, then the second thing you have to do is you have to have the ethical and moral framework that you will not vilify people who think differently from you on this issue of reproductive rights. 

Sarah Gray: That’s the hardest part.  

Dr. Willie Parker: It really is. But when we look at the fact that even people who argue against abortion and who work to undermine it, when they have unintended pregnancies, those people have abortions too.  So one of the things that I never lose sight of is the fact that even the people who are really frustrated with me because I support openly reproductive rights and reproductive justice, and I do so from my Christian identity, I never lose sight of the fact that when those same people have unintended pregnancies and they seek out abortions, that when I'm arguing for access to abortion rights, I'm arguing for their right, too. 

So what I'm introducing is the notion that one, understanding how we get in this area where we have oversimplified thinking. Number two, when we recognize it results in situations where we are perpetrating injustice in particular controlling the bodies and the lives of women and making them incur unnecessary danger with regard to reproductive health. We have to not lose sight of the fact that these are systems of injustice, and what we have to do is fight against and deconstruct these systems of injustice without vilifying the people. And so Dr. King would say, "You always fight corrupt systems, but you never destroy the people caught up in them." And I would recommend and offer that as a frame of mind for anybody who wants to engage with people around trying to change the lay of the land when it comes to these laws and barriers that restrict women’s access to the health care that they need in the form of abortion and contraception.

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Sarah Gray: So that going to be my next question which you touched on which is, so what does the pro-choice movement get wrong in their communication? I think that as a woman and as someone who identifies as a pro-choice woman, it’s hard to sometimes not just be angry because certain laws and certain — even just seeing an image of all men, all-male legislators sitting down and talking about women’s reproductive health — it makes me angry and combative. And it makes me wonder, "do they not think I’m human?" And I think that that also puts up a barrier to communication to those who may be anti-abortion.

Dr. Willie Parker: Sure. Well, I certainly understand and — if you get angry about injustice, you’re not alone. I mean, as a Christian, my role model Jesus was so angry that he went into the temples and overturned the tables and threw out the money changers, so it’s not a moral flaw to become angry. In fact, I would argue that there are things where it’s wrong to not be angry about injustice when we see it. But how do you turn that anger into positive action? But they — part of diffusing your anger is channeling your anger into some action that is going to benefit. There are a lot of people who are angry right now as a result of the outcome of the election.

Sarah Gray: Yes.

Dr. Willie Parker: And they want to analyze what went wrong. They want to analyze how evil and morally bankrupt the people who voted in favor of what we have now are. And those things, if you are right about them, you can be right about them, and they won’t change anything.

Now we have Democrats who as they analyze the election on the issue of abortion, some people feel like abortion was a key issue. I don’t think it was. I don’t think it was raised nearly as much as we thought it was going to be. But there are people who are arguing that maybe Democrats as a political platform needed to be more flexible on the issue of abortion in order to gain traction in electoral politics, and that frustrates me to no end, because what it does is it marginalizes women, and it makes their issues a political issue that people are willing to trade off on. 

Sarah Gray: Yeah, rather than a health care decision.

Dr. Willie Parker: Right. So I am totally — there’s no wiggle room for me if people want to debate my worthiness of citizenship or humanity based on the color of my skin. That would be an absurd proposition to me as a person of color. It’s equally absurd to me that we look at the fundamental right of women to control their lives and their bodies and we say that there are ways in which we should be more flexible on women having control over their bodies and their health to the same degree that men are. There’s zero wiggle room on that for me. So if political solutions are the only way we’re going to have human rights for women and politics don’t pay off, I say that we have to look at other means. I’m not talking about anarchists, but I'm saying building a grassroots political force that doesn't have to affiliate with any particular party, that is a single-issue group around reproductive rights and reproductive justice.

And so if that means that the Democratic party can equivocate on reproductive rights and will not speak to the issues of women’s reproductive rights and health and their right to bodily autonomy, then I won’t participate on a party that will equivocate on that issue. I will press for a political action and a political party, and political activity. If that means growing ranks of the independents to pull sway and move people on this issue, than so be it. But I think being clear on the fact that we can’t equivocate and we cannot get distracted by venom and vitriol and bombast because people are trying to pull us off center be engaging us in battles that aren’t the real issue. Real issue’s humanity and human rights and gender equality, and reproduction occurs in the body of women. And the person who should have sole control over reproductive decisions is the person whose body in which that process is playing out.

Sarah Gray: To move into the logistics of it, it seems like there are fewer abortion doctors to be able to perform abortions, and obviously these laws make it very difficult and very strict. I mean, the process you go through after every single procedure to put the material, the fetal material back together like a puzzle— I can’t describe it as well as you did — was just fascinating to learn. How do we think that we can shift the conversation so that it’s not so scary for doctors to perform abortions or decide to learn and not be vilified?

Dr. Willie Parker: I am happy to inform — and hopefully this will inspire a reason for people to struggle even more fiercely — that contrary to popular belief, the number of people who are being trained to provide abortions is actually expanding. And it’s happening in a couple of ways. Number one, there’s a grassroots demand for people to provide reproductive healthcare. One in the form of people who are studying reproductive rights and reproductive justice at the undergraduate level, understanding the importance of abortion and aspiring to become healthcare providers who will provide abortions. Those people who successfully enter medical school become parts of organizations like Med Students for Choice, which are people who get into medical school and then part of their decision-making about where they will go is whether or not they will have explicit contact, exposure to medical access, education, contraception and family planning. And those people who aspire to provide women’s healthcare or who are supportive even if they don’t end up in the women’s field also are getting their understanding, even if they don’t provide reproductive healthcare, they need to be politically active and to monitor and to track legislation that will determine the context in which women access health care.

All of that is expanding as a consumer demand as people become aware of the importance of this care, and the prevalence of need for it. So there are programs that support this like Med Students for Choice, the Kenneth Ryan Residency Training Program where women’s health providers and OB GYN residencies and family medicine residencies have support to receive training in abortion care, and then there’s the way that I was able to go back and to acquire the training that I didn’t get in residency 25 years ago, and that is through the family planning fellowship administered through the University of California, San Francisco. It’s a large grant by an anonymous donor to underwrite people who are pursuing training and abortion care. So the actual provider pool is expanding, now we have to work on distributing that resource.

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To your point, part of what makes it scary for folk is that these restrictive laws and the kind of domestic terrorism of people trying to intimidate folk who provide abortions, intimidate women who seek abortions, all of these things factor in. And part of what I sought to do by demystifying what an abortion is — by describing in detail what happens during abortion care, both with medication abortion and with first-trimester and second-trimester abortion — is to fill the narrative. Fill the space that’s often occupied with misinformation or outright lying, that people opposed to abortion, they create horror stories because those of us who provide abortions have been on the sense of we’ve not been willing to talk about what abortion is from a medical standpoint for fear the people will take the narrative and spin it. And what we’ve done is we’ve conceded, in my opinion, the moral authority to legitimize women making this decision.

So I don’t think euphemism works as a strategy for dealing with the reality of what abortion is. I don’t think a cloak-and-dagger strategy of trying to shield from the public what abortion is, because in both of those we’ve given — people opposed to abortion really have a 40-year window to create horror stories, and in the public’s mind create the notion that abortion is this horrific procedure done under horrific circumstances, and it fostered a mistrust or distrust both under the medical community for those of us who provide their care, and it’s also played into making the public feel that they can’t trust women to make that decision when they decide to end their pregnancy. So I think demystifying the procedure and then the organic demand by both people willing to provide the care, I think the only piece that’s missing is the demand from women as they choose their health providers to say, "If you are going to be my health provider, how will we handle an unplanned pregnancy?" If women would do that more frequently and would use that as a deciding factor, if somebody is not willing to provide comprehensive care for you to include helping you to manage an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, then that should factor into whether or not you’re willing to trust them with your care.

Sarah Gray: I had that thought last night, actually. Sorry to interrupt you, but I actually, I thought to myself when I read that there are only — and I’m glad to hear that it’s expanding — but I heard that there are only a little over a thousand active abortion providers right now, which is down from what it was a couple decades ago. I thought to myself I've never asked my OB GYN if she performs abortions. And so that’s a really smart point, that women should be doing that.

I liked the conversation about the role of race in education and poverty in education that is woven in through your memoir along with women’s health. I am a white woman and I was raised with relative means, and so I learned a lot about the intersection of these issues in your own life and how you tied them to women's health. Why that was so important for you to include in the book?

Dr. Willie Parker: Well, I think from a public health standpoint, understanding that most of the time we think about health, we think about the physical determinants of health — what is your immune system, what is your weight, what is your level of fitness, we fail to think about the social determinants of health. There are other things that influence whether or not someone’s going to be healthy and that influences their life chances. If you look at somebody who’s poor, female, and of color, those things could have synergistic effect that will make the oppression more pronounced than if you look at one of those things by themselves.

So I couldn’t help but be struck by the ways in which my skin color and my socioeconomic status, even as a male, my sex wasn’t impacted. And it made me understand the ways in which my life chances were determined by other people who could control those things about my life, in terms of access to education, in terms of access to resources to get education or to use education to get out of poverty. I thought about what my experience was as a young black male coming out of the South, and then I threw the filter of what if I had simply been female with an unplanned pregnancy? Would people have been as generous towards me with their help? And so there are ways in which I'm marginalized. I still get the way in which, simply because I'm male, I'm privileged over people who are not. And I think being mindful of that, one does a couple things for me. It helps me to always be mindful of what it means to women when I'm able to help them to accomplish their life goal of not increasing the poverty that they find themselves in by having an additional mouth to feed or impairing their ability to care for the children that they already have. And so that’s always in the back of my mind. And it also gives me insight about even in ways that I' marginalized, what my responsibility is to fight, to make sure that a woman’s life chances aren’t determined by her sex.

I’m convinced that — just like black people or people of color can’t fix white privilege, white people have to do that. Women can’t fix patriarchy and gender discrimination, men have to do that. It doesn't imply that people don’t have to struggle on their own behalf, but it does mean that in terms of deconstructing the systems where they provide privilege for us, whatever that privilege may be, those of us who benefit from the privilege have to deconstruct it, so as a man it’s absolutely my role to not participate in a society that would marginalize women by controlling them on their basis of their reproduction. And so I think it really bears importance that we understand that when it comes to health, if we’re gonna talk about reproduction as an aspect of health, that beyond the physical determinants of health, there’s social determinants which we all have to take responsibility for. 

Sarah Gray: I've lived in California, New York, Washington, D.C. — all places where it’s easy to take for granted the access to reproductive healthcare and access to abortion. And it wasn’t until probably five years ago that I realized how stealthily laws were impacting women in other states — and especially poor women, and the burden that’s placed on them seems like an economic injustice.

Dr. Willie Parker: Absolutely so. It is the further concentration of poverty, when we look at the fact that by socioeconomic status, unintended pregnancy occurs more frequently for poor women than it does for women with means, and what that means is there’s multi-factors: there’s women who are poor and more likely to live in an area where they don’t get access to comprehensive, medically-accurate sex education. They’re less likely to have access to methods of modern, science-based contraception, and even if they have contraceptives available, they’re less likely to have coverage to pay for it. So these reproductive issues become socioeconomic issues, as you said, and again their ability to appreciate that really requires an embrace of a reproductive justice framework which is one that has a framework of intersectional analysis versus a right or a privacy framework.

If you’re poor, your rights to privacy are compromised, right? Because if you’re reliant on public assistance, the government has right to any information that they would want to use to determine whether or not you’re available for public assistance, right? So your sexual practices, your reproductive life goals, if you’re poor, they’re no longer private. So trying to arbitrate access to resources for birth or access to resources for preventing pregnancy, it becomes very public. So privacy is not the right framework to work for, but a justice framework says that you are entitled to the things that are reflective of human dignity and decency, and you’re entitled to those things even if you can’t afford them. And it’s society’s responsibility to provide access to you for those things, if a society’s going to describe itself as being just.

Sarah Gray: I wanted to talk about these laws that really can be read as telling women that they don’t know how to make their own choices. Even if they’re clear-eyed and sound when they go into your practice and say, "This is the procedure I want," the laws aren’t treating them as such. And that we’re seeing a rise of DIY abortions in states where abortion access is limited. I wanted to know what your response to this is.

Dr. Willie Parker: Well I think that one, in a just society we should not — one of the things that’s problematic about abortion and people legislating a way a woman’s right to make that decision, is we have allowed with the advent and the leaving-in-place of the Hyde Amendment the fact that a woman’s entitled to have an abortion if she can pay for it. The Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion except in the case of rape, incest, or the life of the mother — all things that are subjective calls. Someone had — in order to say that a woman has to admit to incest or to rape, things that are grossly underreported because those are legal challenges, as well as what constitutes dire compromise of the health of a mother, by creating those kinds of really strict requirements, which are subjective and almost no one can meet, if depending on how rigid the criteria are applied, to say that those are the only circumstances in which you will pay for an abortion leaves most women who rely on Medicaid or public funding for their healthcare unable to afford an abortion, what it has meant is that — and there’s an estimate that shows that there are about 30 percent of women on Medicaid who were asked — ended up considering a pregnancy that they would not have continued if Medicaid covered abortion.

It’s almost like a forced birth, a forced continuation of a pregnancy on the basis of your socioeconomic status which introduces injustice where it none need exist. Because if a woman has means, what we’ve said as a society, if you can pay for an abortion we’ve kept it legal, and if you can pay for it, you can get one if you can find a clinic where you can get one done. It presupposes that women under the threat or the terror of having complications related to abortion is that they will stop seeking them or having them. It simply is not the case. Abortions — women have abortions whether they're legal or illegal. What’s different is whether or not women die. Women don’t die from abortion when they’re legal and safe.

Sarah Gray: Yeah, you write that one story about the nurse who took an unidentified pill because she felt so much shame and fear.

Dr. Willie Parker: There was no way of knowing what they pill even was, right? And I never saw her again, but you know there was also that story of the woman who parsley and green mango in her vagina because online someone put a recipe like that, and I made a little light of it in saying that I wasn’t sure if she was making a salad or trying to have an abortion. But there’s nothing funny about a story where women are doing things that are potentially harmful, and in the mind of someone who doesn't understand the desperation of a woman when she’s pregnant or doesn't want to be that seems irrational and stupid. But that’s only from the perspective of someone who’s not  lost control of their life simply because they’re pregnant.

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Sarah Gray: So I wanted to ask what you think the biggest threat to Roe or the biggest threat to abortion rights in the US is right now?

Dr. Willie Parker: So since we live in a nation of laws and political activity, the biggest threat is not the conservative ideologically-driven agenda of the people in power. The biggest threat is that we would throw our hands up and say that there is nothing that we can do. And so I think voter apathy and political engagement are bigger threats to reproductive rights and everything else that the ideologically-driven people who want to fashion this country into their limited view based on their understanding, which is mostly fiscal conservatism with a thin veneer of moral values which you cannot legislate. That people driven that way are in power is not the threat, the threat is whether or not we’ll throw our hands up and say there’s nothing we can do.

Sarah Gray: I wanted to give you an opportunity to address anything you think that we missed in this interview.

Dr. Willie Parker: Well, I would say we didn’t hit on the fact that one of the things that’s holding sway is this whole notion of alternative facts and fake news, and that’s led some of us to be disenchanted and exasperated.

We have to continue to generate the evidence and to set forth the evidence that would lead to responsible policies, because that’s how we govern ourselves. We, through the political process and make choices about how we are going to live collectively, how we are going to allocate our resources, what our collective values are gonna be, and if we do that through the basis of facts and dethrone people governing from ideology for many of whom it was based in their religious understanding, then we could start and turn this thing around and go back towards a country and a system and a communal practice that would validate, and that would honor the dignity and health well-being of everybody who’s here. So facts matter, that’s my parting shot.

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