Dr. Willie Parker has heard many times that one cannot be a Christian and condone abortion. Parker, who identifies as a devout Christian, and who provides abortion to women throughout the Deep South, would argue that his faith and his career are not conflicting but complementary.
In his new memoir, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, he explains that his religious convictions led him to the conclusion that he had a duty to provide abortions.
In Life’s Work, Parker recounts how, growing up in a fundamentalist tradition in Birmingham, he never seriously grappled with the ethics of abortion. As he began practicing as an obstetrician and gynecologist, however, Parker came to the conclusion that abortions were in some cases justified, though he personally refused to perform them “out of my loyalty to my Christian identity.”
In 2002, however, when Parker was running the women’s health division of the Queen Emma Clinic, an outpatient facility connected to the University of Hawaii, a new administrator declared that the clinic would no longer provide abortions. The change in policy prompted Parker to reconsider his own opposition to performing abortions.
Parker writes that the moment he changed his mind, which he describes as a “conversion,” came when he listened to a recording of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final sermon, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In that sermon, King reflects on the parable of the Good Samaritan and notes that both a sense of having already done enough and fear of reprisal can stop an otherwise virtuous person from fulfilling their moral duties.
Listening to the sermon, Parker decided that his own discomfort with terminating a pregnancy was not enough reason to not provide what he sees as a medically necessary procedure. He has now been providing abortions throughout the country for over 10 years.
Before the publication of Life’s Work, which is scheduled for April 4, Parker spoke with Weld about moving back to Alabama, the future of abortion rights, and how to create a dialogue around one of today’s most contentious issues. (This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)
Weld: You’ve lived and worked all over the country. What made you come back to Alabama?
Willie Parker: When a woman has an unplanned pregnancy but doesn’t want to continue it, she needs to have access to care that will allow her to terminate that pregnancy. It’s very difficult for women to access that kind of care in the South. Restrictive laws about abortion access are coming out of the South and across the country. The fact that people who are firmly opposed to abortion are being elected to office — and then they’re using that as the base of their political power — means that some of the most restrictive laws are occurring here.
So when I became aware of that, even though I trained outside of the South and for well over 10 years have been performing abortions in other parts of the country, I decided I couldn’t leave the women of the South, namely my home state of Alabama and next door, Mississippi and Georgia. If I couldn’t make those women a priority, my rhetorical question was, “Who would?”
The additional consideration for me is that many women who live in poverty and women of color — often, but not always, synonymous — have higher rates of unintended pregnancies. When you end up with more unintended pregnancies, you end up with more people considering abortion. So my goal is to make sure that when a woman decides to end a pregnancy, it doesn’t become a life-or-death situation for her. It was important for me to make sure that was the case for all women, but in particular for women who are poor and black. That’s my background. I want those women to have safe contraception and safe abortion.
Weld: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about future of abortion rights?
Parker: This is a watershed moment. I guess I’ll betray my politics here, but given the outcome of the last election, we can really see a threat to the legality of abortion in this country. We are in the midst of hearings for the justice that President Trump plans to appoint who would overturn Roe. I think he is a bit optimistic. The court will go back to a 5-4 majority toward conservatism. But when they had a five-four majority previously, the precedent of Roe was challenged many times over the last 24 years. But we also had older justices, so the court could become even more conservative and potentially overturn Roe.
There are a lot of ideological challenges to things we take for granted, like access to reproductive healthcare. A lot of the things that deal with the need for abortion are being underfunded or marginalized, so if we marginalize the things that prevent abortion, and then you outlaw abortion, you basically create an inescapable trap for women. We are really making women vulnerable in a way they haven’t been in a long time. So I don’t think we can just say, “Oh, we can get through this.” Things are now bad and they could go from bad to worse.
Weld: You write in Life’s Work that many obstetricians and gynecologists today are reticent to speak up in favor of abortion rights. Why do you think that is the case?
Parker: Physicians are well-respected. In public opinion polling, we’re the third most-trusted profession, second only to nurses and pharmacists. So it is unfortunate that physicians forgo the influence they have because they’re afraid to speak out on important issues. I think the reason physicians become reticent is that those who perform abortions have been terrorized by public opposition to abortion that sometimes turns violent. Since abortion became legal, there have been 11 people killed associated with abortion, and four of those were physicians.
So there’s the fear of physical damage, and then there’s the stigmatization and marginalization, especially in the South where we have a high degree of religiosity, and we take our God and our guns very seriously. Sometimes when people register their displeasure, they do so violently. So there’s that physical threat, and there’s also the threat of feeling ostracized by colleagues and also by people targeting and picketing your practice, even if abortion is just a small part of what they do there. People protesting would affect your economic livelihood, and I think physicians are aware of that, and that affects their decision about whether or not to stand up for reproductive rights even when they are personally supportive of them.
Weld: Abortion is a particularly contentious issue that inspires passionate arguments on both sides. How do you create dialogue between the two camps?
Parker: If you are going to engage publicly about this issue, you’ve got to make your comfort with the morality of the issue. So if you have to, be clear what they’re doing is not outside of the realm of compassion and principle and morality. Just because people try to indict abortion care as murder and immoral simply because they don’t share your religious beliefs, you have to be clear, and when you’re clear you have to decide how you’re going to approach it with respect and compassion for someone who doesn’t agree with you. You get started not by dismissing people who are opposed to abortion as crazy or ignorant. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re sincere, even if you think that they’re sincerely wrong. Commit to having honest disagreements with people.
Recognize the difference between facts and opinions. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions, but nobody’s entitled to their own facts, and I guess the additional consideration you have to make in this day and age is that we’ve created alternative facts. You’re not even entitled to alternative facts; there is one set of facts that we must reckon with, and the facts are impartial.
It’s interesting to me that because I publicly acknowledge my Christian identity and the role that plays in the compassion that prompts me to provide abortion care in the first place, people are more unsettled by the fact that I claim a Christian identity and so then become more intent on rebutting or discrediting my claims to be a Christian than they actually are upset about the content of abortion. They are provoked by the fact that they believe abortion is murder, but it seems to be more even more provocative to them that I claim the same Christian identity that they claim, because most of the opposition to abortion is on the basis of people having a narrow view of Christianity as they understand it.
People are attacking me on my Christianity and quoting to me various passages of Scripture — oftentimes, in my opinion, lifted out of context — to make their point. My clarity about that prompts me, again, to deal with them in honest disagreement and to have compassion and respect for them. That means if they tell me I’m going to hell or that I’m not a Christian, I’m comfortable with them questioning my Christian identity, but I could never bring myself to question theirs.
But I think that at the end of the day, my most essential thought is that the truth will do. The truth will do. If the truth is not enough to persuade you or convince you, then I’m not going to wax eloquent in any given way that’s going to improve the chances of that.