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In conversation: Dr. Willie Parker discusses his ‘Life’s Work,’ reproductive rights and spirituality

He’s an OB-GYN who performs abortions. He’s also a devoted Christian.

Dr. Willie Parker is an obstetrician and gynecologist who grew up in poverty in the Wylam neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. He became a born-again Christian when he was 15, and at age 55 he remains fiercely committed to his faith.

He also provides abortions.

Parker does not see those things as diametrically opposed. Quite the opposite: Parker’s Christian faith informs his work as a provider of abortion care, so much so that he wrote a book about it. Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice was published April 4. What pulses through every page of Life’s Work is a sense of Christian-driven compassion and a firsthand understanding of how poverty shapes people’s lives in ways they don’t even necessarily see or understand. He speaks in the vernacular of the Bible Belt, and his faith was shaped by the writing and theology of Martin Luther King Jr., whom Parker sees as his “personal saint … [his] conscience’s mentor and its guide.”

37 Ink/Atria Books

“Poverty is an onerous burden, and not just because of how material need — not enough food, not enough income, to cover the bills, no secure housing or easy access to sex education or birth control — afflicts individuals and families,” Parker wrote. “People in poverty are treated as second-class citizens in this country, deprived in a generalized way of the respect and compassion that should be accorded to every human being.”

In Life’s Work, Parker explains why he left a cushy life as a professor and OB-GYN in Hawaii to travel through Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia providing abortions where abortion access is severely limited. He risks his life to do so, existing in a climate in which abortion providers are targeted by armed extremists. In November 2015, for example, a shooter attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing three people and injuring nine more. In 2009, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in the foyer of his Wichita, Kansas, church.

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Parker connects his decision to provide abortions with his experiences and with the observations of the lives of the women in his own family. He also explains how anti-abortion policy disproportionately targets poor women and black and brown women. And he has words for the evangelical community, whose members show up faithfully in Washington every year to protest against abortion rights on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.

“To me, conscience is personal, and women as moral agents in their reproduction are no less valid simply because people disagree with them,” Parker said. “We should trust women and we should respect their decisions. If I could have you say that 500 times, I would.”

The debate over abortion has been divided into right and left, pitting secular liberals against evangelical conservatives. But you complicate that binary.

There is a real strong incentive to conform and strong punishment for dissent. Critical thinking is considered a form of dissent to a fundamentalist spirituality. What’s starting to resurface is that there are evangelicals who aren’t so dyed in the wool about traditional dogmas that you have to embrace to lay claim to a Christian identity.

I think it’s easier for people to conform to a conventional Christian understanding than it is to have to wrestle with being reality-based as they think about the world and in terms of the facts instead of the traditional myths we have to explain things. For a long time, pregnancy happened in a black box. We didn’t have ultrasound. We didn’t have any understanding about gametogenesis or sperm and egg development. It was just pregnancy was a miracle, God made the miracle happen. If God wants you to be pregnant, you’re going to be pregnant. And if God didn’t want you to be pregnant, no matter what you wanted, it wasn’t going to happen. With technology, the black box phenomenon is gone. Rather than trying to explain the world or understand the world in more complex ways that don’t compete with a sense of spirituality, it’s easier to default to those understandings that were not scientifically based.

“I want for women what I want for myself. I want self-determination. I want health. I want the ability to contribute, and I want those things as a human being.”

Berea College, where you obtained your undergraduate degree, sounds like a special place, one that didn’t see science and religion as things that had to be at odds with each other.

It was a nonsectarian Christian school. It was Christian in the sense that the founder had a prophetic and radical message based on his understanding of the Christian scripture, which basically led him to become an abolitionist. He was recently inducted into the Abolition Hall of Fame. But that mission of that school, where God has made of one blood all nations of the earth, that fundamental truth made it. There were people from all around the world. It was the place where I molted. I went in as a chubby fundamentalist caterpillar and molted and left as a butterfly.

How did your experiences there influence your approach to medicine?

When I went to Berea, I was 18-and-a-half. I had been a born-again Christian for 3 1/2 years. I had spent a little time as a lay minister in the pulpit and was very steeped, deeply, in my biblical research. It was a very concrete, literal reading of the Bible, which is very common for fundamentalists. But even before I arrived at Berea, I was intrigued with science and learning how to think for myself.

The real epiphany and breakthrough moment came when, at Berea, I had a Western civilization instructor. Berea’s a liberal arts school, and the person who taught my section was a person who had left the priesthood and married and was very much steeped in the liberation theology of Central America. That was the heyday of the Contras and the Sandinistas. Apartheid was becoming an international issue. That was the cause I dove into, having to reconcile that a lot of the megachurch movement would have its fundraising and its conferences in South Africa. I’m thinking, ‘Well, hey, most of the congregants in the mega faith movement are black. How do they feel about going to South Africa for a conference where they’d have to, in order to participate, become honorary white people?’

In that way, questions and doubt have enriched my faith, not compromised it, but it was just the thing that people who wanted me to be more conventional did not want to happen. When you start to think for yourself, you can’t stay with fundamentalist religion that is literal in its interpretation of sacred texts. I had no desire to leave my Christian understanding. It’s part of my DNA. It’s part of my culture. But I was challenged to think about it in a different way, and I think I went from a conforming Christian to a thinking one. That thinking process led me to reconcile the world that I found myself in: full of injustice, and yet feeling called to be an agent of justice. Berea helped me with that.

What is your relationship now with your church?

Right now, I don’t have a faith body in particular where I worship. The progressive politics that have to inform my worship experience, those types of faith bodies are not in large populations in the South. Just two weeks ago I did a Q&A. A large pro-life organization took out a full-page ad and made it a point, in no uncertain terms, to rebut my claim to be Christian, largely on the basis of the fact that I provide abortions. They think that there is something mutually exclusive about having compassion for women and providing their reproductive care and claiming Christian identity.

When I speak of the church, it’s the church writ large and the spiritual church versus having a relationship where I am part of a faith community, though I’m hoping to seek that out. Unless it’s a really radical, evolved, progressive local community, the likelihood that I’ll be welcome there is very low.

Do you think there’s a role for the church to play in sex education beyond abstinence-only curriculum?

I insist that there’s a role to play. The church has to become the venue where the head-heart merger occurs, especially in the African-American community, given the prominence that religiosity and spirituality play and the role the black church plays. I think Dr. [Martin Luther] King said it best. It was the statement by Dr. King where he talked about how he reconciled his spirituality and his intellect. Dr. King said that ‘science gives mankind knowledge, which is power. Religion gives mankind wisdom, which is control. The two are not enemies.’

The one denomination that does sex education the best, that I was most impressed with, is the Unitarian Universalists. They have a curriculum called Our Whole Lives, or OWL. They engage in medically accurate and age-appropriate sex education as a form of empowerment and as a form of sacralizing sexuality versus dealing with stigma and shame.

I’m a firm believer that part of deconstructing the stigma of abortion and sexuality is that the church is going to have to speak to the reality of human sexuality. The Catholic Church has made bold declarations about the role of sexuality and reproduction and contraception, and yet, in this country, 98 percent of Catholics use contraception. Either the church will be able to speak meaningfully to the important issues of people’s lives or they won’t. People will apply that tradition to the areas of their lives that seem to fit, but they will disregard it in the areas where it doesn’t. If you don’t speak to the fact that 1 in 3 women will have an abortion by the time they’re age 45 because of unplanned pregnancy, if you don’t have a different understanding about the role of contraception and the role it plays in the agency and the decision-making of women, then on the issue of reproduction, as a faith community, you’re going to be irrelevant.

Dr. Willie Parker from Dawn Porter’s documentary TRAPPED.

Courtesy of Derek Wiesehahn

Why do you think men should care about abortion rights and access? What should and can they do to protect that right?

I think they should care, not out of a sense of chivalry. They should care about them because reproduction is a human rights issue. Reproduction is complementary and cooperative between males and females. I intentionally say ‘males and females’ versus ‘men and women’ because I want to be explicit. I’m talking about reproduction. I’m not talking about gender identity. I know trans men who preserve reproductive capacity in their biology as females. I’m not challenging who’s a woman and who’s not.

Even though [cisgender] men and males can’t get pregnant, they should be no less concerned about the agency of those who do become pregnant and to make sure, in a human rights context, that that occur intentionally and safely and with the necessary resources. Men have a role to play in assuring those human rights. It’s about exploring a deeper humanity.

My role, my relationship with doing anti-patriarchal work and anti-sexist work and anti-rapist work, has to do with a similar value that Abraham Lincoln articulated when someone asked him why he freed the slaves. The Civil War occurred for multiple and complex reasons, but his sentiment around saying, ‘Simply, as I would not be a slave, so I will not be a master’ shows that to some degree, he understood and respected the humanity of enslaved Africans and wanted for them what he wanted for himself. That’s the relationship I have with reproduction and reproductive rights. I want for women what I want for myself. I want self-determination. I want health. I want the ability to contribute, and I want those things as a human being. If I’m going to explore a deeper humanity, I have work for the deconstruction of those systems that would deny women access to those things.

Do you think there’s a problem on the left when it comes to understanding religious people? Do you think they could do a better job of trying to reach those people?

Part of what’s problematic about the extreme dogmatic religion of the right is that it’s an uncritical and unthoughtful and therefore, in some ways, an uncharitable approach to religion. The left is, in many ways, operating in the same milieu. And while there’s a bit more sympathy, in some ways, it has not departed in a significant way from the extreme approach of people who are dealing with the Christian religion in a biblically literal way.

Middle-class and liberal people on the left, when they wax sentimental about motherhood, they end up aiding and abetting and unwittingly facilitating the oppression of women and poor and minorities. They end up not taking the love ethic and the challenge to pursue justice that was the religion of Jesus very seriously. The left, in its sentimentality, is far more committed to charity than justice. The right is committed, in a selfish way, to injustice.

The left is considered committed to charity, and so what it means in the approach is that the pursuit of justice becomes very anemic, even among people you would think would be more deeply engaged in justice work. I think it may be, unless they take a deeper look and do a more critical self-examination, religious people on the left are as anemic as people on the right. The most primary solutions the left battles for are political ones. Those aren’t radical enough to cause fundamental changes in the value system that would lead us to champion the appropriate policies that would remediate poverty and that would destroy gender discrimination and sexual identity discrimination.

Until [the left] can become committed to justice work, which requires a more radical departure and a different understanding of the sacred texts — if we’re going to talk about Christianity — until the left does that, we’re going to be unable to mount any significant pushback to the frank injustice that we find ourselves in the midst of with the ideologues on the right.

What pulses through every page of Life’s Work is a sense of Christian-driven compassion and a firsthand understanding of the way poverty shapes people’s lives.

The makeup of the Supreme Court directly affects you as a physician who provides abortion care, as well as your patients. What are your thoughts on [new Supreme Court justice] Neil Gorsuch?

You have a president who doesn’t understand politics and is trying to run the country like a business. The backstops have always been principled legislation backed by an impartial judiciary. For the last eight years, we had a president who would apply veto power to things that were extreme and unreasonable. Now we don’t have that backstop. The last modicum of reason is to elect justices who will have the temperament and serious respect for the law. That this president had the impression and expectation that ‘I will appoint a Supreme Court justice that will overturn Roe’ means that he didn’t take lightly who he picked.

With each appointment, the question, or at least the hope that we have, is that who appointed you will not be prognostic of how you will rule on the law if you are indeed qualified to be on the court and take the law seriously. Justice Kennedy has been the swing vote on Roe. He will continue to be the swing vote on Roe. Even with a conservative court, justices are very unwilling to go against legal precedent if the principle is firmly established. There’s nothing more firmly established than Roe over the last 44 years, even though it’s been weakened somewhat. It still remains the law of the land.

You were part of Dawn Porter’s documentary about TRAP laws, which have been ruled by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. What other barriers do you see to abortion access?

The bugaboo that remains in place is the Hyde Amendment, which makes it illegal to use federal funds for the purpose of abortions for women who would otherwise use Medicaid or public funding to pay for their health care. For poor women, in states where they do not provide coverage for abortion care, there are major financial hurdles.

Dr. King, when he shifted to the Poor People’s Campaign, he said that it’s one thing to march for the right to sit at the lunch counter, but if you’re sitting at the lunch counter without the ability to buy a piece of pie, then you’re loitering, so you’re still in violation of the law. It’s one thing to be able to sit at the table; it’s another to be able to sit at the table with the means to secure what has you at the table. In that regard, funding is a major hurdle.

[Doing away with] targeted regulation of abortion providers doesn’t stop us from having to give bogus medical data. Those regulations don’t stop waiting periods. All of the things that go into the TRAP regulations affect just one aspect of all that goes into abortion care. That’s one victory. One legal remedy, but there are so many others that need to be addressed.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.