“I can walk around in plain sight because no one on Earth expects a large, bald black man in sweats and a baseball cap to be a doctor.”
If the racial blind spots of anti-choice protesters makes them ignore Dr. Willie Parker when he walks into the clinics where he works, he is still perhaps the country’s most visible abortion provider.
Parker is the courageous OB-GYN who risks threats and harassment to provide safe abortion services and compassionate care to predominantly Black and poor client populations. A native Alabamian with a calming presence, Parker is one of a small number of physicians willing to provide abortions in the Deep South. In 2009, Parker made the decision to focus his practice solely on abortions, with a specific goal of making abortion accessible to poor women of color in areas with the least access. Parker travels to Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi to perform abortions.
In his new book Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, Parker poignantly recounts his journey toward becoming an abortion provider. The book is part memoir and part narrative history. It shares some of the intimate details of Parker’s life and provides background on landmark reproductive rights cases and legislation such as Roe v. Wade, the Hyde Amendment, and numerous other laws that have eroded abortion rights. It is also part medical and science writing as Parker gives the reader important information about the differences between various abortion procedures.
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The fourth of six children, Parker was raised by a single parent and in extreme poverty, and this experience fueled his commitment to provide care in his home region. His family relied on food stamps and Medicaid to meet their needs. Desiring a life unconstrained by socioeconomic limitations drove Parker to pursue higher education. He recognizes the same burning desire and dreams in the eyes of many of his patients.
While Parker believes his work helps women realize their dreams, he also considers his practice as his Christian calling. In making sure women get this essential care, he is fulfilling his God-given purpose of bringing justice to God’s people. Says Parker, “I believe that as an abortion provider I am doing God’s work. I am protecting women’s rights, their human right to decide their futures for themselves, and to live their lives as they see fit.”
Life’s Work is also Christian literature, as Parker connects his work to biblical stories that ground his faith and resolve to support women as agents with moral authority over their lives and bodies.
Parker’s spiritual awakening climaxed when he listened to audio of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the last speech King gave before his assassination. The civil rights leader retold the story of the good Samaritan who stopped to help a sick man who was lying helpless on the road to Jericho. Two other men passed the man by, but the Samaritan offered compassion and support. After hearing King’s sermon, Parker questioned whether it was right for him to refuse to provide abortions along with other reproductive health services. Hearing the good Samaritan story anew became his defining moment that clinched his decision to perform abortions. Says Parker, “From that moment, not providing abortions and not living out my convictions would have been a fate worse than death.”
The good Samaritan story—and Parker’s application of it to his own life—call those of us who are religious scholars and believe in reproductive justice and God to evaluate our place in this work and to rigorously examine Scripture’s place in it as well. Parker offers an admirable interpretation of this story, emphasizing Jesus’ compassion toward the oppressed. While Parker is not a formally trained theologian, he is clearly a faithful worshipper who has tried to delve deeper into the Bible.
For example, Parker highlights the biblical story in John 7:53-8:11 of a woman who is accused of adultery and about to be stoned by a crowd of men. According to the Scripture, Jesus wrote on the ground and told those judging the woman, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Parker reimagines this often-told passage. He envisions Jesus writing “G-R-A-C-E” on the ground. He muses that Jesus may have pushed through the crowd of angry men to ask the woman her name. In Parker’s mind, Jesus may have written the word “grace” on the ground to acknowledge the woman’s identity or to afford her humanity by stopping her murder.
Parker’s take on this important story compelled me to reconsider how this story might be extended. Readers don’t know what Jesus wrote on the ground, and there are many interpretations of this parable. What we do know is that while the officials claimed to be following the law Moses received from God, they were actually in conflict with the law on adultery, which—horrible as it was—required both man and woman be stoned. But the officials only brought forth the woman for judgment, reinforcing religion-based stigma about gender and sexuality. This selective judgment has a modern-day corollary as anti-choice legislators rob women of their moral agency over their bodies through unjust laws and restrictions.
Life’s Work is a passionate narrative by a man dedicated to both his Christian belief and his calling to bring justice and liberation to the marginalized. It is an engaging and informative, albeit slightly cumbersome, read as it moves between genres and topics. As a memoir that follows this one life, the book doesn’t always make clear how Parker fits into the reproductive justice movement, which has clearly influenced him and also benefited from his advocacy.
What is most compelling about Parker’s story is his journey toward becoming an abortion provider. Although Parker has been a doctor for 27 years, he did not perform abortions for the first 12 years of his practice; abortion training was not offered in his medical residency program. But if he had had the opportunity to learn it, Parker might not have done so due to his religious beliefs at the time. At the age of 15, he had become a born-again Christian in the Pentecostal tradition, which opposes abortion with few exceptions.
Even then, Parker says he believed every woman had the right to make her own choices about abortion. Nevertheless, judgment of women and their “poor choices” was part of his Christian understanding. When his 16-year-old sister became pregnant, she wanted an abortion. But the money for an abortion instead went to other pressing family needs. Parker admits he judged his sister, even refusing to speak or look at her during the summer she was pregnant.
How far he has come.