Willie J. Parker

Willie J. Parker and the Complexity of Choice

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Jessica L. Andersen

Engineer, yoga, pre-med, bodypos obsessed. I'll take my feminism mixed with science, and my science with feminism, please.

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Willie J. Parker, MD grew up in Birmingham, AL. After completing multiple advanced degrees, including an MD from the University of Iowa College of Medicine and a Masters from the Harvard School of Public Health, he returned to the South to deliver reproductive care. On the surface it sounds like a simple story of a man coming home, except that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Parker returned to the South to provide abortions. He is also a very religious, practicing Christian. He worked in obstetrics and gynecology delivering babies for twelve years, and refusing to provide abortions. He had a strong moral stance against them. Over time, he was exposed to more and more women in situations that he couldn’t find moral justification for denying help with ending their pregnancies. Eventually, he decided to begin providing abortions. Somewhat ironically, the the moment of conversion happened while he was reading a religious text — a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.– and he says, “It felt as life-altering for me to move from being unable to do abortions to being able to do them as it did to move from being a nonbeliever to becoming a believer”.

This doctor doesn’t only challenge the typical narrative with his religious comparisons, he also openly discusses his view that a fetus is, actually, a human entity — not something most pro-choice advocates would agree with. But his views on life and choice won’t fit neatly on any t-shirt or bumper sticker. In an interview with the New York Times, he offers a refreshingly nuanced perspective on the complexity of abortion:

“Here’s the thing: Life is a process, not an event. If I thought I was killing a person, I wouldn’t do abortions. A fetus is not a person, it’s a human entity. In the moral scheme of thing, I don’t hold fetal life and the life a woman equally. I value them both, but in the precedence of things, when a woman comes to me, I find myself unable to demote her aspirations because of the aspirations that someone else has for the fetus that she’s carrying”.

So how does this perspective fit into the modern pro-choice narrative?

Well even that narrative is not so singular. A quick delve reveals some obvious differences in the way that different groups of people talk about abortion today. Does Parker fit in with the radical slogan, “Abortion on Demand and Without Apology”? Or does he fit into the camp with moderate liberals like John Kerry, who says he’s pro-choice but also says he’s “personally opposed to abortion”, and says it “should be the rarest thing in the world”?

The answer, is that Parker doesn’t fit into either of these camps. His perspective does allow people to have moral questions about abortion, something most radical pro-choicers seem unlikely to embrace. But he doesn’t in any way suggest that women should be ashamed of their abortions, something sometimes implied in the “safe, legal, and rare” motto of moderate Democrats like Hillary Clinton.

Ultimately, Parker encourages us to embrace the complexities of choice, but does not ever waver in his conviction that abortion must be safe, legal, and shame-free. While the plurality of the pro-choice movement is likely one of it’s strengths, Parker offers something unique. He fiercely defends the rights of women to choose abortion by providing them up to 24 weeks and 6 days into pregnancy. At the same time, he is also willing to engage in conversations about how he reckons his faith with the work he does.

Parker offers flexibility. He offers a space for those still processing their feelings about abortion — something that any who grow up in a religious, “pro-life”, household will eventually have to go through on their path towards supporting safe, legal, shame-free abortion. For any on this path, I hope they find Parker and the wisdom he offers. He recently announced the upcoming release of his new memoir, “Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice”, which will be available in April 2017.