Dr. Willie Parker is an itinerant abortion provider who gave up a private practice and a penthouse in Hawaii to provide safe abortions for women in the South in communities like the ones in which he grew up. His work was captured in the 2016 documentary film Trapped and in his book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. Parker is mounting the moral case for abortion rights and fighting to keep abortion clinics open. Bitch spoke with Dr. Parker about heteronormative patriarchal Christian traditions, politics, and his personal saints.
“Devotion” is a word I couldn’t get out of my head while reading your book, especially when you described your work as “sacred.” How do you see “the sacred” and the idea of devotion in your work?
To describe my work as sacred is to place reproduction in the context of the religious and the spiritual, where it’s long been, in rejection of patriarchal norms that would subordinate the value and the lives and the importance of women. And I’m devoted to ritualistic practice coming from a place of deep commitment. Part of my pushing back on patriarchy and the imperilment of women by religious traditions is to invoke the same language, but to imbue it with the content that would elevate women to the same status that men take for granted. My work is sacred because I don’t do my work despite my religious and spiritual understanding, I do it because of it, and that to me is the crux of the counter-narrative to this religious encroachment on the humanity of women. My work is sacred, I’m Christian, I do abortions, and there are no zero-sum relationships between those understandings or those terminologies.
What do you make of the announcement that the Democratic party won’t withhold financial support from candidates who oppose abortion?
Politics has become a horse race, and one that’s primarily driven by fundraising to stay in office. The integrity of politics has been greatly compromised, so I’m disappointed but not surprised that it comes down to people doing an analysis of electability versus what is right, just, and fair. The notion of either demoting the interest of women or equivocating on the importance of abortion to the health of women is really a compromise of one’s integrity with regards to the position of the Democratic party.
Given that we have two major political parties in a winner-take-all system, prior to this capitulation by the Democratic party, we had one party that as its essential plank is firmly against reproductive rights and the rights of women, and we had one party, that at least in rhetoric said it was committed to the fundamental reproductive rights of women and would represent the interests of women. When the party that says it’s committed to the rights of women and the right to reproductive freedom begins to equivocate, you no longer have two parties battling to ensure either the oppression or the security of women’s rights: You have two parties against the rights of women.
If we use the analogy of a ship in the sea of politics, we have to ask: Are women’s reproductive rights and freedom an essential plank in the hull of the Democratic ship, or is it a mast on a speedboat? As a mast on a speedboat, it’s present, but it’s not critical because you have other means of moving the boat. If the party is equivocating on this issue, it is saying to women that they are optional. One thing I learned in relationships, both personal and political, is that you can’t afford to make someone a priority who makes you optional. The Democratic party, by this move, would be making women and their reproductive lives and health optional.
There are people who are saying that this sabre rattling and rhetorical capitulation is cyclical and common every time there’s a major loss, and I would argue, for the Democratic party, this is the biggest loss ever. There’s a real tension between whether our racism or our sexism is more fulminant. I think where you stand will depend on where you sit. The Democratic party has decided “maybe we need a broader tent and maybe we can put another patch in that tent by making room for people who campaign against the interests of women.” Some argue that this happens whenever there’s a major loss and the party looks at its metrics, that it’ll always find some reason to explain the loss versus taking a close look at itself and analyzing what it needs to do better. What it needs to do better is not compromise the interest of people that you think are critical to your interests.
You grew up in Alabama, and you now move between Alabama and Georgia as an itinerant abortion provider. What does it mean to you to care for women in communities like the ones in which you grew up?
The southern region has a disproportionate presence of laws that undermine women’s rights of access to the abortion care that should be secured and guaranteed by the Roe decision, which remains in place. The people who are being denied [abortion] access are primarily poor women and women of color, and I know that lived experience personally—being reared in abject poverty and being a person of color. So it became important to prioritize the care of the most vulnerable women in this country, using the logic that if those women are okay, everybody else is going to be alright. It’s about making sure that those women aren’t left out, and the way to do that was to move home and to provide care in one of the most underserved regions in the country.
In your book you mention your “personal saints”: civil rights leaders and others who have influenced your work and philosophy. What inspiration do you draw from their work, and how do you see its connection to yours?
When I look at these very human people who found something that was larger than them, something that mattered, something that made whatever efforts they expended a worthy cause, I took heart and notion from that.
I know that some people choose the issue, but sometimes the issue chooses you. Being a women’s healthcare provider, having my lived experience in the South with poverty and racism and then having one of the major defining issues of human rights be the reproductive rights of women, it was just the confluence of my background, my values, my religious and spiritual values rooted in Christianity and compassion that pulled all of that together for me. I saw people like Dr. King and Malcolm X, who were deeply principled on the basis of their religious understanding, and it fueled their notion that their religious values obligated them to participate in the human-rights issues of their day. I channel and derive my drive and clarity to do the work that I do from making those observations about why and how they did the work that they did.
I was really struck by how you phrased this in Life’s Work—why did you make the decision to exercise Christian compassion not by proxy, but with your own hands as an abortion provider?
We are so wont to give money or proxies of our commitment. I’m not knocking money; it’s important to how we do commerce—budgets are moral documents. The need for fundraising to increase for independent clinics like the Abortion Care Network that helps support independent clinics, most of which are small businesses that don’t have as much support as Planned Parenthood, is clear. But there are some things [for which] your money becomes a way to avoid your personal responsibility.
In my situation, it wasn’t enough to be empathetic or sympathetic toward the fact that women need abortion care. As a women’s health provider, it felt like a compromise to understand the importance of that care to women and to fail to provide it if the only reason that I wasn’t providing it was the default to patriarchal customs that are rooted in Christianity, because if I looked deeply in my faith tradition, there was nothing morally or mutually exclusive about being an abortion provider and a Christian.
Even though I didn’t have the initial [abortion care] training during my residency, it was important enough for me to go back and get that training so that my willingness to help would be paired with my ability to help.
For me personally, it wasn’t enough just to be pro-reproductive rights in rhetoric or in politics. The fulfillment of what moved me was to acquire the skills to become pro-reproductive rights in action. The only solution [that would] quiet the stirring in my inner witness was to begin providing abortion care for women because I know what it means when it’s not present.
You make the point that pro-choice advocates have failed to give a moral or ethical case for abortion rights and instead ceded that ground to anti-choicers. How do you think pro-choice advocates can better make the case for abortion rights?
The first thing they can do is be clear that morality and spirituality may or may not have anything to do with religion. Many of us suffer from what I call “religious PTSD.” We have been reared with the cultural narrative that America is one nation under God, so while we have an official separation between church and state and don’t have a national religion, we do. It is a de facto heteronormative, patriarchal, Eurocentric understanding of Christianity that has led to the exclusion of many people who don’t fit that narrative. They have found that there’s no good to come from religion and can only illuminate the harms. They forego any notion of the tremendous amount of compassionate, benevolent actions that have been done by people who were motivated by their religion to be compassionate. I think it’s a major concession for people—because of their own personal decision to engage with religion or not—to erroneously conclude that the only way to raise issues of morality or spirituality is to do so in the context of religion. Some of the most principled, humane people I know don’t have a religious orientation.
There’s no need for people who don’t have a religious practice to concede that the only way to address issues of morality is through religion, because when we’ve done that, we’ve created a huge vacuum in the public space that has ceded the moral high ground to people who have cynically manipulated religious understandings for the injustices that we face, such as LGBTQ discrimination, frank racism, rampant sexism and patriarchy, and anti-immigrant sentiments. The major concession that has been made by people who are pro-reproductive rights is that they have failed to mount the moral argument for reproductive rights. We are already engaged in questions of morality; they’re just not religious, especially when you’re talking about justice. What is the frame of reference? How do we reference justice without thinking about the moral content of the decisions that we make? For those of us who care about this issue, even though we don’t have a religious frame of reference, we should not concede the moral case for the justice work that we pursue.
Anti-choicers seem to effectively argue for the potential each possible pregnancy holds, but how is it that they have so successfully removed the woman, and her potential and humanity, from the equation altogether? And how can pro-choice advocates reorient this issue to prioritize the woman?
The anti’s creation of a moral equivalency between a woman and a pregnancy that she’s carrying has been greatly facilitated by technology. With the advent of the sonogram, people can see the anthropomorphization of the developing fetus and how quickly it takes on human form, starting as early as 9 to ten weeks. They’ve been able to exploit Horton Hears A Who!’s “a person is a person is a person no matter how small,” which is something that Dr. Seuss pushed back on and didn’t intend for his work to be used that way. By creating the notion that fetuses are tiny people and then invoking an absolute interpretation of the disruption of life processes as murder, the anti-choicers have been able to short-circuit any critical and nuanced thinking about a process that’s occurring in the body of a woman.
When you say “abortion is murder,” but you also favor the death penalty, there’s an internal conflict in that, but they’ve been able to get people not to look at that because they’ve been able to show pictures of developing fetuses and represent them as babies while fetishizing motherhood. If we fetishize motherhood and make it so essential to the identities of women, then that means any woman who is rejecting that notion and disrupting that process is either morally unfit or mentally unstable. One of the ways that people who are supportive of reproductive rights can refuse to unwittingly undermine the interest of women who are trying to make that decision is to reject the notion of the primacy of motherhood to the identity of all women. For example, women who are materially situated where it is not a question of economics or a strain or a complex family structure, those women, when they become indifferent as to whether or not a woman has to wait 24 hours to carry out her reproductive life goals, they unwittingly participate in the coercion or the victimization of women who are not similarly situated.
We have to be mindful of the privilege we hold and we have to apply that filter to our analysis of reproductive rights. If we’re mindful of the privilege that we hold when laws are posed that don’t necessarily affect our specific position, we have to be mindful that we stand in solidarity with people who will be affected by those laws.
We have to make it unequivocal that there should be no questioning of a woman’s right to bodily integrity and agency to govern all processes that occur in their body. People who are supportive of reproductive rights have to be unequivocal in making it clear and explicit that women’s bodies and lives are not public property.
We have to insist in no uncertain terms that publicly, as a society, we have to divest of the processes that occur in individual lives. To the degree that we are obligated to support people in their agency around achieving their life goals, it means that we have to reframe abortion as the healthcare that it is, destigmatize it, and not allow it to be turned into a moral issue. It is never going to be for the public; it is only a moral issue for the person charged with making the decision about the process that’s occurring in their body.