Hanging out with a hero

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I first met Willie Parker three or four years ago, researching my then work-in-progress book Perilous Times: an inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade. Couldn’t believe his generous affability and apparent fearlessness in the phone calls and emails we traded, his willingness to be quoted, identified, you name it — despite the obvious dangers facing abortion providers in areas of the country where opposition is fierce and hostility strong. It matters not to Willie Parker. He is dealing with real, live women and the injustice they face when denied control of their own bodies.

Fast forward to May, 2014. In an earlier email exchange the remarkable Dr. Parker had mentioned being briefly in California around this time and hopefully having a chance to meet. I held him to that, and managed to get him over for a visit. Here’s the report of that visit that appeared just now on Huffington Post:

It’s not every day you get to hang out with your hero.

For anyone invested in reproductive justice today, Willie Parker, MD, MPH, MSc, is at the top of the hero list. My own such list is long, thanks to the many people I’ve met in recent years who are tirelessly at work keeping justice alive for women everywhere — but Willie Parker is #1.

Parker holds degrees from Harvard and the Universities of Iowa and Michigan; has served as Medical Director of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington DC, Associate Medical Director of Family Planning Associates Medical Group in Chicago and Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii. His list of writings, honors, accolades and nonprofit board jobs is longer than my hero list, but in Real Time he is simply Willie. A man who believes ferociously in a woman’s right to make her own decisions, whatever her race or socioeconomic status, whatever her unique circumstances and needs.

This does not make Willie Parker an “abortion on demand” physician. Once the fetus has the possibility of survival — with or without “extraordinary support measures” — he will not perform an abortion. But Parker believes in a woman’s right to make her own healthcare decisions and to control her own body, and knows it is women of color and women without money or resources who are most often denied these rights. That’s where the complex issue becomes a simple matter of justice.

Parker sees what he does — which is, provide abortions up to 24 weeks and six days — purely through the eyes of the woman who seeks him out. She is usually a woman of color, African-American or Latino. More often than not she is someone who already has more children than she can care for. Sometimes she is still barely more than a child herself, unmarried, abused by a casual acquaintance or a favorite uncle. She has a story.

Once the woman with a story — and an unintended pregnancy — reaches Willie Parker, she’s in a safe harbor. He listens to her story, calms her fears, holds her hand.

Such women may be safe, but the abortion provider is decidedly not. Especially when he’s a big, affable, outgoing, very dark-skinned, gray-bearded guy like Parker.

“I sort of hide in plain sight,” he laughs. Walking around in casual clothes and a friendly grin, as he customarily is, he hardly looks the part of a multi-degree, high-powered physician. It was probably little comfort to the white, business-dressed reporter leaving a building with Parker recently when the latter remarked with a smile, “If they’re coming after the doctor, they’re gonna shoot you.”

Parker, grounded in Christian tradition and secure in his faith, says he is uniquely blessed by the certainty of knowing that his core moral, ethical and social beliefs come together with his education and skills. So yes, he will go right on being a very public advocate for reproductive justice — including the current fight to preserve the one remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi — and no, he’s not worried about personal danger.

“I don’t think about how I’m going to die,” he says. “I think about how I’m going to live.”

This is what makes hanging out with Willie Parker such a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

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