Willie Parker vs Reproductive Oppression

Dr. Willie Parker
Dr. Willie Parker

“The Racialization of Abortion,” Willie Parker titled his talk; “A Dirty Jedi Mind Trick.” He then spent about 45 lively, provocative minutes elaborating on the theme.

The occasion was a recent Grand Rounds presentation at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, where he addressed a standing-room-only crowd of (mostly) young interns for an event that more commonly draws a smattering of attendees. But when Willie Parker comes to town, it’s a good idea to bring in extra chairs. Parker is an African American physician, a provider of abortion and reproductive health services to women who would otherwise be denied them, current board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, a ferocious defender of women’s rights and fearless citizen. He is also this writer’s personal hero.

Parker explained in his opening remarks that his “is heart work and head work. Dr. Martin Luther King said the heart can’t be right if the head is wrong. (King) also said we have guided missiles and misguided people.” On the podium, delivering a rapid-fire lecture in behalf of reproductive justice, Parker is akin to a guided missile consisting of equal parts passion, outrage and statistics. The youngest of six children whose mother sent them to church three times a week, he speaks with the cadence and conviction born of those roots.

“There are over six million pregnancies per year in the U.S.,” he says. “Half of them are unintended. Of the unintended pregnancies, half end in births; half in abortions. One in three women under 45 will have an abortion. While unintended pregnancies have fallen among the upper classes, they have increased 29% among the poor. Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately likely to have unintended pregnancies…”

And it is at this point that Parker’s inner preacher takes over. “People,” he says, “we’re gonna get ugly for Jesus.” It is his challenge to those who attack him, most often fundamentalist Christians, for protecting the reproductive rights of his mostly young, Black clients. Often they also accuse him of participating in “Black genocide.” It is this myth — that abortion is a government plot to eradicate the Black race – that leads to the Dirty Jedi Mind Trick theme.

“It is epidemiological mischief,” he explains. “They take data, put a spin on it that is not intended, and then start a ‘call-and-response’: You have white people saying abortion is racist, getting Black people to say Amen. They can put a cultural war in your framework. It’s important that we recognize the significance of this message, and debunk it.”

In addition to the epidemiological mischief there are outright lies. Former presidential candidate Herman Cain, an African American Tea Party Republican, said in one speech that 75% of abortion clinics were in Black neighborhoods, to encourage African American women not to have children. Parker says the correct figure, according to the Guttmacher Institute, is 9%.

“At its core,” Parker says of these efforts, “it is patriarchal and insulting. They assume a woman is not capable of making her own decisions about her own body.”

What’s needed now, to combat all this, Parker says, “is a new framework, to define this community problem as Reproductive Oppressionon. Reproductive oppression is the control and exploitation of women and girls and individuals through our bodies.” Parker cites the long history of reproductive oppression that includes “forced breeding during slavery, sterilizations, and human experimentation on Puerto Rican women for the contraceptive pill.

“Current examples of reproductive oppression,” he says, “include limiting access to reproductive healthcare, family caps in welfare, and federal and state laws restricting access to abortion.”

But there is hope. Parker cites Atlanta-based SisterSong and its formidable co-founder Loretta Ross as embodying the principals of reproductive justice. Parker lists these as:

1 – Every woman has the right to decide when to have children.

2 – Every woman has the right to decide if she will not have a child.

3 – Women and families (deserve) the resources to parent the children they already have.

4 – Every human being has the right to primary sexual pleasure.

Anti-abortion forces would certainly argue against at least the first two. Parker’s message to the young interns was that it’s not just argument, but twisted myths and dirty tricks that are being used to deny those rights. He maintains it’s the responsibility of the medical community, among others, to stand up for women who are suffering from being denied, to fight against reproductive oppression.

In all likelihood, Willie Parker will keep right on leading that battle.

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(Read Dr. Parker’s statement on the recent Supreme Court ruling against restrictive Texas abortion laws: http://prh.org/)

 

There’s Hope for Reproductive Justice

Art by Megan Smith
Art by Megan Smith

Let’s hear it – one more time – for the Millennials. Especially the youngest Millennials, just now reaching or approaching voting age. A generation unto themselves.

Invited to speak at a recent “Awareness into Action” day at Drew School, a private college preparatory day school in San Francisco, this writer went with some trepidation into a classroom set up for about ten high school students. Who – when she hasn’t been a high schooler in more than a half century – knows high school students today?

My workshop was on Reproductive Justice. Other choices the students could make included workshops on Mindfulness, Parks Conservancy, Anti-Racist Dialogue, LGBTQ issues and Immigration Law (to name a few.) I figured if 5 or 6 girls showed up it would be fine. By the time we were ready to start there were 14 girls and two brave (and handsome) guys around the table and sitting on chairs and tables in the back corner, plus one teacher keeping an eye on it all.

For openers, I’d written several facts on the whiteboard:

A woman dies of cervical cancer almost once every two hours. HPV vaccine prevents most cases of cervical cancer.

17 states mandate that women be given counseling before an abortion that includes information on at least one of the following: the purported link between abortion and breast cancer (5 states); the ability of a fetus to feel pain (12 states); long-term mental health consequences of abortion for the woman (7 states.) None of the above are true.

Then I told my own story. The story of a 22-year-old who had never had sex – after all, nice girls did not have sex before marriage in 1956. A victim of what would today clearly be workplace rape, I did all the dangerous things that women desperate to end an unwanted pregnancy are increasingly doing today. When nothing else worked, I had a back alley abortion by an untrained man who probably had not even washed his hands.

“I think,” I said to the roomful of attentive faces, “we’re going straight back to the dark ages.”

Not if these young people have anything to say about it.

Aware that they are among the lucky ones, they are concerned about the unlucky. They seemed a little taken aback by statistics like this one:

In 2006, 49% of pregnancies were unintended. The proportion of unintended pregnancies was highest (98%) among teens younger than 15.

. . . and by other data about how widespread is the denial of access to reproductive healthcare for poor women and girls (and men and boys) in more than half of the U.S. “It’s just wrong,” said one student.

So what do you think you can do to change things, I asked.

“Vote,” came the first answer, before I even finished the question.

“We have to learn to listen to people we disagree with,” said another student, who had been rather vocal in her description of political villains. “You may have to bite your tongue,” I said. “Yeah, I know,” she replied. “Because we have to learn how to have dialogue.”

“We just have to know the laws,” said another, “and work to change them.”

“We need to support these organizations, too,” commented another student, tapping the table with some of the materials I had distributed from groups like Advocates for Youth, Planned Parenthood and Sea Change.

For this writer, who lived through the worst of times, the workshop brought hope for the future of reproductive justice in the U.S. Returning to the worst of times is not on the agenda for these Millennials.

 

 

Women, Abortion Rights & Willie Parker

Dr. Willie Parker
Dr. Willie Parker

Noted physician/activist Willie Parker was in San Francisco recently explaining why he does what he does.

What Willie Parker does is regularly put his life on the line in behalf of poor women and their reproductive health. Why does he do it? “It’s the right thing to do.” Among other things Parker does is to fly regularly into Jackson, MS to provide abortions at the one remaining clinic where Mississippi women without power or resources can go for this constitutionally-protected health service.

His belief that it would be morally wrong not to help the women who come to him, Parker once told this writer, was rooted partially in a sermon Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on the good Samaritan (who stopped to help a stranger after others had passed him by.) “What made the good Samaritan ‘good’ was that instead of thinking about what might happen if he stopped to help the traveler, he thought about what would happen to the traveler if he didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop to weigh the life of a pre-viable or a lethally flawed fetus against the life of the woman sitting across from me.”

Parker headlined an event celebrating the 43rd anniversary of Roe v Wade that was organized by Carol Joffe, PhD, of the University of California San Francisco’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health – and which quickly sold out.

“Most (abortion) providers keep a low profile,” Joffe said in her introductory remarks; “but Willie has chosen to be very public. (Despite his multiple degrees and honors, everybody seems to call Dr. Parker ‘Willie.’) He is building bridges to the past and to the future.” Joffe went on to speak of Parker’s connections to progressive causes, faith communities and, most recently to the Black Lives Matter movement. “What he is doing,” she said, “helps all women to live lives of dignity.”

Parker, who treats the issue of personal danger as not worth his time to worry about, calls the anti-abortion efforts “domestic terrorism,” especially with the murder of providers. The incessant efforts to overturn Roe, and passage of more and more unnecessary state laws making abortion inaccessible for women without power or resources are, he maintains, in the same “domestic terrorism” category.

The author with the doctor
The author with the doctor

So in return Parker says he tries to “radicalize” every young woman he sees in Mississippi. Since the state mandates he spend time with her, unnecessarily and repeatedly, before allowing her to have the abortion which is her constitutional right, Parker considers it only fair to put that time to best use. “I tell her, ‘these people who are trying to close this clinic – they don’t think you’re smart enough to make your own decisions.’ And I explain change will only happen if she fights for it. Then I tell her to go vote.”

All of which helps explain why Willie Parker does what he does. This writer is among the uncounted others, women and men believing in humanity and justice, who give thanks.

 

 

My Problem With the Pope

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

Pope Francis the Good is one truly uplifting presence on the world stage. Millions of us welcome and rejoice over his messages about helping those less fortunate, building tolerance and seeking justice – all goals that could use reinforcing in almost every corner of this turbulent planet. Even for us Protestants, it’s a good time to share the name Frances, by whatever spelling.

But the pope and I have a small disagreement.

Should a woman have control of her own body? Not if it contains an embryo, or if she might want to prevent it from growing an embryo, according to the pope.

Abortion? Absolutely not, says the pope. Being a forgiving sort, he has empowered more priests to “forgive” women who have chosen to have abortions and would like to continue practicing their Catholic faith. But once conception occurs – no matter that it’s the result of rape, incest, abuse or a limitless range of very personal issues – the woman must be shoved aside and all focus be on bringing that unwanted fetus into a life of questionable care. And any woman who has made this very personal decision must “seek forgiveness”?

This writer does not profess to be a Biblical scholar, but I have not found, or ever had anyone point out, anywhere in the good book that it says Thou Shalt Not Abort. In all the centuries of mostly men who wrote and have subsequently interpreted the Bible, somehow they – including centuries of presumably celibate priests – have simply opted to deprive women of all reproductive freedom. And today they would still deny a woman’s right to exercise free will.

But it is on the issue of contraception that the pope’s messages ring false, and harsh. One cannot fight poverty and simultaneously demand that poor women bear more unwanted children. If one so adamantly opposes abortion, how can one ignore the fact that adequate contraception would prevent millions of unintended pregnancies – and reduce abortions exponentially?

According to a recent New York Times editorial, a “2014 poll of 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries found that 78 percent supported contraception; in Spain, France, Columbia, Brazil and the pope’s native Argentina, more than 90 percent supported its use.”

The Guttmacher Institute, quoted in the same Times editorial, reports that some 225 million women who want to avoid unintended pregnancies do not use (often cannot access) reliable contraception. “Providing them with contraception would prevent 52 million unintended pregnancies, 14 million unsafe abortions and 70,000 maternal deaths a year.” Even if you don’t care about the maternal deaths – as is clear with “Pro-Lifer’s” everywhere – how does it not make sense to prevent the 52 million unintended pregnancies and 14 million unsafe abortions?

Could someone please ask the good pope to consider these facts? He probably won’t get that request from House Speaker John Boehner, one of twelve children, but he could get it from his equally faithful follower former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pope Francis is reportedly a very good listener.

One can only hope.

Boot Camps for Talking about Abortion

Decision making 101

“Rape,” the instructors say, “is a four-letter word. Purge it from your lexicon.” And as to anything else abortion-related, “Keep it brief.”

Such is the strategy reportedly being taught Republican candidates in “Boot Camps” on how to talk about abortion. This news came in a recent New York Times article by Jeremy Peters.

But in case the reports are not clear, or should anti-abortion strategists need help, this space herewith offers an outline for surefire future political Boot Camps:

Avoidance is #1. Just don’t talk.

If you actually start talking, and talk about women, it becomes problematic to take away their rights. Say as little as possible. Candidates who do try to say more than two sentences tend to trip up on “legitimate rape” blunders or “abortion causes cancer” misstatements. Therefore, it’s best to talk only about fetuses, call them “babies,” speak only in tiny sound bites, and then shut up.

These are the recommended sound bites:

We mustn’t kill babies. Abortion hurts women.

These are the messages that get votes. Unfortunately, they are untrue, and thus difficult to defend. But if you say no more than seven or eight words, say them over and over and avoid actual dialog, enough people will believe the words to get you or your candidate elected.

But please, definitely, avoid:

Discussion of the difference between ‘fetus’ and ‘baby.’ Some voters do not believe a fetus becomes a baby until it is born. There are also too many very smart scientists who do not believe that tiny fetuses feel pleasure or pain.

You must also avoid the stories.

Stories told by 12- and 13-year-olds who were raped by a favorite uncle or family friend and might then have to endure the further brutality of continuing the pregnancy he caused – these stories make people think that abortion decisions might not be so simple. Or that banning abortion might not make it go away.

Stick to the script. Those stories cannot be told in eight words.

Stories in general just cause trouble. Avoid stories of pregnant women without jobs and with more children than they can care for already, or stories of pregnant women too poor to travel 300 miles to a clinic, or women with physical or emotional problems whose lives are being wrecked by unintended pregnancies…or stories of mothers and fathers facing the wrenching prospect of bringing a baby into the world who will suffer terribly and quickly die. Voters with a compassion gene might question your intention to force all these women to give birth.

And above all, avoid talking about women.

Women, when told what they may or may not do with their bodies, can become unruly. Enough unruly women can derail your election plans.

On Making Abortion “A Thing of the Past”

This first appeared on Huffington Post

“One day our country will be abortion-free,” says Pro-Life Mississippi board member Tanya Britton.

Rose Mimms, Director of Arkansas Right-to-Life, wants to “make abortion unthinkable.” Read: impossible.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s stated goal is “to make abortion a thing of the past.”

We have been here before. None of the above zealots are old enough to remember exactly what it was like, but I could describe for them the time when abortion was unthinkable, impossible and illegal and the country was what Britton would describe as “abortion-free.” It was only legal-abortion-free, of course, and this is what that was like:

Women died. By the untold thousands. They died of sepsis most often, a singularly terrible way to die. They also died of things like puncture wounds, desperately trying to end what was a torment to their bodies and souls. They had found themselves with unintended pregnancies – most often caused either by uncaring and irresponsible husbands or by inexcusable acts of rape, incest or circumstances over which the women themselves had no control.

Women of means died less often; they could generally access a safe abortion, even if it meant traveling to a more enlightened country than these United States. Primarily, those who died had little money and less power; often they already had more children than they could care for. Those who denied them the right to an abortion did little or nothing to help them care for present or future children.

So here we are again.

Abortion opponents can make it impossible, unthinkable, illegal; they cannot make it a thing of the past. Because women desperate to end unwanted pregnancies will always, always, always find ways to do so. Some of them, as is already happening, will die trying.

At least Britton, Mimms and Perry are honest about their goals. Others continue to obfuscate. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties would have the Supreme Court believe that their corporate religious sensibilities are offended by employees’ having the right to terminate a pregnancy before it actually begins, since they equate contraception with abortion. In state after state laws are being passed that are medically unnecessary, scientifically inaccurate, and constitutionally illegal, all in the name of “protecting women” or “protecting the rights of the unborn.” In reality, every law is designed as another step toward making abortion “unthinkable,” impossible and again illegal.

Until they can make it illegal again, making it inaccessible is enough. Again, women of means are seldom being harmed; women without money or power are suffering and dying.

It is not possible to “end abortion.” Not even religious extremists in other countries are able to do that, even though in many countries religious extremism attempts to rule women’s lives. Every day, women in Kenya and Afghanistan die trying to end unwanted pregnancies.

As George Santayana put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Unless we remember the tragedies women faced when abortion was “a thing of the past,” we will be condemned to watch those tragedies return.

Women will die.

Honesty in women’s healthcare? We wish.

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

A small victory for reproductive justice: Google recently removed deceptive “crisis pregnancy centers” ads that come up when users look for abortion services. (Tara Culp-Ressler has an excellent summary of the issue on ThinkProgress.) The ads imply that CPCs offer abortion services, although their primary purpose is often to dissuade women from considering abortion. NARAL Pro-Choice America, which pressured Google to take down the ads because they violate the company’s “credible and accurate” policy, found that some 79 percent of CPC ads on Google were misleading.

What would happen if we instituted a Total Honesty policy on women’s health facilities?

For instance, the finger-pointing messages about Planned Parenthood clinics being “abortion clinics”? Those clinics, which are being forced to close at an astonishing rate, do a lot more than offer occasional abortions or abortion counseling. They serve men and women alike with information about birth control, contraception, family planning and STD’s. They provide women’s health information, counseling, breast exams, mammograms and a lot of critical healthcare for people of all ages, sometimes the only such care they can access.

Then there are independent clinics such as the Feminist Women’s Health Centers in several locations and Women’s Health Specialists in others, struggling to find funding. A godsend to many, they offer a wide range of excellent services to women of all ages and financial means.

I would venture to say, at the risk of seeming to betray the reproductive rights movement, that some pregnancy centers offer good services and don’t lie. CPCs unquestionably promote misinformation they must know is untrue: Birth control causes cancer? Abortion causes infertility? Or mental illness? Enough, already. But some centers say up front they do not counsel, advocate or refer abortion.

Could they be encouraged to join a campaign for honesty? Probably not. But if all the clinics offering desperately needed healthcare to women could be allowed to do so without having to fight against lies, politics and extremism it would be a nationwide blessing.

And that’s the honest truth.