“Life’s Work” : A book of life for today

Dr. Willie Parker wants the moral high ground back.Willie in scrubs.full

That ground was seized 40 years ago, to his regret, by those who would deny women control of their reproductive destinies – “when ‘the antis’ adopted words and phrases like ‘pro-life’ and ‘culture of life.’” But Parker, a deeply committed Christian physician who has provided compassionate care – including abortions – to countless women, is out to retake the moral high ground of reproductive justice. With kindness, scientific truth, and scripture. Parker’s book Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice tells his personal story alongside the stories of real women needing to choose abortions and the men and women fighting to preserve their right to do so.

In a recent appearance before a group of residents and other medical/academics at the University of California San Francisco, Parker spoke of his life and work.Life's Work Both encountered a turning point, he explains, on hearing Martin Luther King’s famous last speech which included the biblical story of the good Samaritan. In that story: after others had passed by a man in need a Samaritan stops to help. Those who passed by, Dr. King said, worried, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Parker writes in Life’s Work that “What made the Good Samaritan good, in Dr. King’s interpretation, was that he reversed the question, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” Immediately after hearing that, Parker writes, “Once I understood that the faithful approach to a woman in need is to help her and not to judge her or to impose upon her any restriction, penalty or shame, I had to change my life.”

Parker’s life-change led him from a good job as an ob/gyn in an idyllic Hawaiian locale to becoming an expert in abortion care – both the medical procedures and the many and complex needs of women he sees when providing care. His passion now is to keep that quality of care available, especially to poor and underserved women in parts of the U.S. where access is made more and more difficult by restrictive state laws. Which led him to talk of the politics of abortion.

Fran & Willie Parker 6.14.16

Dr. Parker with a fan

“President Trump has an agenda that marginalizes women,” he told his UCSF audience. “But he does not have a mandate. We have to do a deeper dive into engaging politically, and not legitimize what’s happening. It’s most important not to become disheartened – which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Parker, who grew up poor in Alabama, the descendant of slaves, says he “draws from the history of enslaved people” – in understanding the women he sees and their need to make their own, personal reproductive choices.

Some 60 years ago this writer, faced with a pregnancy resulting from workplace rape, was forced to seek out a back alley abortion. There was no Willie Parker to defend my choice, or to explain why it was morally and spiritually right. No one should be able to claim some moral superiority that supports sending women back to those dark ages, which is the direction we are headed. Now, though, there is a voice to be reckoned with. To quote Gloria Steinem re Life’s Work: I wish everyone in America would read this book.

Signs of Our Marching Times

march-crowd

The March was intended to be about women’s rights – workplace rights, immigrant and minority rights, the right to make our own reproductive decisions, all those rights that suddenly seem threatened. It turned out to be a celebration of the spirit.

march-tired-poor-better

It was hard to separate rights & purposes from our new president, and hard to ignore the mean-spiritedness that most marchers hope at least to diminish. But it turned out to be a celebration of everything he disdains.

march-umbrella

This writer has traditionally drawn the line at protest marching. In the past I’ve done talks, workshops, phone calls, emails, office visits and the occasional vigil; this year felt like it called for showing up. So along with several friends from the geezer house where I live, I struck out into the rainy San Francisco late afternoon along with a few hundred thousand others. Estimates vary, but we spilled into so many adjoining streets that 50,000 seems a minimal number.

march-im-with-her

The signs say it all. Or a lot of it.

march-super-callous-etc

If anyone’s spirits were dampened by the cold rain, you couldn’t tell. What you can tell, from the smiling faces among the umbrellas, is how it felt. Most of all, it was just heartening to be among all of the above, and among the many scattered signs saying “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.”

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Yossi Gurvitz on Flicker

A similar sign was photographed by Yossi Gurvitz in St. Paul’s Square during the Occupy London movement several years ago, a darker view of that phrase. But with enough joyful, celebratory gatherings such as those all around America on January 21, perhaps democracy will survive its current challenges — and look like government by the (sometimes jubilant) people.

justice

Power to the (Grassroots) People

Scary times, these. Advocates for reproductive justice, already battling restrictive laws in state after state, now have reason to fear an erratic potential president whose Supreme Court choices could disastrously affect generations of women.

COTF.1

People with hope, though, just keep working, one person/one voice at a time. Among grassroots efforts to preserve national sanity in general, and protect women in particular, a movement underway this summer is worth noting.

CallThemOutFL grew out of the creative minds of two young Florida expats, Arianne Keegan and Abigail DeAtley, high school friends from Delray Beach now living in New York. Thanks to statewide redistricting, every seat in the Florida state legislature, both Senate and House of Representatives, is up for election in 2016. This seemed, to Keegan and DeAtley, too good a chance to pass up. Their hope is to shift the balance of what has been an anti-choice legislative body they do not believe has the best interest (or support) of Florida women.COTF.3

“When we found out that Florida HB 1411 had passed, and was slated to go into effect on July 1,” Keegan says, “we wanted to educate folks, and also to spread the word.” HB 1411 adds further monetary restrictions to anti-abortion laws in the state which are among the most stringent in the nation. “We decided to launch a campaign urging individuals to contact their representatives and call them out on how they voted. We see this as an opportunity to let people know about the TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws and how damaging they are, especially to underserved women.” (HB 1411 was challenged in court, and remains blocked as that process continues.)

The two held their first CTOF event last July 2 in Brooklyn. Some 20 supporters gathered at Molasses Books in Bushwick to discuss the issue, and the oppressive laws. They then wrote more than 100 messages to elected officials on postcards designed for the cause by graphic artist friends of the co-founders. Keegan and DeAtley have also enlisted fellow Florida ex-pats around the country – in Washington DC, New Orleans, Miami and elsewhere – and in a few overseas locations – to host similar events throughout the summer. Toolkits available for such happenings include postcards, factsheets, learning activities and a sample presentation designed to explain the issue and engage audience members in fighting against reproductive oppression. The kits also include specific information on Florida’s HB 1411.ctof5

On the CTOFwebsite is a wealth of information about the issue, in Florida and elsewhere. Will the innovative effort have any definitive impact? The votes aren’t in yet. But in this election year anything can happen.

 

 

 

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.