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.

Men Against Women’s Rights

Lady justiceThere is something unnerving about the rush of Republican presidential candidates to go on record as standing firmly against women’s reproductive rights.

Addressing a recent gathering of the National Right to Life Committee – which itself stands firmly against reproductive rights for women; its sole concern is with the fetus – a handful of the leading Republican candidates tried to outdo each other in expressing their anti-women positions. This was before Wisconsin governor Scott Walker threw his hat into the ring with a stirring promise to work for “the unborn.” What Walker means is this: he has zero interest in the mothers of those “unborns;” but he welcomes the political support of anti-abortion forces.

And anti-abortion forces have a lot of political muscle. A sample of the comments being made by candidates seeking to capture it would include:

Jeb Bush, whose “moral absolutes” do not include a woman’s moral right to make her own reproductive decisions, points to the laws passed during his tenure as governor of Florida: the funding of adoption counseling – but not abortion counseling, banning late term abortion, and imposing medically unnecessary regulations on clinics offering abortion.

Rick Perry wanted the anti-abortion group to understand that when he was governor of Texas his record on denial of a woman’s right to choose was best of all. “That’s a fact,” he said. “We passed a parental notification law. I signed a parental consent law. I signed a sonogram law so mothers facing that agonizing choice can actually see.” Forcing parental involvement on very young women who often need to keep their decision private, and all women to view a medically irrelevant sonogram whether they wish to or not – these are the sources of Perry’s pride.

More recently, we have the ever-articulate Donald Trump entering the fray with the comment that “it really, really bothers me, the whole concept of abortion.” Trump’s interest in women, which is well-documented if problematic, does not extend to an interest in their right to make their own reproductive choices.

And lastly, Marco Rubio seeks to enter the White House because it “needs an occupant who values and prioritizes life.” Read: life of “the unborn.” If Rubio gave a fig for the lives of uncounted thousands of women put at risk by the restrictive laws he supports – his values and priorities might shift.

All of the above are men, without the vaguest notion of what it is like to be pregnant as a result of abuse, incest, assault or a multitude of other wrongs, or simply what it is like to be a woman denied control of her own body, her own most private and personal decision-making.

Such is presidential politics today.

The Shame of Abortion?

scarlet A“Help us protect the unborn, and save women from the shame of abortion” read the invitation.

It was an invitation to a fundraising event – this writer is on a strange variety of mailing lists – for a pregnancy crisis clinic. A friend who works at the clinic, and whom I respect although our opinions about abortion are poles apart, told me they never pressure or deceive women who come to the clinic. “We just explain that we don’t counsel on abortion,” she says. The fundraiser invitation sounds decidedly less compassionate.

The Shame word tears at my soul.

Thirteen-year-old Natasha, brutalized by more than one relative, is given another chance at childhood through an early abortion at a Planned Parenthood clinic. On top of all the trauma she has borne, she is supposed to feel shame?

Or the couple with a developing fetus they desperately wanted and loved, who decide to terminate the pregnancy later in its term to spare their baby a brief life of terrible suffering. In addition to their deep sorrow, anguish and grief, they should be ashamed?

Or the countless young women in circumstances similar to my own: after choosing to end an unwanted pregnancy for widely varying, compelling, always unique, deeply personal reasons because we are rational women in control of our own bodies – we need a shameful scarlet ‘A’ tattooed on our foreheads?

Words matter.

LIES 5 (2)

The banners proclaiming “Abortion Hurts Women” – posted by groups that seek to end legal abortion – testify to this fact: The posters work, but the words lie. Abortion is in truth far safer than childbirth. It does not hurt women, it protects women. The words are not true. But they work in exactly the same way that the shame word works.

Some words, even when they lie, go straight to the emotions. Emotional appeals become tools to generate support for political positions which hurt women. They should shame those who seek to deprive women of dignity, health and autonomy.

‘Shame’, ‘hurt’ – the emotional trigger words are being used to turn the clock back to the dark ages when women had no voice, no power, no control of their own lives.

As one who has been hurt, not by abortion but by powerlessness, and who strenuously objects to shaming, I declined the invitation.

Women deserve better.

 

Saying Goodbye, and Hello to 2015

sunrise

My friend M has died, just shy of the old year’s end and significantly decreasing the joy of the new. But her dying was full of life lessons about saying goodbye, being grateful and trying to ring in a better planet for the days ahead. And thus she leaves a gracious greeting for 2015.

M was a believer in good causes, and she put her substantial time and energies to work for them all. We became friends over our mutual love of writing but we bonded over our mutual commitment to end-of-life choice. Once you concede that you won’t live forever, a reality most prefer to ignore, it is possible to live both gently and joyfully even in tough times. Both of us spent long years encouraging anyone who would listen to confront mortality, make choices, and make personal decisions known to all. It’s called living fully, even into dying.

So M, after conceding her own days on the planet were dwindling, sat down over a cup of soup I’d brought her not long ago and we went about the business of saying goodbye. I told her why I thought she was such a wonder, and she told me all the things I’d be happy to have said for my own eulogy. OK, we had an extravagant mutual admiration society. But the life lesson is that telling others about their own gifts and good qualities (however hard it might occasionally be to uncover them) is something anyone can do, any time; the planet would be immeasurably better if more of us did it more often.

M was supportive of my activism for reproductive justice, having done more than a little of that herself in years past, but once she expressed reservations about how much time I was investing in that cause. “It’s time for young people, young women, to take that on,” she said. Well, yes. Another 2015 greeting for that demographic: reproductive rights are disappearing at an alarming rate. Unless more of us of whatever gender or age pitch in, women – particularly women without money or power – will soon be back in the pre-Roe dark ages, with no control over their own bodies. Which could make for a very unhappy new year for uncounted thousands of women.

The daughter of a rabbi, M was aggressively non-religious. We didn’t waste a lot of time on the subject, though she applauded the idea of my Presbyterian church working to break cycles of poverty. But once, after some sort of “What Would Jesus Do?”-type remark I made she said, “Oh, you and Anne Lamott.” I am personally fine with being lumped in with my funny, gifted friend Lamott, but this was not meant as a compliment. It did lead to a brief, lively discussion about faith and practice. And wouldn’t 2015 be a happy new year if fewer wars were fought in the name of Allah (or Whomever) and more focus were put on the peace, justice and love for fellow creatures that is the basic message of every religion around.

Rest in peace Maya Angelou, Robin Williams, James Brady, Pete Seeger – and all those other good souls we lost in 2014. Most especially, M.

And Happy New Year to us all.

Abortion rights, women’s rights: A major victory

Lady justice

The government has finally been ushered out of the exam room.

In a definitive step protecting women and their very private decision-making, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth District on December 22 permanently blocked a 2011 North Carolina law that created huge physical and emotional trauma for women seeking abortions. Not to mention trampling on doctor-patient relationships and the rights of physicians themselves to have rational conversations with their patients.

Those fighting the extremely punitive law included the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood and others

The law required providers to show an ultrasound and describe what’s on the screen. That is certainly right and proper if patient and provider so choose. But suppose the woman chooses otherwise? The law allowed her to close her eyes and cover her ears, but said the provider still had to go through this narration, regardless of circumstances. Suppose this pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, or there were serious health risks or fetal anomalies — the woman still had to cover her eyes and ears, perhaps singing “La, la, la, la…” to drown out the narrative. Is there any conceivable way in which any of this makes sense?

Fortunately, the Fourth District Court of Appeals thought not.

What has been so appalling about the evolution of this law and the political fight to keep it in effect is the total absence of empathy or concern for women. The same is true for literally hundreds of other state laws still on the books that are designed to shame or coerce women out of having abortions. Public outcry is raised about “protecting the fetus,” often by politicians and others whose concern for that fetus ends as soon as it becomes an unwanted child. With these laws, sanity, good medical practice and women’s rights go out the window. And who loses? The woman. Particularly if she is poor, or disempowered and thus can’t travel to somewhere safe and free from harrassment.

None of us, whatever our politics, want to see women’s lives made worse. None of us really want to see children brought into the world to suffer, other children forced to bear babies who are the result of personal tragedy, or families plunged into chaos and despair. Most of us credit women with having perfectly good brains and don’t want to see them denied use of their brains or control of their bodies. But these are the results of punitive abortion restrictions. At least this one punitive law is now gone, a holiday gift to us all.

Thank you, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth District.

 

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