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.

 

 

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.