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Conscience Magazine

Personal Jesus

By Willie Parker August 22, 2016

It has not been easy watching the definition of conscience be oversimplified to mean refusal of vital health services for women on religious grounds. What is held as the sacred moral principle for “conscientious objection” is often the observance of patriarchal custom. This custom denies women the right to make decisions about their lives, thus reserving power and privilege for men and boys in an unquestioned manner.

This is especially the case when the issue at hand involves preventing a woman from making reproductive decisions other than continuing a pregnancy—whether she wants to or is able to—often justified by a passage of sacred text lifted out of context. It leaves no room for other interpretations that might prompt different expressions of moral decision making, such as the notion of “conscientious provision” of reproductive health services to women, including abortion, by myself and others. In my own case, and I’m sure for many of my colleagues who provide abortion care, conscience dictates providing this service from the compassion that most of us acquire via a religious understanding, not in spite of it.

Dr. Willie Parker

I had a personal religious conversion experience as a teenager, during which I accepted Christianity. My theology and understanding at that time were as conventional as they could be for a 15-year-old African American male in the American South in the late ’70s. Anchoring my spirituality in this time frame is important, because it explains why my biblical literalism and fundamentalist initiation into the faith included no explicit teaching about the morality of abortion.

The antiabortion movement was in its infancy, and the Moral Majority and its role in American politics had not yet been conceived. While I grew up seeing many single women and teenage girls become pregnant, I never heard discussions about abortion. The expectation was that they would continue their pregnancies, along with bearing the stigma and labeling of women whose pregnancies announced illegitimate sexual activity. Men and boys were celebrated for the same. That disparate valuation never sat well with me, and I now look back on it as my earliest inclination towards feminist thinking.

When you wrestle with your conscience and you lose, you win. That is how I describe my start as an abortion provider. The decision to serve women this way was, for me, the culmination of a 12-year struggle that began during my gynecological training. I questioned what my role would be in caring for women who experience an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, or a wanted but lethally flawed one. These were situations that I saw on a regular basis but did not provide care for at that time. There was no major catharsis, just the increasing malaise of realizing that I was not addressing one of the major health issues for women of reproductive age. My failure to respond to this need began to feel like cowardice to me, and that was my greatest fear.

I want a life of dignity, self-determination, well-being and the ability to participate in the common good. I want no less for women.

I attribute the ultimate turbulence that challenged me to provide abortion care to the last sermon preached by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. titled “I Have Been to the Mountaintop.” In this sermon, Dr. King used the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate empathy. He noted that what made the Samaritan “good” was his ability to reverse the question of concern. Whereas everyone passed a fallen traveler victimized by robbery and asked, “What will happen to me if I stop to help?” the Samaritan asked, “What will happen to this man if I do not stop to help him?”

That question resolved for me what my role should be towards patients with unplanned, unwanted or wanted but lethally flawed pregnancies. I grew uncomfortable not providing abortions for women when I knew what they faced. That, along with my previously stated fear of a life of cowardice, is why I provide abortion care, and I am convinced that the majority of my peers who do so feel similarly.

Abortion provision as an act of conscience is a foreign notion to most, often framed as the mixing of mutually exclusive concepts, the “light and morality” of conscience with the “dark sin” of abortion. I don’t see it that way. Some will never be able to reconcile my Christian compassion for the women who need abortion services with the patriarchal customs of fundamentalist Christian orthodoxy that deny women the opportunity to make this decision. Increasingly, there is a theology evolving in the religious community that reflects the sacred reality of bodily autonomy, conscience and agency for women on par with what is taken for granted for men. Ecumenical organizations like the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which is composed of multiple faith organizations that hold sacred the agency of women and families, represent a much-needed counter narrative to the orthodox notion that abortion is not supportable as a moral choice. This faith voice represents a new wine, to use a biblical metaphor, that honors the singularity of female existence in the human experience—one unique to, and not subsumed by, the experience of men. As such, conscientious abortion choice and provision create new possibilities for actions and thoughts that go beyond the boundaries of conscience as dictated by patriarchal sensibilities.

Theologies or religious understandings that do not address moral decisions unique to the female experience infantilize women ethically and dethrone them as the decision makers in their own lives. The new, or at least revived, understanding of the sacredness of the feminine in the conceptualization of God creates moral space for women to make physical decisions and actions about reproduction with the same spiritual value we often perceive in religious identity.

Where the personal and the religious come together—in the domain of the conscience—all decisions by women about reproductive processes in the context of their own bodies are enshrined as sacred, demanding respect for their autonomy. In the states where I practice, I often sit across the desk from a pregnant woman who has leaped across every obstacle placed in her way and she says, “Please, don’t say no.” I see her living in earnest, making important decisions, dealing with challenging circumstances and maintaining her dignity and the dignity of those she is responsible for. At no time is it clearer to me than in that moment that her decision is sacred.

Christian teaching gives me two tasks: to love God with my whole heart, and to love my neighbor as myself. While I am still figuring out what it means to “love” God, the clarity I have about loving my neighbor as myself has been simply to want for women what I want for myself. I want a life of dignity, self-determination, well-being and the ability to participate in the common good. I want no less for women. Providing abortion care when women request it is a primary way that I can preserve these possibilities for the one in three women who seek abortion care in this country. My conscience demands it.


Willie Parker
Willie Parker

, MD, MPH, MSC is board-certified in obstetrics and gynecology and trained in public health and family planning. He is the board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health.