The Faithful Physician
Dr. Willie Parker’s first book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, is a powerful treatise in support of women’s access to abortion services, as well as an intricate glimpse into the constant threats facing abortion providers. The book is a deeply personal exploration of abortion issues, centered around Dr. Parker’s own life: a child raised by a single mother living in poverty, his work as an OB-GYN and abortion provider, his evolving Christian faith and his connection with the civil rights movement as an African American from the American South. While issues surrounding abortion access have been addressed countless times in the public sphere, Dr. Parker is able to bring them into a new light by weaving them through his personal story.
Dr. Parker carefully explores the intersection of race, poverty, healthcare, religion and politics, for both himself and the women for whom he provides abortions. He sees women daily who are reconciling their choice to have an abortion with what he describes as “the brunt of a culture’s historic and dysfunctional shame.” The women that Dr. Parker sees come from a myriad of backgrounds, but he places a concentrated effort on emphasizing how their access to care and the ability to “be the authors of their own stories” are universal.
Not surprisingly, many of his patients come to him bearing the weight of both wanting an abortion and feeling a commitment to a religious institution that condemns this desire. He was similarly confronted with his own choice about whether he would be a doctor who provided abortions, choosing at the beginning of his career to refuse to provide the service. Through a period of deep reflection in the middle of his career, his conscience brought him to realize that not providing abortions was no longer an option, and that choosing not to do so would be “a fate worse than death.” He consistently challenges the viewpoint that those with lives rooted in faith cannot be staunch supporters of abortion, and instead shows readers how the two facets of his person have been extraordinarily compatible in his life as a provider.
Since choosing to provide abortions, an unavoidable portion of Dr. Parker’s daily reality has been the threats of violence he endures in order to provide abortion services. From racially charged clinic protestors to anonymous online death threats, each and every day he enters the clinic he opens himself to acts of violence. He shows us how providers face emotional hardships and the threat of physical trauma. These experiences also remind us how women are similarly harassed when they enter a clinic.
Dr. Parker’s commitment to justice comes from deeply personal roots. Growing up in poverty, access to healthcare was not always a guarantee, and so he was forced to navigate through many barriers firsthand. His mother lost her teeth because she did not have access to regular dental care. He suffered from asthma as a child, which was common for young people living as he did in houses with no heat, infested with rodents and with industrial pollution nearby. He was a frequent visitor to the emergency room, treated by white doctors, and grew frustrated with the disparities he observed and experienced. Further, Dr. Parker’s sister was not able to have an abortion because she could not find the money. Growing up, he saw directly how one’s socioeconomic status could affect the level of care received, and this made him resolve to treat each and every one of his patients with compassion and respect.
He consistently challenges the viewpoint that those with lives rooted in faith cannot be staunch supporters of abortion, and instead shows readers how the two facets of his person have been extraordinarily compatible in his life as a provider.
In addition to the financial burden facing women seeking abortions, Dr. Parker expands on legislative barriers constructed to further limit access. He clearly reminds us that simply legalizing abortion does not necessarily equate to consistent abortion access. This resonates in New Zealand, where abortion laws are much stricter than in the United States. Unlike the standard provided by Roe v. Wade, which recognizes a woman’s legal right to terminate a pregnancy up to the point of viability, in New Zealand, two certifying consultants (doctors) must approve an abortion based on certain legal grounds. Abortion is technically still a crime under the Crimes Act. Still, abortion procedures themselves are free for New Zealand women, paid for as part of the public healthcare system.
Dr. Parker highlights the damage done to abortion access by an expensive and inequitable US health system and further describes the antichoice movement’s Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP, laws. These laws place medically unnecessary restrictions on clinics with the aim of limiting abortion access, and are disguised by antichoice politicians as being “in favor of women’s health.” Dr. Parker staunchly pushes against this idea, reminding readers what these laws truly are, medically unnecessary overreaches aimed at both diminishing women’s access to healthcare and making it extremely difficult to provide a legal service.
One specific and recent target of antichoice politicians is to restrict access to medication abortions. Medication abortions now make it possible for women to terminate their pregnancies easily, in the privacy of their homes, at their convenience. This type of abortion allows women to take greater control over their autonomy, and because of this, antichoice activists are attempting to limit access to this type of procedure. These limitations push Dr. Parker to make the link between slavery and reproductive rights, saying:
“As an African American man descended from slaves and raised in the South, it is too easy for me to imagine what it’s like to have no control over your body, your destiny, your life.”
Dr. Parker has some stinging words for people, particularly progressives, who fail to reflect and act upon the injustice in society that increases disparity in access to reproductive healthcare. He believes that the most severe abortion restrictions that primarily poor, African American women face in southern states like Mississippi and Alabama have been ignored too easily by progressives in the northern states. For readers, the frustration that white women do not fight hard enough for the particular rights of marginalized women is evident.
While many would argue that the reproductive health and rights movement has made great progress linking issues and working harder to speak out about racism, homophobia and income inequity, for example, Dr. Parker challenges us to do much more. As he quotes Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
While many would argue that the reproductive health and rights movement has made great progress linking issues and working harder to speak out about racism, homophobia and income inequity, for example, Dr. Parker challenges us to do much more.
The influence of Christian religion on Dr. Parker’s life, as well as the abortion debate in the US, is a dominant theme throughout the book. Dr. Parker describes how the Religious Right captured the Republican Party and has claimed the moral high ground with its assertion that life begins at conception and, therefore, a fetus at any stage of development has equal rights to the pregnant woman. Dr. Parker spends considerable time explaining why life does not begin at conception, arguing instead for a more nuanced definition of life.
In a powerful conclusion, Dr. Parker argues that it is our ability to make a choice about reproduction, or our agency, which is most sacred. This is an enlightening perspective that should resonate with all of us—religious or not.
Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice
Dr. Willie Parker
(Atria, 2017, 224 pp)