As Anti-Choice Fundamentalists Descend on Alabama, One Abortion Doctor Refuses To Be Bullied

Dr. Willie Parker, the last abortion doctor in Mississippi, is bracing for a week of potentially violent protests in his hometown of Birmingham.

Stephanie Gilmore

Dr. Willie Parker is motivated by his Christian faith to perform abortions in the Deep South. (Courtesy of Dr. Willie Parker)

Dr. Willie Park­er and I both grew up in Alaba­ma: he in Birm­ing­ham and I in Huntsville. At 52, he is eight years old­er than me. But our lives nev­er inter­sect­ed until now. Park­er is an African-Amer­i­can, fem­i­nist, Chris­t­ian man who pro­vides abor­tions; I am a white, fem­i­nist, spir­i­tu­al but non-Chris­t­ian woman who defends clin­ics on behalf of Alaba­ma Repro­duc­tive Rights Advo­cates (ARRA).

'I decry as a Christian—where the most essential identity is love, compassion and nonviolence—the physical violence and the destruction of property that they do under the false guise of this faith.'

Park­er trav­els between clin­ics in Alaba­ma, Geor­gia and Mis­sis­sip­pi. He is the only abor­tion provider in Mis­sis­sipi. Tar­get­ed Reg­u­la­tion of Abor­tion Provider (TRAP) laws have shut down clin­ics in many states, includ­ing Mis­sis­sip­pi, by impos­ing unnec­es­sary, expen­sive and some­times impos­si­ble require­ments on clin­ics, such as min­i­mum hall­way widths. Abor­tion doc­tors face stig­ma and, in some cas­es, dan­ger; late-term abor­tion provider Dr. George Tiller was mur­dered in Kansas in 2009 by an anti-abor­tion extremist.

Providers in the South are attacked by many and defend­ed by few. But out­side of the Alaba­ma clin­ics a mul­ti-racial group stands vig­i­lant to pro­tect our doc­tors, nurs­es, staff and patients. Park­er is among a num­ber of black abor­tion providers in the Deep South who are com­mit­ted to repro­duc­tive jus­tice — a con­cept that goes beyond abor­tion rights to encom­pass the rights to birth con­trol and par­ent­ing, and acknowl­edges the racial dis­par­i­ties in access to these rights. He spoke to In These Times about what moti­vates him to do this work and how fem­i­nists can remain engaged and com­pas­sion­ate in the face of ongo­ing hostility.

Can you talk about your Chris­t­ian faith and the spir­i­tu­al place from which you approach your work?

My work is emo­tion­al­ly sat­is­fy­ing because com­pas­sion is my pas­sion. I am for­tu­nate to do what most peo­ple are not able to: expend my ener­gies on behalf of what I think is a noble cause. It answers for me the ques­tion of why we are here, what this is all about. For me it’s about actu­al­iz­ing my own human­i­ty by serv­ing my fel­low human beings. Com­pas­sion oper­ates for me when I am faced by the real­i­ty that women have unplanned, unwant­ed pregnancies.

When the anti-abor­tion peo­ple come at me from the stand­point of my faith, I try to see them with com­pas­sion. I try to see the side of the guy who oppos­es me in Mis­sis­sip­pi, who tells me I am a dis­grace. But I know I am also work­ing to make sure his moth­er, his daugh­ter and his sis­ter are safe and have access to this care. He is short­sight­ed, but I focus on the women’s needs. It’s hard to get angry and com­bat­ive with him when I’m focused there. But I do have my moments, when my indig­na­tion is com­pa­ra­ble to what Jesus felt when he threw out the mon­ey­chang­ers from the tem­ple. I feel that par­tic­u­lar­ly when peo­ple who oppose abor­tion are straight-out bul­ly­ing women. The anti-choicers try to rev me up, but I seek to remain in that place of com­pas­sion. I’m aware how much ener­gy anger expends.

Oper­a­tion Save Amer­i­ca is com­ing to Alaba­ma on July 11 for a week of protests. What are your thoughts on this group and its insis­tence that Chris­tian­i­ty stands in stark oppo­si­tion to abortion?

Oper­a­tion Save Amer­i­ca mobi­lizes under the guise of free speech. But their attempts to bul­ly, coerce and cajole — to deprive peo­ple of their liveli­hoods because they’ve made a choice to pro­vide repro­duc­tive health­care — is unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic. Their work is the most hate­ful thing that can hap­pen in the name of reli­gion. Some­body once said there’s no right way to do the wrong thing, but this is the absolute demon­stra­tion of the wrong way to do the wrong thing. They refuse to accept our laws and our civ­il rights, and have resort­ed to cre­at­ing a mob men­tal­i­ty that is facil­i­tat­ed by the appalling silence, as Dr. King used to call it, of the good people.

Does this upcom­ing event scare you?

I don’t know. I’m not will­ful­ly igno­rant. I have focused on what’s impor­tant to me and what’s impor­tant to me is to stand up for what I know to be right, as well as to live from a place of con­science. I choose to only focus on real threats, of which I’ve had none per­son­al­ly. I think a sig­nif­i­cant pow­er that these bul­lies hold is their rep­u­ta­tion. I heard a quote from some­one who is going to be here in Alaba­ma, We’re about to get ugly for Jesus.” But I decry as a Chris­t­ian — where the most essen­tial iden­ti­ty is love, com­pas­sion and non­vi­o­lence — the phys­i­cal vio­lence and the destruc­tion of prop­er­ty that they do under the false guise of this faith. If your reli­gious under­stand­ing allows you to harm oth­ers or dimin­ish the human­i­ty of peo­ple, it has to be ques­tioned and rejected.

Clin­ic pro­test­ers use the lan­guage of civ­il rights and Black Lives Mat­ter to mobi­lize peo­ple. How do you respond? 

So many of the anti-choice activists have tried to co-opt the lan­guage and iconog­ra­phy of civ­il rights by say­ing things like, I want my chil­dren to be judged by the con­tent of their char­ac­ter, not the col­or of their skin.” But they pull that out of King’s con­text. As a per­son of col­or, I know how health dis­par­i­ties work. I do this work pre­cise­ly because the women who are in a posi­tion to con­sid­er abor­tion are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly poor and women of col­or. They cite accu­sa­tions of black geno­cide against me, but in my view it is the oppo­site: I do what I do because I love black women and black babies. We are see­ing a more racial­ly diverse provider base in the South, just as we are see­ing a more diverse group of clin­ic defend­ers, peo­ple from groups that have been pushed out of seats of pow­er. We see women, peo­ple of col­or and LGBTQ peo­ple work­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty on behalf of repro­duc­tive rights and jus­tice. Fem­i­nism has always been per­ceived to be a white, mid­dle-class women’s issue, but it’s become more inclu­sive because it’s root­ed in a frame­work of jus­tice and equal­i­ty. There is more account­abil­i­ty for white women who par­tic­i­pat­ed, wit­ting­ly or not, in the oppres­sion of their sis­ters of col­or. One thing that uni­fies all women is oppres­sion in a patri­ar­chal sys­tem. You’re all in the same boat when it comes to efforts to do away with repro­duc­tive rights and jus­tice. When those things are absent, white men thrive and all women are cement­ed into sec­ond-class citizenship.

All human rights are thwart­ed by patri­archy, so I think there is a root­ing of a small‑D demo­c­ra­t­ic real­i­ty when peo­ple of all stripes — racial, sexual,socioeconomic — find a space and a sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty in repro­duc­tive jus­tice. The ties that bind the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty and women’s repro­duc­tive jus­tice are around the lib­er­a­tion of women, and the uncou­pling of sex and sex­u­al­i­ty from pro­cre­ation. That direct­ly con­fronts patri­ar­chal norms.

What can non-doc­tors do to help?

Stig­ma and shame are the major fac­tors stand­ing in the way of repro­duc­tive jus­tice. You can’t allow peo­ple to think they don’t know any­body who sup­ports abor­tions. If you have a reli­gious iden­ti­ty, you can’t allow the peo­ple in your church to think that. As a physi­cian I have to be open about the fact that I pro­vide abor­tion care. I have to say, I’m as skilled as any doc­tor in my cho­sen craft can be, I’m as prin­ci­pled as any human being on the plan­et, and I do abor­tions. There’s noth­ing mutu­al­ly exclu­sive about that.” When I raise that coun­ternar­ra­tive, it should empow­er oth­er doc­tors who know what is the right thing to do, but can’t find the social courage to do so.

What clin­ic defend­ers are doing is what has to be done. When peo­ple say how brave I must be to open­ly do what I do, peo­ple don’t remem­ber that the most impor­tant thing I do is use a can­nu­la to emp­ty a woman’s uterus. It’s what advo­cates do that is brave. The peo­ple who raise funds to give a woman the last $50 she needs when she’s done all she can do to raise $450. It’s the peo­ple who stand out front and put them­selves between those who are ven­omous­ly con­fronta­tion­al and the per­son who is emo­tion­al­ly vul­ner­a­ble. I look at all the mov­ing parts that hap­pen to get a woman from the place where she shows up preg­nant and not want­i­ng to be, to where she walks out the door safe­ly and moves on with her life. You pro­vide the last bit of ini­tia­tive a woman might need to get inside a clin­ic. I’m proud of return­ing home because of the real­iza­tion that there is a pro­gres­sive body of engaged peo­ple in Alabama.

Stephanie Gilmore is a writer, edu­ca­tor, and activist in her home state of Alaba­ma. She trav­els the coun­try speak­ing on sex­u­al vio­lence on col­lege cam­pus­es and fem­i­nism in the Deep South. In 2013, Stephanie was hon­ored as a Fem­i­nist We Love” by The Fem­i­nist Wire. @pivotthecenter www​.stephaniegilmorephd​.com
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