Being an abortion provider is a dangerous and often thankless job. Those who dedicate their lives to ensuring that patients can safely end a pregnancy are often met with harassment, death threats, and in some cases, are murdered. March 10th is Abortion Provider Appreciation Day; a day created to remember physicians like Dr. David Gunn and Dr. George Tiller who were assassinated by anti-choice activists to keep them from providing safe abortion care. The day honors the sacrifices abortion providers make, putting themselves in harms way, to ensure everyone receives compassionate abortion care. One such provider is Dr. Willie Parker.
Dr. Parker is one of the two providers at the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. He flies in from out of state because no Mississippi-based physicians are able to provide care. Dr. Parker walks in the footsteps of Black abortion providers like Dr. Edgar Bass Keemer Jr., who stepped up to provide abortions in the 1940s and 1950s regardless of their income at a time when White doctors refused to see Black patients. He’s a rabble-rouser much like Dr. T.R.M. Howard who fused his activism in the Civil Rights movement with his pro-choice and women’s rights beliefs. Recently honored by the United Nations for his courage in defending human rights for women, Dr. Parker is a leading voice fighting to achieve full equality for all people through access to bodily autonomy and healthcare.
EBONY interviewed Dr. Parker about why he has dedicated his life to providing abortion care.
EBONY: What led you to become a reproductive health care provider — and more specifically, an abortion provider?
DR. WILLIE PARKER: When I went to medical school, I thought that I would become a family medicine doctor, and I really liked obstetrics and gynecology. I liked the relationships you build – the primary care aspect. When I decided to provide abortion care for women, it was out of deep respect of having had these long relationships with my women patients. For the first 12 years of my practice, I didn’t provide abortion care. But I came to see what women encountered on a regular basis–unplanned pregnancies. The deep compassion that I had for them led me to conclude that if I didn’t do this for women, who would?
EBONY: You've mentioned in other interviews that you're a deeply Christian man. Too often, anti-choice extremists attempt to co-opt faith and religion to deny access to health care. How do you respond to that and how does faith influence your views on reproductive justice issues?
WP: I respect the fact that people who self-describe as Christian believe that their understanding leads them to consider some actions absolutely outside [those] boundaries, I respect that. I simply don’t agree. We can have different Christian understandings without being wrong. While I respect the fact that there are Christians who don’t support abortion, I would disagree with the notion that one cannot provide abortions and be a Christian. In fact, I would hold that I am an example of someone who has deeply held spiritual beliefs that are rooted in a Christian understanding and it is because of that understanding that I began to provide abortions, because the aspect of Christianity that moves me most is the notion of compassion for your fellow human being. It’s not a matter of opinion, right or wrong. It’s a matter of a person’s dignity and humanity, and agency. No one human being should have power to impact another human being’s right to self-determination. My responsibility is to support them with reverence and clear conviction. It is the prerogative of a woman to be self-determining when it comes to her health, when and when not to become a parent, and the health decisions of her family.
EBONY: We are currently seeing unprecedented attacks on reproductive health care access and abortion, particularly in the South. What challenges do you see your patients facing in accessing abortion care?
WP: I see that abortion access is being compromised all over, but disproportionately in the South because it is more difficult to mobilize people to political action in a certain way. According to 2010 census data, 55% of all African Americans live in the South and some of the highest rates of poverty as well as a higher percentage of people of color are in the South. People who are living in desperate circumstances often times don’t have as much of an opportunity to participate in the political process. If you combine that with the intentional creation of circumstances that would prohibit them from doing so, such as voter suppression and political gerrymandering, the outcome is that there is a disproportionate impact of these anti-abortion laws plaguing poor women and black women. So, you take the most disenfranchised and the most unable to engage politically and set them up to be tyrannized by short-sighted laws that affect the ability of women to make decisions about their health care.
EBONY: How do you, as an abortion provider, try to mitigate those challenges?
WP: I vote with my feet. I recently relocated to Alabama, where I’m from, which allows me to make myself more readily available to provide services in the region of this country that’s the most in need. I engage in open advocacy on reproductive rights and abortion as a health right, but also as a civil and human right for women and families to determine what is the optimal family size for them and not have that imposed upon them. I try to help patients feel more energized and feel entitled to reproductive health and reproductive rights. And if they feel entitled to it, they will demand it. I think when people don’t demand their rights, they don’t get their rights. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
EBONY: Often, the Black community is portrayed by anti-choice leaders as anti-abortion, however, we have research that shows they overwhelmingly support access to abortion care. In fact over 80% of the Black community believes that abortion should be legal, regardless of how they personally feel – including 74% of self-identified conservatives and 84% of weekly church-goers. Why do you think this is? How can the Black community change this perception and make their voices heard?
WP: There’s a high degree of religiosity within the Black community [and] people don’t talk about it openly or might not be at the forefront of advocating, but in terms of their lived experiences, they understand that there are high consequences of unintended pregnancy. They’re well-versed in making the tough decisions about what to do with a pregnancy that is not planned. The research illuminates what we’ve always known: people know how to make difficult decisions. As a people we’ve had to know how to do that, we’ve done it. Often in silence, women have always done it, because when their lives are tough they’ve always made the tough decisions to get where they need to go.
What would be necessary to dispel this myth or perception is that people have to not allow abortion to be a secret. Black women have to continue to fight the effort to shame them and vilify them, to imply that they don’t care about their babies. They have to feel comfortable enough to speak up about their lived experiences and not internalize the shame that is projected onto them. Black women are often in the position to have to make the tough choices: being a single parent, having children to raise that they don’t have adequate resources for, not being able to negotiate pregnancy so that they can have the babies that they want and have the ability to raise those children. They have to understand that it’s not their fault that they live in disproportionate circumstances that don’t allow them to have access to reliable health care. Those are all burdens that are imposed upon them. The decisions that they’re often forced to make, often times through no fault of their own they are in that position and they are making the best decision they can.
Black women have to be comfortable resisting the shame and the judgment that people put on them. When we do that, it allows us to engage in a solidarity alliance with other people of color experiencing similar things.
EBONY: I've shared my abortion story publicly, and as a Black woman, I receive extremely racist and sexist harassment in response. Do you receive the same as a Black man providing abortions? How do you deal with those attacks?
WP: First of all, I want to thank you for your courage to not allow yourself to be shamed. Your willingness to be open about a life experience that you’ve had may very well lead to the empowerment of other women by letting them know they’re not alone. As a man of color, I am often alleged to be a race traitor simply by providing abortion care. To the contrary I make it a point to provide abortion care because if I can’t make healthcare for Black women like my mother or my sister a priority, who will?
There is an effort to project shame on to me that my White colleagues do not get. That it’s more unacceptable morally that I am the same color as my patients, for example. It’s the same way that the billboard campaigns were directed at the Black community saying, “the most dangerous place for a Black baby is in the mother’s womb.” Those billboards didn’t go up in the White community – only in communities of color. There’s an attempt to shame on the basis of race by people who have no vested interest in the community other than negotiating a culture war when their real agenda has nothing to do with the well-being of the family.
EBONY: What can regular folks do to support abortion providers?
WP: I think regular people can thoughtfully approach this issue and resist the urge to allow it to be dumbed down and over simplified so that they feel more willing to shame providers and women for seeking care. They can know and understand that one third women by age 45 will have an abortion, so they all know someone who has had an abortion. As a result, they can understand that something so common and so necessary should not invite more ridicule, rather it should invite them to advocate that women have the resources they need to prevent the pregnancies that they don’t want, to have the resources to support the pregnancies that they desire, and to have the right to end the pregnancies that they intended to prevent. The public should understand what it means to pursue reproductive justice and integrate that into all of their choices as they are recognizing how it affects the people that they’re in community with.
EBONY: I'd like to end on a happy note: What gives you the most joy in your work?
WP: What gives me the most joy is when I can be the person that can help a woman with complex life circumstances make healthy choices and accomplish her goal, whatever that is. That I can help restore her hope and expectation that her life matters, and that she can still be in control of her life. That gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction. Responding to the need of my patients, the need of the women in my community, really is satisfying. To me it’s kind of a rent that I pay for being on the planet. Our rent is our service. It’s a gift. I know it’s hard for people to understand that by providing abortions I enjoy my work, but if they’re listening closely, what they’ll hear is I enjoy helping women nobody else is willing to help.
Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist and a writer whose work has appeared in the BBC World Newshour, Time, Salon, The Guardian, Fusion, and RH Reality Check and is member of Echoing Ida, a project of Forward Together that amplifies the voices of Black women around critical social justice issues. She currently sits on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation. Follow Renee on Twitter at @RBraceySherman.