UNLIKELY DISCIPLE OF ABORTION:
Dr. Willie Parker is an itinerant abortion provider who gave up a private practice and a penthouse in Hawaii to provide safe abortions for women in the South in communities like the ones in which he grew up. His work was captured in the 2016 documentary film Trapped and in his book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. Parker is mounting the moral case for abortion rights and fighting to keep abortion clinics open. Bitch spoke with Dr. Parker about heteronormative patriarchal Christian traditions, politics, and his personal saints. “Devotion” is a word I couldn’t get out of my head while reading your book, especially when you described your work as “sacred.” How do you see “the sacred” and the idea of devotion in your work?
To describe my work as sacred is to place reproduction in the context of the religious and the spiritual, where it’s long been, in rejection of patriarchal norms that would subordinate the value and the lives and the importance of women. And I’m devoted to ritualistic practice coming from a place of deep commitment. Part of my pushing back on patriarchy and the imperilment of women by religious traditions is to invoke the same language, but to imbue it with the content that would elevate women to the same status that men take for granted. My work is sacred because I don’t do my work despite my religious and spiritual understanding, I do it because of it, and that to me is the crux of the counter-narrative to this religious encroachment on the humanity of women. My work is sacred, I’m Christian, I do abortions, and there are no zero-sum relationships between those understandings or those terminologies.
What do you make of the announcement that the Democratic Party won’t withhold financial support from candidates who oppose abortion?
If we use the analogy of a ship in the sea of politics, we have to ask: Are women’s reproductive rights and freedom an essential plank in the hull of the Democratic ship, or is it a mast on a speedboat? As a mast on a speedboat, it’s present, but it’s not critical because you have other means of moving the boat. If the party is equivocating on this issue, it is saying to women that they are optional. One thing I learned in relationships, both personal and political, is that you can’t afford to make someone a priority who makes you optional. The Democratic Party, by this move, would be making women and their reproductive lives and health optional.
You grew up in Alabama, and you now move between Alabama and Georgia as an itinerant abortion provider. What does it mean to you to care for women in communities like the ones in which you grew up?
The people who are being denied [abortion] access are primarily poor women and women of color, and I know that lived experience personally—being reared in abject poverty and being a person of color. So it became important to prioritize the care of the most vulnerable women in this country, using the logic that if those women are okay, everybody else is going to be alright. It’s about making sure that those women aren’t left out, and the way to do that was to move home and to provide care in one of the most underserved regions in the country.
In your book you mention your “personal saints”: civil rights leaders and others who have influenced your work and philosophy. What inspiration do you draw from their work, and how do you see its connection to yours?
When I look at these very human people who found something that was larger than them, something that mattered, something that made whatever efforts they expended a worthy cause, I took heart and notion from that.
I know that some people choose the issue, but sometimes the issue chooses you. Being a women’s health provider, having my lived experience in the South with poverty and racism and then having one of the major defining issues of human rights be the reproductive rights of women, it was just the confluence of my background, my values, my religious and spiritual values rooted in Christianity and compassion that pulled all of that together for me. I saw people like Dr. King and Malcolm X, who were deeply principled on the basis of their religious understanding, and it fueled their