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'Life's Work,' A Doctor's Christian Argument For Abortion Rights

Dr. Willie Parker, at WBUR. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Dr. Willie Parker, at WBUR. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
This article is more than 2 years old.

Dr. Willie Parker is an itinerant physician who performs abortions in the South, in states where clinics are few and far-between. In his new book, "Life's Work: A Moral Argument For Choice," he makes a Christianity-based argument for abortion access, and talks about the decades of emotional, spiritual and intellectual struggle that helped him intertwine his faith and his work. "I remain a follower of Jesus," he writes, "and I believe that as an abortion provider, I am doing God's work."

Dr. Parker joined host Meghna Chakrabarti on Radio Boston Monday. Their conversation, edited:

MC: Dr. Parker, if I may start with that line from your book, that you believe that as an abortion provider you are doing God's work, that probably sounds shocking to the ears of many listeners. So why do you believe you're doing God's work?

Well, it's only shocking if you compartmentalize your life, and say that there are things that place people beyond the need for help and compassion. And so, when I say that, what it means is to be concerned about others in fulfillment of a passage in Christian text that says, 'First, love God with all your heart, and then love your neighbor as yourself.' It is difficult to profess love for God, whom you've never seen, and to be oblivious to the need of your neighbor.

I think what's different between me and most people who say that they are compelled by Christian compassion to address issues that they see is that I don't put basic reproductive health needs of women beyond the reach of compassion that I derive from my Christianity, whereas other people simply do.

Please talk to me more about that, because in the highly polarized language of abortion in this country for several generations now, when religiously founded moral arguments have been made, they have almost always been made in opposition to abortion. It's the moral sanctity of the fetus which takes precedence. So why is it your Christianity, your faith, your path bring you to a different conclusion?

Precisely because, as you just implied, people assume that the opposition to abortion from a religious standpoint is rooted in antiquity in a way that it is not. And in fact, the position of Protestant Christians, the notion that they had any overriding concern about abortion at all is relatively recent.

It comes out of the morphing of the moral majority whose original impetus was towards supporting segregation — Jerry Falwell and the like. In 1978, they message-tested and found that in terms of mobilizing people politically, the framing of abortion as a moral evil resulted in their ability to mobilize the electorate to elect Ronald Reagan as the president. It roots in religious understanding a moralizing about reproduction that just isn't there.

In the book, you say that you didn't always feel this way, that about a dozen years ago you had your 'Come to Jesus' moment around this issue. What happened?

I describe it that way kind of tongue-in-cheek, but in seriousness, the profundity of my clarity around deciding there was nothing mutually exclusive about being Christian and being compassionate toward women who needed abortion was as profound for me as my religious conversion.

What it really came down to was that I felt cornered, and forced to do a values clarification while working in a clinic that provided abortion care for women in the state of Hawaii, which had done so since 1970, as Hawaii was one of the first states to legalize abortion. I say I was cornered and prompted to a values clarification because it was the first time that I was put in a position where, as a women's health provider and as a Christian, I had to explore what it meant to be responsible for women's care, and to now face an administrator who shared my Christian identity but who derived a different conclusion about the morality of abortion, that person was cutting it off.

And so what it prompted me to do is to look more deeply into my faith tradition, and to see if there was anything explicit prohibiting abortion, and if there was anything mutually exclusive about having the faith I did and doing it. And I ultimately came to conclude that there was not. And more importantly, what was at risk for being compromised was the ability to ignore the compassion that I felt for my patients.

And so when I decided that there was nothing mutually exclusive about doing abortions and being a Christian, and in fact the opposition is largely patriarchal control over the lives of women that have been posited into Christianity, but there was nothing doctrinally essential about being opposed to abortion, I then decided it was not justifiable for me to simply deny women access out of concern about what other people who share my Christian identity would think, because I chose to act on the compassion that I derive from my identity on behalf of women who needed abortions.

You self-identify as Christian; in this audience we have a great many Catholic listeners who would say that there is Catholic doctrine that they follow from the Vatican that puts the Catholic Church in opposition to abortion. But you don't think that there's necessarily any strict Protestant Christian doctrine on this?

Not rooted in the antiquity that people are now claiming. And I think to think about Catholicism in a monolithic, non-heterogeneous way would be to disavow the fact that Catholics for Choice, based in D.C., have an explicit active support of women who are Catholic and observant of their faith and who also have abortions.

Even the new pope, in a special dispensation said, 'There's no reason for women of the Catholic faith who felt outside of the faith tradition simply because they had an abortion to continue to feel such.' And he, in a special dispensation, absolved those women who'd had abortions to say that 'You are in fellowship with the Catholic Church.'

He didn't change canon law or the Catholic doctrine about abortion but he did say that there is very little that puts anybody beyond the love of God, and the compassion that God has in the Catholic Church allowed him as the representative for God to bring those women back into fellowship.

So I think, to think about any religious tradition in a monolithic and non-interpretive way is to abandon the moral authority that all religions should reinforce for people who observe it, and for those who don't necessarily share that tradition.

You talked in the book about how a speech from Dr. Martin Luther King, his 'I've been to the mountaintop' speech, factored into your thinking about the Christian moral argument for abortion as you make it. In this 1968 speech, he's talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of a man lying wounded and helpless on the roadside, and two men passing by don't help him, and the Good Samaritan ultimately does. Here's what Dr. King says:
'You know it's possible that the priests and the Levites looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. It's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. So the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked, was, 'If I stop to help this man what will happen to me?' But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what would happen to him?'
Dr. Parker, how did what Dr. King said link to your work on reproductive rights?

In the way in which the power of spirituality has to stir and move you from the inside, the Good Samaritan narrative has striking parallels to the role I found myself in. For the Samaritan, the person in need was the wounded traveler. For me, it has been women asking for my help.

When I did my values clarification, I decided that there should be nothing that should place people beyond help and being deserving of help. I became less concerned about what people would think, and I became convinced that the most essential characteristic defining Christianity should be love and compassion, not judgment and punishment, and not inflexibility.

I understand that everybody doesn't hear what I hear, but I'm only accountable to the way in which I feel moved by sacred text.

So you see laws that restrict access to abortion as judgment and punishment?

When you look at the fact that they are set forth in direct opposition to the fact that we know that abortion is life-saving for women who need it, that it is one of the safest procedures, is one of the most common procedures, when we know what happens to women when abortion is illegal in unaccessible, to press forward under the notion that a woman who seeks abortion despite its legal status is not deserving of protection and health and well-being — what could it be but punishment? If I make the case and the argument that abortion is necessary, and you say despite that argument we're going to press forward and imperil women by making it unavailable, that feels judgmental and harsh and punitive to me.

Thinking back to the last line of that tape from Dr. King, where he asks the question 'If I do not stop to help this man what will happen to him?' There are many people who read that line and say: 'But therein lies the Christian argument in opposition to abortion, because the man in this case would be the fetus.' They're saying that they have to speak on behalf of the fetus because the fetus can't speak. And that is their Christian moral argument in opposition to abortion.

Well, they can talk about fetuses but the man in this story is a person. Even if I conceded that a fetus is a person on par with the woman carrying it, the problem still remains: How do you give rights to a fetus, to a person that's inside of a person, without taking rights from the person that the person is inside of?

So it then begs the question of what does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to have bodily autonomy, and to have bodily integrity, and to have sovereign will? I think you can't care more about a fetus than you do about the woman who's carrying it.

So the question for me in that scenario, which is someone's subjective right to say that a fetus is a person, that's not rooted in law. That's not even rooted in a direct representation of the value of fetal life even in Christian texts. If a pregnancy is lost in the context of a battle between two men, and the woman is injured and loses her pregnancy, there's a tort claim around the loss of a property but not a claim of murder and the requirement for execution. If the woman's life is lost then the person is culpable for execution.

So my whole point is, within the sacred text, the room for interpretation means that we're all entitled to our own opinions, but none of us entitled to our own facts, and what it means to have conscience and to have sovereignty is that we all have to be governed by the dictates of our own consciences. Not that of someone else who interacts with the same sacred text and sees it in a different way.

You perform abortion in states such as Mississippi where there is just one abortion clinic in the entire state. Tell us a little bit about the women who come, what it's like to work there.

I no longer work in Mississippi because now there are three doctors there; I'm still involved with the legal processes to keep that clinic open. But where I do work, and what the women in Mississippi and a lot of women in rural southern states have in common, is the laws often make it difficult for them to access medically accurate sex education and contraception, not to mention making abortion all but impossible to access.

There's no funding to support women who are vulnerable and on Medicaid, who are more likely to have unplanned pregnancies. And so it means that women who are living in poverty, in abject circumstances, many of whom are already mothers, are now, when they have an unplanned pregnancy, they have to make decisions about whether or not to safely end their pregnancies that they can't care for at the expense of other obligations they have.

But at the end of the day, while those women tend to be poor women and women of color, I've seen women of all spectrums, because the reality is unintended, unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, or wanted but lethally flawed pregnancy, happens to all women of reproductive age who have unprotected intercourse.

So what I usually tell my audiences when they're trying to figure out who are the women that I serve, I say if you look in the mirror and you're female, you see the people that I take care of. They're just like you and I.

When I lived in D.C., I took care of lawyers and doctors and staffers on the Hill, and took care of the young teens who had their first pregnancy from Southeast D.C. What all women have in common around this experience of being female in a society that stigmatizes and shames health care in the form of abortion, or the sexuality of women in ways that it doesn't for men, is that they are all at risk for being denied control of their bodies. And so the women in Mississippi are just like the women in Boston.

When I hear you say women being denied control of their bodies — American history is marked by a very long period in which the country denied individuals control over their bodies through the form of slavery. Is that taking it too far?

No, that's a softball for me, because I often feel animosity and hate from people who draw back at the assertion that what makes reproductive control and slavery analogous is that, as Dr. King said about what was immoral about slavery, was that slavery relegated human beings to the status of things. They were made means and not ends. I can personally make myself a means but no one else should.

And so when women are denied control over their bodies and they're forced to continue pregnancies by being subordinated to the interests of the pregnancy that they're carrying, they are relegated to the status of things. They become incubators. They become a means to an end.

In the same way that that was the major indictment against slavery as a form of inhumanity, to force women into motherhood or to continue pregnancies that are deleterious to their health in multiple ways, is to relegate them to the status of things.
And so it was on that same basis that I make the moral argument for women having control of their reproductive lives by having access to the full range of reproductive health services.

But there are a lot of people who say the problem is that a fetus has been relegated to the status of a thing. In your opinion, either in your faith opinion or your medical opinion, when does life begin?

The way you ask the question, it's as if the initiation of life is an event, an episode.

A lot of people would say it is.

And they're entitled to their opinions, but the reality is, life is a process. It's a series of contingent inter-relational events. For example, if you say 'Life begins at conception' and there is a spark of life then, what you mean by life is the sperm are alive and eggs are alive in order to get a live conception. You have to have a live egg and a live sperm. Well, if both the egg and sperm have to be alive, obviously life does not begin at conception. Life began a long time ago.

So life is a process, it is a series of beginnings and endings, and that we would elevate or focus in on one particular event for the point of persuasion, oftentimes for political reasons, is just a less nuanced approach to the notion of what life is than I care to engage in.

That that particular understanding is perilous for women means that it is problematic for me and for women who are at risk — when people decide that life begins at the moment of conception and as a result of that they can depersonalize the woman in whose body that process is occurring. So I get it. And I understand what people are implying when they say life begins at conception.

But what they are really implying is that personhood and all that that entails also begins at conception. And again, I go back to what is problematic about that is that in the process of making that declaration, you have to depersonalize the women carrying pregnancies in order to personalize the fetuses that they carry.

Dr. Parker, if you were to be speaking to members of your faith community who disagree with you, and who say it is against the teachings of Jesus, it is un-Christian, to be a doctor who performs abortions, what would you point to, to try and convince them to your way of thinking?

I would point them to the tradition of the very person on whose life history and life story we hang our sense of spirituality: Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. And part of his approach to his spirituality was that he refused to be more of a Jew than he was a human being. And so when it came to specific laws and rules that he thought were not reflective of a more deeply humane reality, like whether or not people should be fed on the Sabbath, he broke those laws in pursuit of a deeper humanity.

And so I would say, the things that you assume Jesus said, or that you assume that he stands for, if you take a deeper look and see how those things conflict with your humanity, if you can draw the same conclusion, then I can respect the thoughtfulness with which you hold your position. But I ask that before you criticize me, that you look more deeply into the tradition as I have, and say what is more consistent with humanity: love and compassion or judgment and indifference? And that would be my response to my critics.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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