What kind of person becomes a full time abortion provider, traveling across state lines to end unhealthy or unwanted pregnancy despite screaming protesters threatening death and damnation? Whatever image you may have in mind, Dr. Willie Parker probably doesn’t fit it.
Parker is a dark, bald, athletically built African American man whose soft-spoken presence contrasts his size. A committed Christian, Parker says he provides abortion care not in spite of his faith but because of it. When filmmaker Dawn Porter met Parker, she was inspired to spend the next phase of her life making the documentary TRAPPED, which focuses on the challenges faced by abortion providers in the Deep South—and Parker in particular. Parker was “so open and thoughtful in talking about the work and about the whole political climate that it got me thinking about the intersection of politics, abortion and power. So, I asked if I could follow him,” Porter says.
Trained as an Ob-Gyn, Parker did not perform abortions during his first twelve years of medical practice. But over and over he witnessed the suffering of low income women, especially Black women, forced to bear children when their own instincts told them that the time and circumstances weren’t right. Finally, Parker asked himself, If not me, then who? And so began the work that Esquire magazine called, “The Abortion Ministry of Dr. Willie Parker.”
Since most hostility toward abortion and abortion providers is religiously motivated and expressed in theological terms, I asked Dr. Parker about this seemingly-incongruous dimension of his work.
Tarico: Several other abortion providers and clinic owners have recently spoken in public about how profoundly meaningful they find the work they do. Amy Hagstrom Miller, whose chain of Texas clinics, Whole Woman’s Health, says that she feels honored to be present with women who are making such important decisions: “The identity questions women examine when they have an unplanned pregnancy. . . . It’s the big stuff—religion, family, life and death—and the decision about what to do allows the woman to think about what she wants from her life.” Curtiss Hannum of The Women’s Centers says, “It’s like God and sex and faith and motherhood and partnership. . . It’s literally everything.”
To many women this is the substance of spirituality, but you—perhaps more than anyone—talk about this in spiritual terms. And you say that explicitly recognizing this dimension of abortion care is particularly important for many of the Black women you see in Mississippi.
Parker: Many women of color are deeply religious, and I’m quite comfortable talking about the moral and spiritual center. So, I add that dimension to the care I provide. I call it dignity restoration. I sense when a woman is dealing with guilt and shame and I’m offer a bridging conversation around faith and the sacred decision of whether to end her pregnancy. Yesterday, for example, one patient was praying and asking for forgiveness, and so I explored that with her.
For many women, there is a tremendous amount of relief in not being turned away. Some are surprised that they aren’t feeling judgment from me and my staff— that we see their pregnancy not as a personal and social failure but simply a biological reality. There is relief in no longer being pregnant but also relief in someone seeing that “I’m not a bad person.” Sometimes they tell us that they expected the doctor to be mean or harsh, and they are grateful.
Tarico: I remember how grateful I felt toward the doctor who ended my unhealthy pregnancy—how grateful I am still!
Parker: The gratitude is humbling because I feel like you shouldn’t have to be grateful for something you deserve. Even if you are not a kind person yourself, you deserve good care. But I also understand. Life can be overwhelming, and I just put out one of 57 fires burning in their lives. They reflect on what it took for them to get there and get care in a compassionate way, and some are relieved and grateful to the point of tears. Others literally don’t have enough time to reflect or be grateful because they have to get home for their kids.
Tarico: How do you know when someone needs to talk?
Parker: I’m reading body language and I try not to be presumptuous. I ask open ended questions. Anyone who is getting an abortion has to tell me why they are tearful. If this is a jacked-up situation—I need to know that the tears don’t mean a person is conflicted or ambivalent—because, if so, I can’t proceed. Some people are criers and some are laughers—we all react differently to intense emotions like loss or relief—so you can’t assume you know what a person’s reaction means. But I do invite people into conversations.
For example, many of the young women I see have never had a pelvic exam. In an outpatient clinic I don’t have the opportunity to offer deep sedation, so I have to be skilled at engaging them or else I have to turn them away. So I have to be very discerning.
In my experience, when a woman is unusually guarded about a pelvic exam, about a third of the time she has been a victim of sexual abuse. Not long ago, a college student had difficulty with the speculum. I gave her 30 minutes and then she asked me to try again. In the end I asked, “When people have so much difficulty I always ask because sometimes there’s a history of sexual abuse.” And the answer was affirmative and she broke down into tears. The medical assistant that day had also been a victim of molestation in her family and she was able to connect with the patient. A month later the staff person was still in contact with the patient and was supporting her through that history of trauma, helping her get into therapy.
Tarico: Other abortion providers I’ve spoken with—Charlotte Taft, for example, and Amy Hagstrom Miller—express a passionate determination to do more than just provide medical care. One frustration they express is that TRAP laws (bogus safety laws) are forcing them to divert energy into unnecessary paperwork and medical procedures and creating a cold hospital-like environment that makes it harder to meet the emotional needs of their patients. But not everyone talks about this in spiritual terms.
Parker: After years or decades of being dehumanized and threatened and even having colleagues murdered in the name of God—some of my colleagues have PTSD about religion. And others simply don’t speak the language of faith. All of us, whether religious or not, live in a country that is an unofficial theocracy. All of us have been deeply rooted in religion or it has been forced on us. But for some it held no utility, and they have distanced themselves and found a home in empiricism and the scientific worldview. For some that provides all the explanation they need of the natural world.
But for the sake of our patients, I’ve tried to encourage my colleagues to remain conversant in “God talk.” Our patients have their own ways of understanding reality, and many need to address a metaphysical dimension as they process their experience. There are patients who ask their providers to pray with them.
As a care provider you are challenged if your patient is reaching out for some sort of validation that triggers you. We all bring our own history into the room when we are taking the patient’s history, and those histories can collide. But I ask them to be mindful and present when patients bring that dimension into the room, because many of them do.
Tarico: It sounds like your abortion ministry extends to colleagues as well as patients.
Parker: For secular colleagues, I try to have a broader frame of reference. Many of my colleagues are theoretical atheists who are deeply humanistic and compassionate in their humanism. They don’t believe in a masculine supernatural master in the sky—it would be good for all of us to abandon that thinking—but they are quite observant of the deeper principles of the God that they don’t believe in. I don’t say you’re a Christian and you just don’t know it, but I hold their points of view in deep reverence. I respect their understanding of themselves. And I trust them to live out of their own spiritual values.
On the other side, for them, by being who I am I strive to embody the counter-narrative that holding a deep reverence for a religious standing is not the same as being anti-intellectual or self-righteous. I give them pause so that they don’t have to discredit or discount all people of faith—to see all believers like the worst abortion foes, who are aggressive and dishonest. It allows more dialogue between atheism and theism.
Tarico: You and your colleagues must be closely watching the Supreme Court nomination and the Whole Woman’s Health decision.
Parker: If the Supreme Court allows the TRAP laws to stand, I’ll be heartbroken for Amy Hagstrom Miller and my friends who are emotionally and financially tapped out doing the right and moral thing. They are at the mercy of ideologically driven folk who for the sake of political power–not real reverence for the life of the fetus or women–are defeating their effort to serve.
My hope is that there will be a 5-3 decision. I hope that Justice Kennedy will be swayed to do the right thing. But I have to adopt a longer view. If the Whole Woman’s Health decision is 4-4, women in Texas will lose and many will suffer, but Amy will not fold. That is what happened in the Civil Rights Movement. People never stopped struggling. They were committed then, and we are committed now. Inevitably people will understand that it’s not acceptable for us to put women in jeopardy. If we have to remake the Court then so be it: We have to elect people to appoint people who will be interested in justice.
Tarico: If there is one thing you wish the public could understand about your colleagues, what would it be?
Parker: In order to do this work in the face of constant opposition and vilification, abortion providers have to be more principled than average. We’re not superhuman—we are just like you. But to do this work my colleagues and I draw from a deep conviction that lets us endure the opposition and frank danger. Most doctors who refuse to perform abortions are consciously refusing, and the people who insist on providing are conscientiously providing the care. That is the way that the human spirit runs when we have a deep resolve about principles or values or people to which we are deeply committed. That is the only thing that has kept abortion access available for women.
Dawn Porter’s documentary TRAPPED, which features extensive footage of Dr. Parker, will air on PBS (Independent Lens) on June 20. Dates and locations for community screenings can be found at trappeddocumentary.com. Amelia Bonow of #ShoutYourAbortion has created a moving thank you video for providers that includes Willie Parker and colleagues saying why they do what they do. It can be found here.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.