"What I'm Doing Is Right, Because It's Always Right To Help People"

Photo: Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images.
On May 31, 2009, Dr. George Tiller was shot in the head and killed by an anti-abortion activist while he attended church in Wichita, KS. Tiller — who’d survived being shot in 1993, and a bombing at his clinic in 1985 before that — was nationally known for his work providing reproductive health care in one of the most conservative pro-life corners of the country.

Six years since his death, a small but committed number of doctors continue Dr. Tiller’s work, providing reproductive care in the patches of America where the war over abortion access still rages. One of those is Willie Parker, MD, MPH.

Dr. Parker is a Southerner, born and raised in Birmingham, but he moved away to work in D.C. and Chicago for several years. But, he heard from Jackson Women’s Health — the only clinic still operating in Mississippi — and felt a calling.

“I felt compelled to go back home to the South, where I’m from,” he told us. “I developed a sense of mission to serve areas that really needed care.” Dr. Parker first began flying down to work in the clinic for a few days, before recently moving back to the South full time.

Now, in a given week, he might drive between Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi — states where anti-choice legislators are working to end abortion entirely with waves of new restrictions. In those states, along with dozens of others, a woman must now undergo a waiting period, hear state-mandated counseling designed to discourage her choice, and, probably, pay out of pocket for care — and many are down to just one remaining clinic.

We spoke to Dr. Parker, on the eve of the anniversary of Dr. Tiller’s death, about his upbringing, his faith, and why he braves long hours, protesters, and threats to his physical safety to do the work he does.

Dr. Tiller was killed six years ago this weekend. Did you know him?
“I did know him. Not as well as some, but enough to be impressed by him and enough to have a great sense of personal loss when I found out about his assassination. That ultimate fear and concern that many of us have had happened to him.

“But, his death also made me resolute, that the decision I’d made to provide this care was the right one. They say when someone is lost to a great cause, someone has to step up and do that work.”

What’s a work week like for you?
“On a full week, I might work in Mississippi on Monday and Tuesday, then I’d close up the day Tuesday and drive over to Montgomery, which is a four-hour drive, then I’d work in Montgomery that Wednesday, and then I might finish the week out [working] in Atlanta Thursday, Friday, Saturday."

Are there moments where you feel unsafe or threatened?
“Well, let me say, you’d have to be sleep-walking to not be aware of the dangers doing what I do, and I am aware. They say you can’t be brave unless you are scared, and these are scary times.

You can't be brave unless you are scared, and these are scary times.

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“But, I made a decision: If I was going to do this work, I was going to do it from a place of feeling like I was doing the right things, feeling empowered, feeling good about the work that I do. Every day, that is the place that I start.”

How has the recent wave of state-level restrictions affected your work?
“These restrictions — they’re really hardships imposed on women under the guise of safety — they actually imperil women. For example, the states I work in have waiting periods, and most states won’t accept counseling from another state.

“That means, If I see a woman in Mississippi — and in Mississippi, a woman can’t have an abortion out of the hospital after 16 weeks. So, a woman comes for her counseling, she’s farther along than she realizes, and I find out that she’s 16 weeks. I now have to refer her to the nearest clinic. The nearest clinic would be in Huntsville, AL, which is four hours away. She’d have to get there, and now she has start the process over, and wait another 48 hours.

“For many of these states, weekends and holidays don’t count. So, if a woman has a 48-hour waiting period imposed on her, if she’s counseled on Friday, the 48 hours would start the following Monday. She could wait over a week.”

And, she’d have to be away from her job, find a place to stay, maybe find childcare, which must be difficult, especially for lower income women.
“Yes. It’s abusive regulatory authority. States are gutting the provisions of the Roe decision by using state-level policies to trump the federal standard, which should guarantee a woman the right to make a private reproductive-health decision.”

How’d you find yourself doing this work?
“They say, when you wrestle with your conscious and you lose, you actually win. For me, that wrestling started in college. I was reared as Protestant Christian, I had a born-again experience, but then I chose a career in medicine. I had to reconcile my science-based understanding of the world with my spiritual understanding. I had to process what it meant to be an Ob/Gyn and see women who had planned but lethally flawed pregnancies, or unplanned pregnancies, who needed help.

I feel like I'm doing the right thing, because it's always the right thing to help people."

“I had an epiphany listening to Dr. King tell the story of the Good Samaritan. Everyone else said, ‘What will happen to me if I stop to help this person? The good Samaritan was able to reverse that and say, ‘What will happen to this person if I don’t help him?’

“With my medical awareness of what women need, I became uncomfortable not providing care, rather than having to become comfortable with providing it.”

The anti-choice movement has been winning state-level victories recently. What do you think we need to do to galvanize the pro-choice side?
“The majority of folks understand that there are instances where a woman needs to end a pregnancy, and they support that, even if they wouldn’t do it themselves. But, there’s a small majority, motivated by religious extremism, and those people speak so loudly they make the impression they speak for everyone.

We're all entitled to our own opinions — but no one is entitled to their own facts.

“I think people need to try to have a reality based view. You have to educate yourself — we’re all entitled to our own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts. The fact is, one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. The reality is that most pregnancies are unplanned, and that’s where abortions come from. Contraception is powerful and good, but not everyone has access to it, and it’s not 100% effective. And so, there will always be a need for people to have abortions.

“You know, Dr. King said if we ever have to repent for the collapse of America, it won’t be because of the bad things bad people did, it’ll be because of the appalling silence of the good people. So the question becomes, what do you do? It’s going to depend on people being moved to action, on people — because men have as much at stake in this as anybody else — realizing that this is a basic human rights issue.”
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