Meet The Doctor Trying To Keep Abortion Accessible & Safe For Women In The South

The legal right to a safe abortion is slowly disappearing in parts of America. And it’s doctors like Willie Parker who are standing up to defend the right for the women who need it.

“I do my work because, as we make laws more restrictive and limit women to safe, confidential, legal, respectful abortion care, it stands to reason that women will pursue desperate measures,” Parker told Refinery29, which traveled to meet the doctor and learn about his efforts to keep abortion safe and accessible.

As of 2011, the most recent year statistics are available, 89% of U.S. counties lacked abortion providers. A full 38% of women of reproductive age lived in those counties at that time.

The average American county is now 59 miles from its nearest abortion provider, according to The New York Times, and in some places, women can travel even farther. In Texas, the passage of the controversial abortion restriction bill, HB2 in 2013 — a bill that is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court — left Texas with only 19 clinics. The state previously had 41. A 2016 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that it became dramatically harder to get an abortion for those whose nearest clinics had closed, with these women traveling an average of 170 miles round-trip to get to a clinic.

And on Thursday, in the latest attack on abortion access, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a bill that would make any doctor providing abortion services in the state guilty of a felony, subject to up to three years in prison. Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed the law.

All this means that the doctors who are left, are providing the essential services — often at great personal and professional risk — for women who desperately need them.

While induced abortion in a medical setting is significantly safer for a woman than childbirth, the same can't be said for the doctor providing it. Between onerous and unnecessary regulation of clinics, harassment, and vandalism, and even the risk of death, being an abortion provider means living under threat.

Parker himself began providing abortions on June 1, 2009 — the day after another abortion doctor, George Tiller, was murdered at his church in Kansas in an act of domestic terrorism that preceded a decrease in abortion access in the region.

Parker's experience has shown him the secret behind the battle for reproductive rights. Namely, that though the right to a safe, legal abortion is codified in law, that's only the beginning of the struggle.

"The fight began with the passage of Roe," he said. "There hasn’t been a day where the passage of Roe hasn’t been a strategy to be overturned."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Oklahoma's governor vetoed the latest proposed abortion restrictions there.
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