Meet Willie Parker, MD: Alabama's Traveling Abortion Doctor

Willie Parker was 15 years old when he became Born Again. His baseball coach and spiritual leader at the time, a man he called Pastor Mike, had told him all he needed to experience “the love of the living God was to invite him in.” And so one May afternoon in 1978, he settled onto a large rock that sat in a dirt lot at the bottom of a hill in Jefferson County, Alabama, where he grew up. The sky was a calm blue with clouds streaking across it, like a marble. The neighborhood was quiet. He opened his Bible, which he carried with him everywhere, and closed his eyes.

“In the quiet of that afternoon I prayed for Jesus to come into my heart. And He did,” he writes in his new memoir Life’s Work: A Moral Argument For Choice. “And then I opened my eyes. Nothing was different — and yet, I was changed.”

To this day, close to 40 years later, Dr. Parker is as sure of that experience as ever. “Something happened to me. Something happened in me. It was revolutionary and life-changing. What I’m sure happened to me is that it awakened a sense of love and compassion and responsibility for other people. That’s as real to me now as it was then,” he tells me over the phone. He’s driving the 102 miles between Birmingham and Huntsville, Alabama, to provide abortions at a women’s clinic there. This is one of his many trips across the Bible Belt state, which has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country: In addition to state-mandated counseling, mandatory ultrasound, and a 48-hour waiting period, Alabama has an unconstitutional 20-week ban on the books. Most recently a federal judge had to block a law that made it illegal for abortion clinics to operate within 2,000 feet of a school. The law was designed to shut down the West Alabama Women’s Clinic, where Dr. Parker is medical director and which is one of five clinics total in the entire state.

You might be surprised to hear that a man so deeply touched by Christian teachings would devote his life to abortion rights. That’s not a story that fits into the current, dominant narratives in our culture about what Christians believe, or even what those supportive of abortion rights believe. But Dr. Parker says that, in fact, it is because of his faith that he is compelled not only to do abortions, but to publicly advocate for women’s rights to abortion, even in the face of fierce opposition from some of his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Even in the face of threats to his life, of which there are plenty.

The basis of his book, out today, is what he calls the “moral argument for choice.” For too long, he argues, religious men and women have hijacked the moral high ground surrounding the abortion debate by subverting religious teachings and scientific facts in order to control the choices and lives of women.

Dr. Parker, who also serves as the board chair for Physicians For Reproductive Health and on the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, spoke with Refinery29 about how he reconciles his faith with his work, why pregnancy should not be regarded as “miraculous,” and whether he would ever run for office.

Why do you think we need a “moral” argument for choice? And what is it?

Most, if not all, of the opposition has been framed in the context of morality and religion. So, if the opposition is a moral one, then I feel like the only way to ensure women can make decisions about their bodies and their health is to present a moral argument for the appropriateness of abortion.

Human reproduction plays out in the body of a woman. And because it plays out in the body of a woman it brings with it questions of personhood, autonomy, agency, and personal morality. We have some people who believe all of these things are important, but they want to assign them all to the fetus the woman is carrying. There’s no way you can do that without first taking it away from the woman carrying the fetus.

I’m not saying that every Christian has to think like I do or other religious paths aren’t valid. But no matter what your path, whether you are religious or not, most people can arrive at some sense of shared morality about what is right or appropriate. So my argument is, however you arrive at your sense of morality, that morality has to include respect for the agency of women, their lives and their bodies, or else it’s not moral. It’s not appropriate.

You’re saying we have to put the woman’s life first?

Well, you don’t have to put a woman’s life anywhere, actually. A woman has a right to put her own life first. If you leave her alone, she’ll prioritize her wants, her health, her life all herself. That’s what she’s trying to do in making decisions, either trying to seek an abortion or continuing a pregnancy in the first place. I’m arguing that you can’t know more about those priorities than she does.

Pro-abortion rights doesn’t mean I promote abortions. I promote abortion as much as a cardiothoracic surgeon promotes heart transplants.
Willie Parker, MD

You didn’t provide abortions for the first 12 years of your career as a physician. What changed your mind?

I became a Christian when I was 15 years old. I am as sure of that conversion experience today at 54 as I was at 15. When I became a physician at 26, as an obstetrician I obviously helped women give birth to babies. But when women asked me to help them end pregnancies they didn’t want or pregnancies they wanted but they couldn’t carry to term, I found myself unable to help them because I wasn’t able to understand how that would work with my Christianity.

I had no questions about being a Christian, but I did have questions about what to do with the compassion I had for the women who were asking me for help. I couldn’t just easily dismiss it. But it took me a long time to figure out how to tell the difference between people’s opinions that they safeguard in the context of their religion versus the biologic facts and how religion has to interface with those realities.

The first time I was able to see things differently was after listening to a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the umpteenth time. It was the mountaintop sermon, the last sermon he gave before he was assassinated. In that sermon he told the story of the Good Samaritan. In short, he talks about the Samaritan who reversed the question of concern to help a person who had been mugged. He had said that everybody who had passed by this person asked what might happen to me for stopping for help? Dr. King said the Samaritan reversed this question of concern, and instead of asking what will happen to me if I stop to help this person, he asked what will happen to this person if I don’t stop to help him?

When I heard that sermon in the context of my question about what it is that I should be doing to help women, I saw myself in that story and I became more concerned about what happens to women when abortion services aren’t available.

When someone says “life begins at conception” or “abortion is murder” what do you say?

Before I embark upon a conversation with a person with those beliefs I try to set the ground rules for that conversation. Are we talking about facts? Or are we going to talk about your religious beliefs about abortion versus mine? I am willing to share my religious beliefs about abortion, and I’m willing to listen to yours, even if we disagree. Religious belief is a personal choice. So if you believe that abortion is wrong, then that’s fine. But it’s different when you’re arguing to make that decision for someone else or saying the state needs to intervene.

We have to acknowledge that when it comes to terms like “life” there are scientific understandings of that term and there are non-scientific understandings of that term. And both of them are valid. Both of them have their place. They only become problematic when you offer a scientific answer to a religious question, or you try and answer a scientific question with a religious answer. That’s like if I say, What color are your eyes? And you say left. I ask you a question and you gave me an answer, but the answer wasn’t appropriate to the question I asked.

However you arrive at your sense of morality, that morality has to include respect for the agency of women, their lives and their bodies.
Willie Parker, MD

In my estimation, life began when what we call life showed up on the planet, and it’s been playing out ever since. It will play out long after every one of us are gone if we don’t manage to blow up the planet.

I do not argue that abortion is not ending a life process. It is the intentional ending of a life process, but abortion is not murder, because a fetus is not a person. A fetus is a human entity, maybe even a human being, but there’s a difference between saying a fetus is a human being and that a fetus is a person. The law doesn’t recognize a fetus as a person. Most religious traditions don’t recognize a fetus as a person.

In the book you talk about how problematic it is to presume pregnancy is a “miracle.” What makes you say that?

When you look at the miracles Jesus Christ performed, Jesus actually broke the laws of nature to make something happen. He turned water into wine, so there’s no biological plausibility for how that happens if you understand chemistry. And yet, we accept the account. So for me a miracle is when God or the Divine intervenes and breaks the laws of nature to make something happen.

Well, we know how reproduction happens. I’m not saying it’s not spectacular. It never loses its luster and its mystery, but it’s no longer miraculous in terms of us not understanding it.

When I say pregnancy is not miraculous I’m saying that there is, in addition to the religious understanding, there is a scientific understanding. That scientific understanding is the one we must use to make policy decisions.

There is a rational, as well as a moral, approach here. We know how babies are made. We know where they come from. We know how to help that process along. We also know how to end that process. But because we make motherhood so essential to the identities of women, when they choose not to reproduce it appears to be irrational.

But if you take a step back and divest of what you think they ought to do, you look at the way women are processing their lives and making sense of it and making complex decisions, they’re actually quite rational when they decide not to bring a baby into the world they can’t feed. It makes perfect sense.

Speaking of sense and rationality, I want to go back to your example of giving an answer like “left” to a question about the color of one’s eyes. It really can seem like you’re going in circles when you’re talking to someone who opposes abortion rights, when you have state legislators proposing 20-week bans based on bogus science and laws that restrict access under the guise of “women’s health.” How can we change the conversation?

We have to just focus on the truth and the facts. The media has to stop trying to accommodate false equivalencies. There is no pro-life versus pro-choice. There is only pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion rights.

And pro-abortion rights doesn’t mean I promote abortions. I promote abortion as much as a cardiothoracic surgeon promotes heart transplants. Cardiothoracic surgeons don’t want to have to transplant hearts, but they don’t have a value judgment about whether it’s good or bad to have a heart transplant. They’re vested in when a person needs a heart transplant, that those services be available. That’s how I feel about abortion.

I don’t get up in the morning and say Oh! There’s nothing more I would rather do than do abortions. But I also don’t disparage abortions as some societal or personal failure to a woman. Abortion is one of the decisions to be made along the continuum of reproduction. People have to get that, and the thing that's going to support that the most are the facts.

We have to be proponents of the truth. We have to be activists around the truth. When somebody is saying all life is sacred, I respect that. But are we having a religious conversation or a scientific one? If we’re having a scientific one, when you say fetuses can feel pain, the best science we have tells us that a fetus cannot feel pain until 29 completed weeks. The fetus does not have the structures to carry a pain signal, and there’s not even an associative cortex to interpret that signal, so why do we have a ban on abortion at 20 weeks under the premise that a fetus can feel pain at that point?

That’s a non-factual understanding. I have to be willing to say that. Legislators have to be willing to stand behind those facts and we have to behave politically as if the facts matter. I’m not up for destroying the Republican party or reviving the Democratic party. I’m looking for people to be democratic in their behavior and that means civic participation.

Have you ever considered running for office?

No, I think it would limit my constituency. I’m a world citizen. I don’t have a disdain for politics, but I don’t have the stomach for making the trade-offs that I’d be asked to make — even though I’m charismatic, charming, and hella funny, and I’d probably get a lot of votes.

I’m sure you would. The work you do is risky, and I imagine due to the opposition, emotionally exhausting. Do you ever regret it?

I do not. There have been 11 people killed in association with accessing abortion, and four of them have been doctors. One of those I had met and was acquainted with: Dr. George Tiller. When Dr. Tiller was killed it was a personal loss for me. But I was not unsettled. I understood coming in that there were people who were so extreme in their opposition to abortion that they have become homicidal about it.

But for me I feel like there’s trying to avoid dying and then there is choosing to live. I’m clear what I live for: having a life of meaning and principle and purpose doing what I know is the right thing, honoring my conscience. That’s what I’ve chosen to do.

I spend long hours traveling all over to deliver this care. I get harassment and threats. But to me the trade-off has been worth it, because at the end of the day I sleep very well knowing I tried to make the world a better place, knowing that I’ve tried to help women that no one else will help.