Gloria Steinem is right, everyone should read Dr. Willie Parker’s new book “Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice.” From mothers to fathers, physicians to pastors, it frames a conversation that is both timely and important. The book, a quick read at just over 200 pages, sets the tone for a new perspective on reproductive rights, one grounded in science but supported by faith.
Dr. Parker weaves his journey of a dirt poor black boy from the deep south becoming a doctor with the complicated narrative of a fundamentalist Christian becoming an abortion provider. Each of these stories would have made captivating books on their own but together, they are enlightening.
Throughout the book Dr. Parker talks about the women in his life who found themselves unexpectedly pregnant, the options they were afforded and what that meant for their lives. He tells scores of stories of patients, seeking abortion services for a variety of reasons, most with children already at home or futures yet to be realized. He reminds us that women in abject poverty can hardly afford the few hundred dollars for a first trimester abortion, let alone afford to raise another child. In fact, Dr. Parker talks about how many women seek abortion care in the second trimester, simply because it takes longer than 6 weeks to find the money pay for his services. He humanizes the moral and spiritual dilemma around abortion care, the women that seek it and the physicians that provide it.
Willie Parker was raised in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960’s. The 4th of his mother’s six children, he grew up in poor, yet describes his childhood affectionately. “I wasn’t unhappy…we never doubted our mother’s love for us, and we saw how much she sacrificed to give us everything she could.” In his community, smart boys became pastors or teachers instead of simple day laborers or factory workers. It wasn’t until college that someone loosely mentioned that he might want to be a doctor.
At the age of 15 Willie Parker was born again as a Christian. He describes his religious conversion as life altering and speaks of his calling to Christ with as much fervor and conviction as anything I have ever read. To this day, Dr. Parker is a devout Christian who lives his life in the image of God, and frames every decision in the wake of unwavering dedication to Christ. As a non-Christian, with limited understanding of biblical teaching, I found this aspect of the book interesting and educational.
Midway through the book, Dr. Parker reflects on his second conversion, the one where he went from tacitly avoiding providing abortion care to being fellowship trained in family planning. Dr. Parker’s epiphany came as he was working as a staff physician in Hawaii. In the early 2000’s hospital policy at his Hawaiian hospital shifted and Dr. Parker found himself at a fork in the road. As he says:
“It became not: Is it right for me, as a Christian, to perform abortions? But rather: Is it right for me, as a Christian, to refuse to do them? … From that moment, not providing abortions would have been a fate worse than death. Once I understood that the faithful approach to a woman in need is to help her and not judge her to impose upon her any restriction, penalty or shame, I had to change my life.”
Dr. Parker now travels the deep south, from his native Alabama to Mississippi and Texas, providing abortion services to women who would, without his care, have no other option.
This book is both inspiring and uncomfortable. Dr. Parker rips off the bandaids we use to cover the wounds of issues we would rather not expose. He explicitly describes the abortion care he provides and the limits he sets for his own practice. He reminds us that access to safe and affordable abortion care is a constitutional right he will lay down his life to protect. His Christian faith informs him that it his moral imperative to support women through this trying time in their lives with the care and compassion they deserve.
Personally, I believe that all health care providers should read this book as it frames the conversation around abortion care in a way I have not seen before. In the current political climate, it can be hard to come together to reconcile health care access with aspects of deep faith. Dr. Parker attempts to provide perspectives from all sides, and does so with humility and grace.
Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice will be released on April 4,2017. You can pre-order the book here.
To join FemInEM, Dr. Parker and Gloria Steinem at an event supporting Physicians for Reproductive Health, please click here.