Pro-choice women have a wealth of advocates today, from Katha Pollitt to Shonda Rhimes, who are willing to defend their right to safe and affordable reproductive care and abortion access. But none is as uniquely positioned to cross the divide between anti-choice Americans (often citing religion as their primary objection) and the millions of women for whom abortion is not political, but rather life-saving, than Dr. Willie Parker.
I first met Dr. Parker at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where he was supporting Trapped, Dawn Porter's documentary about increasingly restrictive abortion laws in the South, from which Dr. Parker emerges as the clear star. I hadn't yet seen the film and didn't know who he was, but when we shook hands I got the clear sense that I was meeting someone grandly important — perhaps a high-up religious figure (the turtleneck threw me) or the president of some small, fancy country like Luxembourg.
Both are true, in a sense: Parker, a man of great religious faith who was raised in southern churches, does have a galvanizing political role as he travels the South performing abortions for women who would not otherwise have access due to changing laws and terrified doctors. Because of constant threats on his life, Parker tries to go incognito in simple clothes, baseball hats, and sunglasses. But no matter what he's wearing, his presence has a gravitational pull. He is equally potent when addressing a large group of reproductive-justice advocates and talking to a scared, lonely patient for whom the decision to terminate a pregnancy is as complex as Parker's decision to start being the person who did the terminating.
"What I do is unfathomable to my faithful opponents, yet preserving that access is my calling."
Since watching Trapped, I have been amazed by Dr. Parker's work: his heroism in comforting women who are, like him, religious and, unlike him, deeply afraid. When late last year I made an unfortunate remark on my podcast on the issue of choice, Dr. Parker used his Facebook not to pardon me but to explore just how complex and challenging these conversations are. And now he's brought us what I believe is the most crucial text we have on the subject of choice. Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice(out now from Atria) tackles new territory as Dr. Parker carefully explains how he went from being a deeply religious OBGYN, refusing to perform abortions, to one of the boldest providers our country has ever known.
Dr. Parker writes with minimum sentimentality and maximum poetic logic. As he says in his introduction, "What I do is unfathomable to my faithful opponents, yet preserving that access is my calling. As a Christian and a doctor, I am committed to preserving women's health." And we, his readers and supporters, are committed to making sure a doctor (and a voice) like Parker gets all the support he needs. It was my honor to donate to his abortion fund for the South, but there are a wealth of ways to support women with dwindling access to abortion. One of those ways is to read Dr. Parker's book cover to cover and then pass it on, so that we're all prepared for the next moral argument with grace and power.