The XX Factor

The Christian Compassion of Dr. Willie Parker, the Doctor at Mississippi’s Last Abortion Clinic

Dr. Willie Parker

Photo via Brett Deutsch/Pysicians for Reproductive Health

Stern scolding about the consequences of sex, and maudlin paeans equating embryos with babies, failed to get the anti-abortion movement very far in the decades after Roe v. Wade. So in recent years, conservatives have shifted tactics toward arguing that legal abortion must be ended for women’s own sake. In this new framework, which was on full display in the Republican testimony at this month’s Senate hearing on the Women’s Health Protection Act, women who seek abortions are portrayed as dimwitted victims, and abortionists are characterized as craven profiteers who divert women from their true desires to have babies in order to make a buck. Thus, conservatives argue, abortion needs to be heavily restricted—preferably out of existence—to protect women from these terrible abortionists. The strategy has been incredibly effective, moving a shocking amount of anti-abortion legislation into law in recent years, and getting a draconian abortion law in Texas past the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, thereby ending half the abortion provision in the state. 

This month, John H. Richardson has written a wonderful piece in Esquire showing just how unfair the demonization of abortion providers really is. Richardson profiles Dr. Willie Parker, an esteemed OB-GYN who has set that work aside to do abortions full-time, because that’s where he’s needed. Parker is one of the two doctors who travels to Jackson, Mississippi, to provide abortion at the last remaining clinic in the state. “Parker is down here only twice a month, and as the need is great, the cases get backed up, forcing him sometimes to see as many as forty-five women in a single day,” Richardson writes.

But despite the case overload on Parker’s plate, he offers a holistic approach to his patients, giving not just the abortions that they’re seeking, but also an opportunity to be heard and cared for without any judgment, an experience that is sadly rare in the lives of many women. Richardson witnesses Parker sit with a dizzying array of patients, many of whom are struggling with guilt or judgmental people in their lives. “In all these interactions, even if it has nothing to do with abortion, Parker never misses a chance to offer comfort,” Richardson writes. “This seems to be his version of absolution, often delivered with a moral.” Parker routinely emphasizes to his patients that the judgment passed on them is unfair, and that he understands where they are coming from. 

Parker does these things because he’s a feminist, sure, but also because he’s a Christian:

Finally, he had his “come to Jesus” moment and the bell rang. This would be his civil-rights struggle. He would serve women in their darkest moment of need. “The protesters say they’re opposed to abortion because they’re Christian,” Parker says. “It’s hard for them to accept that I do abortions because I’m a Christian.” He gave up obstetrics to become a full-time abortionist on the day, five years ago, that George Tiller was murdered in church.

The recent Supreme Court case over buffer zones that keep abortion clinic protesters at a distance was decided in favor of protesters in no small part because the justices bought the idea that the protesters are merely trying to help the women. The decision shows how much the debate over abortion has morphed into a debate over how best to care about women who are facing unwanted pregnancies. Are women best cared for by being told how they should feel about abortion? Or is caring more about listening to them, and letting them figure out for themselves what’s best for them? 

Parker certainly feels, after many years of doing this work, that it’s the latter. “Sometimes women have that look in their eyes—Whatever you do, don’t say no to me. That’s … you know … I think that’s too much power for anybody to have over somebody’s life,” he tells Richardson. On Tuesday, the 5th Circuit Court blocked a law that would have shut down the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. So for now, that choice will remain in women’s hands.