Monday, August 11, 2014

The Abortion Ministry of Dr. Willie Parker

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
Matthew 23:1-4

There is no moral dilemma which makes me more uncomfortable than the question of abortion. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a close second, but abortion is number one. And it has been number one for a long time.

I have supported a woman’s right to choose since before Roe v. Wade. I don’t believe that abortion is ever a “good” choice. It is always tragic. We need better sex education and we need free access to contraception as part of universal health care, but when that fails, then I believe the decision should belong to the woman involved. I hope she consults with her partner and with a trusted counselor, but in the end it is her body and it should be up to her.

I believe that abortion should be safe and legal and rare. That last part has to be clarified. I believe that we should provide contraception and sex education so that women rarely face the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy. There are plenty of people trying to make abortion rare by making it unavailable. By instituting burdensome (and medically unnecessary) regulations at the state level, anti-abortion advocates have shut down clinics so that abortion is already virtually illegal in ten states.

One of those states is Mississippi. And if the anti-abortion advocates are successful, they will soon shut down the last remaining clinic in the state. An article in by John H. Richardson profiles one of two physicians who continue to provide abortion services in Mississippi. What caught my attention was the title, THE ABORTION MINISTRY OF DR. WILLIE PARKER. For Dr. Parker, this is not a job, it is a Christian ministry.

Richardson describes a varied and divrse small group of women who are listening to Dr. Parker as he goes over the procedure and answers their questions. Most of them only know that he is willing to help them in a time of desperate need. He writes:

They don't know that he grew up a few hours away in Birmingham, the second youngest son of a single mother who raised six children on food stamps and welfare, so poor that he taught himself to read by a kerosene lamp and went to the bathroom in an outhouse; that he was born again in his teenage years and did a stint as a boy preacher in Baptist churches; that he became the first black student-body president of a mostly white high school, went on to Harvard and a distinguished career as a college professor and obstetrician who delivered thousands of babies and refused to do abortions. They certainly don't know about the "come to Jesus" moment, as he pointedly describes it, when he decided to give up his fancy career to become an abortion provider.

Parker spends a lot of time talking to them. He knows that many of them feel shamed and condemned by those who can only see black and white, and cannot see the gray area where they find themselves. “There's more than one way to understand religion and spirituality and God,” he tells them. “I do have belief in God. That's why I do this work. My belief in God tells me that the most important thing you can do for another human being is help them in their time of need."

Richardson describes the process that led Parker to become an abortion provider:

. . . gradually, the steady stream of women with reproductive issues in his practice focused his mind. He thought about his mother and sisters and the grandmother who died in childbirth and began to read widely in the literature of civil rights and feminism. Eventually he came across the concept of "reproductive justice," developed by black feminists who argued that the best way to raise women out of poverty is to give them control of their reproductive decisions. 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.

Richardson describes how, after meeting with the women in a group, Parker consults with each one separately. One patient is still in High School. Her mother is with her. He asks the mom to leave for a moment so that he can speak with the young woman privately. He wants to make sure that her mother is not the one pushing her to have an abortion. “Is this your idea to have an abortion?” he asks her. “Do you feel comfortable with your decision?”

Parker believes that the birth rate among teenage girls could be dramatically reduced by making contraception more easily available “without shame.” It’s not just the young women who have abortions who are shamed by the people Parker calls “the Antis,” the shaming is also directed at those who use contraception. "So it seems like if they want to reduce abortion,” says Parker, “the best thing to do would be to support contraception—but they're against contraception, too, because contraception and abortion decouple sexuality from procreation. That's why I think religious preoccupation with abortion is largely about controlling the sexuality of women."

Parker’s faith quest led him to study the work of Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as Martin Luther King. He was particularly moved by Bonhoeffer’s insights with regard to how the Gospel calls us to confront evil and injustice. He summarized Bonhoeffer as insisting that “the kind of Christianity that does not radicalize you with regard to human suffering is inauthentic—cheap and easy grace."

Parker’s reflection and study led to what he called his “come to Jesus” moment when he was teaching in Hawaii. Richardson writes:

He was teaching at the university when a fundamentalist administrator began trying to ban abortions in the school clinic, throwing students with an unwanted pregnancy into a panic. One day, he was listening to a sermon by Dr. King on the theme of what made the Good Samaritan good. A member of his own community passed the injured traveler by, King said, because they asked, "What would happen to me if I stopped to help this guy?" The Good Samaritan was good because he reversed the question: "What would happen to this guy if I don't stop to help him?" So Parker looked in his soul and asked himself, "What happens to these women when abortion is not available?"

He knew the answer.

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