Dr. Willie Parker has become somewhat of a spokesperson for the reproductive justice movement, and for good reason. He is passionate about his work, strongly rooted in his Christian faith, and unapologetic about his decision to leave a successful career in obstetrics to provide abortions to low-income, mostly women-of-color clients in the Deep South. He’s also unwilling to hide, wear a bullet-proof vest or be quiet about his career choices—decisions that pose significant risk in today’s hostile and often violent anti-abortion climate.
The son of a single mother raised in what he describes as “abject poverty,” Parker’s story is the bread and butter of the American dream mythos. He taught himself to read by kerosene lamp and ended up studying medicine at Harvard University. Parker, who chairs Physicians for Reproductive Health,* works primarily in Alabama clinics, but also travels occasionally to Georgia to provide services. He used to work at one of the last clinics in Mississippi. Colorlines spoke with Parker by phone about his career trajectory, his approach to patient care and what he thinks about our current political climate. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You practiced obstetrics and gynecology before becoming an abortion provider. When did you decide to start providing abortions?
[In 2003],I was practicing as an attending physician at a school of medicine [in Hawaii], supervising residents in OB-GYN. By that point I’d done my time at the CDC and a master’s in public health at Harvard. I was already versed in public health prevention. I’d always been sympathetic to women even though I didn’t provide abortions for my own religious and moral reasons. [But] then I realized that women needed the service and it became increasingly difficult for me not to provide it.
Did you learn or practice the procedure in medical school?
I saw abortions as a medical student, but I never performed one. I was never anti-abortion. I knew that it was an important service, [but] I just hadn’t done values clarification for myself on the issue. [During my residency in Cincinnati] residents did not have the opportunity to perform abortion. That made it easier for me not to opt to provide the services, but it did not relieve me of the challenge to think more deeply about it. I had to work through what it meant to be a provider.
Is it common for doctors to go through OB-GYN training without learning to performing abortions?
It was common 25 years ago, but it’s less common now. Medical Students for Choice didn’t exist, and medical students had not begun seeking values clarification or insisting that the training be made available to them. As the battle for reproductive rights began to shift and become more prevalent, students began to create a demand for that training.
[Now] rather than having to opt in, [doctors] have to opt out, which creates more of an expectation that you have that training. Whether or not they decide to provide abortions after they leave training is up to them. But the hope is that once they have been trained and they understand the importance of the care they will be likely to include abortion care in their practice.
Do you consider yourself part of the reproductive justice movement?
How has that changed your practice?
In every way. Reproductive justice is a framework that is based on human rights. [Those rights] are not derived from the state, but they should be protected by the state. It means I’m not just committed to providing services only to women who can pay for them. If you’re going to deal with injustices created by disparities and injustices, reproductive justice says you have to be committed to everyone [having] access to these services.
If I was just approaching abortion, contraception and family-planning as nice novel ways to stand out as a practitioner and increase my market value, it wouldn’t lead me to ask the tougher questions about responding to injustice. Reproductive justice is my world view and my outlook. It’s intersectional; it allows me to explore the ways in which race and gender are working together. It’s about finding solutions that will address all those issues, rather than pitting one issue against another.
How has your Christian faith influenced your work?
I understand the role that faith identity plays for the women who seek my care, but more importantly, the way that women are undermined in their agency [by religious doctrine]. Many of those [ideas] are rooted in patriarchal religious understanding. I’m of the opinion that [just like] those positions where religion is the explicit opposition, religion [also] has a fair role in the strategic pushback.
My sense of calling is rooted in Christian religious understanding. It’s crucial in the way I do my reproductive justice advocacy and [in] calling for a compassionate response to people who are marginalized and experiencing injustice. It may seem gratuitous or strategic to some folks, but it’s the place from which I do my work.
Have you found support for your work in faith communities?
Not broad support, but increasingly there is support. I’m on the board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. [It’s] a coalition of faith leaders of various faith traditions who understand a woman’s right to self-determination and that finds validation in religious and faith understandings that don’t seek to control women via patriarchy.
There are increasing numbers of religious voices standing up in support of reproductive rights rather than acquiescing to patriarchal customs that would undermine reproductive rights.
Has the recent SCOTUS decision on HB2 changed anything for your practice?
While it was a great thing that that case came out in favor of my friends at Whole Woman’s Health, it hasn’t really shaped the landscape a lot. The majority of the clinics that were closed before that decision are still closed. Many of the clinics, even if they are interested in coming back onto the grid, no longer have their equipment of leases. While HB2 changed the legal landscape and it hasn’t changed things to a major degree.
There are many ways in which there is potential for things to get better, but in a little over a month not a lot has changed. Many of the barriers are still there, like the waiting periods and parental notifications, those things still have to be fought off right now.
How does being a Black provider shape your work?
My culture defines me. I’m proud that I can bring my sense of person that is uniquely rooted in my culture as an African-American, not to the detriment of anyone else. My sense of pride in being a person of color has made all the difference.
I’ve been able to be clear about and push back against notions that in order to be acceptable in fields where you are underrepresented you have to strip down your identity. I enjoy making an effort to practice my craft in a way that is admirable and exemplary as a physician in general. I work hard at actively decreasing stigma around women who have abortion and my own just showing up every day and being competent and capable in the context of maintaining my cultural identity [is a part of that]. We still live in a race-conscious, if not a racist society, and I don’t need to be invisible to be appreciated. It means a lot to me to be very skilled and to be recognized as an African-American.
Are many of your patients women of color?
African-American followed by Latina women have the highest rates of unintended pregnancy. It’s a perfect storm of lack of access to health insurance and inconsistent access to contraception.You end up with the inability to control your fertility. Given that Black women and Latina women have higher rates of unintended pregnancy, that means that in any community I’ve worked in, the majority of patients I see are women of color and poor women.
What do you think about the Purvi Patel case, or other cases we’ve seen of women being criminalized for the outcome of their pregnancies?
I think it is a major source of disparity and anxiety. Even before I began doing my abortion care [work], there was a woman being prosecuted for having high levels of methamphetamines. The criminalization of reproduction is another expression of patriarchy of women by not letting her control reproduction. When we elevate motherhood over other aspects of a woman’s life, and then we enshrine the state with the ability to punish women when they don’t perform in the way we expect them to, it’s part and parcel of reproductive [injustice].
The rates of drug-use for women don’t differ by race or socioeconomic status. It’s a major injustice what happened to Purvi Patel, that her actions were interpreted as criminal, that she would be targeted and selectively prosecuted as an expression of the inherent racism in our criminal justice system. You can always speculate whether her experience would have been the same if she was not who she was. If I’m fighting for reproductive justice, it’s another reproductive injustice that we can take note of.
How do you feel about the current political and legal climate surrounding reproductive rights and justice?
I think we’re in a position for things to get better [based on the] president and the ability to reshape the Supreme Court. I think we’re still in the phase [where] we have to hold faith that what can be is more than what is. We still have a lot of tidying up to do around reproductive rights and justice. [There has been a] creation of injustice via abuse of regulatory authority. People in charge of government have been able to ideologically shape this country in many ways that introduce injustice into reproductive rights.
Your approach seems deeply compassionate and patient-centered. How do you cultivate this?
It comes from rooting my work in a social-justice framework, [which is] rooted in a social gospel. I try to never lose sight of the fact that when I do my work, because it is a human right, women are entitled to it.I’m not doing them a favor, I’m providing care that they are entitled to. They deserve care that is respectful of their humanity.When I am tired and frustrated, if that is the place that I am operating from, it means that I’m always going to approach my clients with a level of respect.
Did you learn this approach as a medical student?
Twenty-five years ago, we were just trying to get through. They have made great strides in getting students to be more compassionate. Being a marginalized person coming from abject poverty, being a person of color, I had to just get through and be as competitive with my colleagues. I’ve worked hard to be as smart and skilled as any of my colleagues, but I also worked hard not to lose my humanity in the process.
*Piece has been updated since publication to include Parker’s work with Physicians for Reproductive Health.