Tapestry@25: Christian doctor believes he has a moral duty to provide abortions

Dr. Willie Parker is a religious man who felt called to work in a very different setting than the one he had imagined for himself as an obstetrician. He’s one of the few doctors in the American South who provides abortions. Dr. Parker says answering that call wasn’t just a medical decision - it was a spiritual one.
Dr. Willie Parker speaks onstage at the Center for Reproductive Rights 2014 Gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center on October 29, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for the Center for Reproductive Rights)

Originally published on June 24, 2016.

To say that abortion is a hot topic in the United States would be an understatement.

In the southern United States, abortion clinics have been dwindling in number. In some cases, there is only one abortion clinic left in an entire state. 

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Dr. Willie Parker is a doctor who regularly travels between these clinics. He is also currently the only African American physician providing abortions in Alabama and Mississippi, two places where hostility is particularly intense.

He has placed himself in the middle of this raging debate because of his Christian beliefs.

But it didn't start off that way.

Dr. Parker was raised as a fundamentalist born-again Christian. As an adult, he had fashioned himself a dream life: working as an associate professor in the Obstetrics/Gynecology Department at the University of Hawaii and living in a penthouse condo with an ocean view.

But Willie Parker struggled whenever he referred women to other doctors for abortions. 

While working as an ob/gyn in Hawai'i, Dr. Parker struggled whenever he referred women to other doctors for abortions. (Submitted by Dr. Willie Parker)

"For me, the challenge came around what it meant for me to self-describe as a woman's health provider and yet to feel unable to provide one of the most essential health services that a woman needs. One in three women [in the United States] by the time they reach age 45 will have experienced abortion."

One day, as he was grappling with this issue, Willie Parker began to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King's speech on the Good Samaritan parable. And he had a breakthrough about how to reconcile his Christian beliefs with the possibility of providing abortions. The answer was compassion. 

The first question that the Levite asked was: 'If I stop to help this man what will happen to me?'But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'- Excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King's speech, 

Dr. Parker made the decision to move back to his hometown of Birmingham, Ala. to help fight for reproductive rights and offer abortions to women who need it. 

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Dr. Parker appears in the documentary Trapped which looks at the battle over access to abortion in the United States. It won a Special Jury Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

His memoir, Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, will be published in April 2017.