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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

There Are Giants Among Us

Dr. Willie J. Parker (photo courtesy of Dr. Parker)
If there are any heroes in the struggle for Reproductive Justice, Dr. Willie J. Parker is one of the Giants of Justice.

I met Dr. Parker in April at my first meeting of the national board of RCRC (Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice). He and I are part of the 'incoming class' of board members.

I had a chance to speak with him only briefly, but that impression continues to affect me deeply.

Dr. Parker was born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised a strict fundamentalist Christian in the Pentecostal tradition. He told me that he had a conversion experience about his fundamentalism after he read Harry Emerson Fosdick's 1922 influential sermon, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" which called for an open-minded, intellectual and tolerant "Christian fellowship".

Parker said that he was deeply impressed that Fosdick lost his post at the First Presbyterian Church in NYC because of that sermon. I would also note that, because of that sermon John D. Rockefeller built Riverside Church so Fosdick's voice would have a pulpit, but that's another story for another time.

Parker was also deeply influenced by the preaching of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which gave him, he says, a deeper understanding of his own spirituality, which places a higher value on compassion.

He was particularly influenced by a sermon Dr. King preached about the "Good Samaritan" who was 'good', said Dr. King, because "instead of focusing on would happen to him by stopping to help the traveler, he was more concerned about what would happen to the traveler if he didn’t stop to help. I became more concerned about what would happen to these women if I, as an obstetrician, did not help them."

Dr. Parker is an obstetrician-gynecologist with over twenty years experience.  Because of his religious childhood training, he initially refused to even consider abortion as a procedure he would provide. Now, he’s one of those rare doctors who is willing to push the limits and provide abortions at 24 weeks of pregnancy. That places him among only about 11 percent of all abortion providers who will do the procedure that late in the second trimester.

I heard Dr. Parker say that less than 10% of women have abortions beyond 13 weeks. Less than 1% of women have abortions at 21 weeks or later.

The overwhelming majority of second-trimester patients say they would have preferred to have had their abortion earlier. These women are more likely to be:
• Age 19 or younger
• Poor
• Black or Hispanic
• Without a high school degree (among women 20 and older)
• Paying for abortions with health insurance
• Those who have suffered three or more disruptive events in the past year (such as falling behind on rent, separating from a partner, having a family member with a serious medical problem or being the victim of a crime)
Source: Guttmacher Institute, based on a national sample of more than 9,000 women who had abortions in 2008

Dr. Parker says that the reality is that unplanned, unwanted pregnancies occur to women in all walks of life and all demographics. One in three women will terminate a pregnancy in her lifetime. He says:
"I had a patient who was a 32-year-old attorney, senior staff for a prominent U.S. senator. She and her husband had their first pregnancy and were very excited about it, only to find out in the 21st week that there was a lethal, severe developmental abnormality. They waited until the 23rd week because it was a rare disorder and they didn’t want to have an abortion unless that rare condition was absolutely confirmed.

Another patient of mine was a 13-year-old girl with a very quiet demeanor, which her parents perceived as model behavior. But an uncle who was staying with the family had been sexually molesting her and she kept quiet about it for months until he left. She concealed that pregnancy until she was 19 weeks along, and ended up having a termination at 20 weeks.

These are typical circumstances for second-trimester abortions."
Even so, there are those who are desperate to stop him.  Congress is considering a ban on all abortions after 20 weeks in DC. Six other states already have one, passed within the last two years. A record number of new restrictions on abortions were enacted last year, including bans, waiting periods and limiting insurance coverage.

It troubles Parker that abortion supporters and opponents are increasingly willing to bargain about second-trimester abortions in the interest of finding common ground. While this may create a more civil discourse, he says, in the end, it’s dangerous to the health interests of women.

What changed his mind? The individual stories of the women who came to him. He now views the abortion debate through the prism of their particular realities. Ironically, says Dr. Parker, it’s the lack of access to abortion care that often pushes women to have abortions later in pregnancy.

Which is why Dr. Parker leaves his OB-GYN practice several times a month to travel to rural places, especially in the Deep South, to provide abortions. Yes, even late-term abortions.  He says,
"About 85 percent of women live in a county where there’s no abortion provider. The distribution is even more dire in rural areas, where 90 percent of women have no provider. Many women have to travel long distances just to get to a provider.
That could easily help you understand why laws that impose waiting limits and notifications further distort the reality of women’s access to abortion care." 
By the time a young woman, living in poverty and/or in an abusive, violent relationship realizes that she is pregnant and finds the courage to take responsibility for her own life, she is often living in a state where she discovers there is a 24 hour waiting period before she can have the abortion.

She therefore has to not only afford the round trip bus fare to the abortion center, she must also find accommodations for the night - possibly two, depending on her recovery time. Many women who live in poverty can barely scrape together the bus fare. A hotel room for a night or two is absolutely out of her abilities.

Dr. Parker travels to where these women are to provide the services he says are a part of reproductive health care and a basic human right. Presently, it is not.

I am not alone in being concerned about the health and basic human rights of Dr. Parker. He is a Giant of Justice living among us but there are desperate people who do desperate things who also live among us.

Yes, I fear for his life.  Of this, Dr. Parker says:
I’m aware of the risks. There are people who feel strongly about the work that I do. I exercise judgment and discretion, but to be overly concerned about the fact that someone might hurt me for trying to live out my conscience and provide care for women would be a distraction. I think my work is honorable and important, and I won’t be distracted. It’s what I believe in my heart is the right thing to do.
What is at the heart of Dr. Parker's convictions about the right thing to do is the same compassion he understands is at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Anti-abortion people also believe that their position is at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps it is my own blindness, but I don't see in their stance the compassion of Jesus who said of the woman accused of adultery, "Let the one who is without sin caste the first stone." (John 8:7)

In 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote a few powerful words during the time this country was in turmoil over the issues of evolution in particular (raised by the Scopes Trial) and religious fundamentalism in general.

Fosdick used as his text the scene depicted in the fifth chapter of the Book of the Acts, where the Jewish leaders hale before them Peter and other of the apostles because they had been preaching Jesus as the Messiah. Moreover, the Jewish leaders propose to slay them, when in opposition Gamaliel speaks “Refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God ye will not be able to overthrow them; lest haply ye be found even to be fighting against God.” . . . Fosdick wrote:
Here in the Christian churches are these two groups of people and the question which the Fundamentalists raise is this—Shall one of them throw the other out? Has intolerance any contribution to make to this situation? Will it persuade anybody of anything? Is not the Christian Church large enough to hold within her hospitable fellowship people who differ on points like this and agree to differ until the fuller truth be manifested? The Fundamentalists say not. They say the liberals must go. Well, if the Fundamentalists should succeed, then out of the Christian Church would go some of the best Christian life and consecration of this generation—multitudes of men and women, devout and reverent Christians, who need the church and whom the church needs......

........The present world situation smells to heaven! And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration. What immeasurable folly!

Well, they are not going to do it; certainly not in this vicinity. I do not even know in this congregation whether anybody has been tempted to be a Fundamentalist. Never in this church have I caught one accent of intolerance. God keep us always so and ever increasing areas of the Christian fellowship; intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference, as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our major emphasis is upon the weightier matters of the law.
I find myself praying that last sentence of Fosdick's sermon as my own, fervent prayer.

I pray especially for Dr Willie J. Parker. I hope you will join me in that prayer.

Little people with little minds have always tried to slay giants. Some think it is sport. Others think they are ridding the world of a potential danger. Still others do in ignorance what they do not know they are doing. It was so in ancient Calvary. It continues today.

May God keep this particular giant safe, that he may continue to emulate for us the compassion of Christ and inspire us to seek the deeper wisdom of God, which surpasses all human understanding.


Matthew said...

Amen. We need him, just like we still need George Tiller. What is your take on Katharine Ragsdale's short speech that abortion is a blessing? I am beginning to think she is right.

JCF said...

My respect and AWE for this man is tempered only by my fear (esp. w/ his name and photograph: Elizabeth, I hate to say this, but you might want to remove them).

Lord, protect your faithful servant!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - He's an amazing man. Truly. My comments on Dean Ragsdale are a separate post entirely. It's a very complicated issue that has been taken out of context and abused.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - If you google his name or search for an image, you'll find tons of information. His name is out there, trust me.