Q&A: Dr. Willie Parker on Building Bridges and Changing the Debate Around Abortion

Dr. Willie Parkerboard chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health—is extremely invested in the issue of reproductive justice and works to broaden the perspectives of individuals on both sides of the fight.

In his new book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, Dr. Parker tackles the morality of abortion—and the rights to which it is inevitably linked. By presenting the intricacies of these issues, he expands the conversation around reproductive rights and challenges the division between faith, reproductive justice and feminism.

Ms. spoke with Dr. Parker about the importance of open and honest dialogue across opposition, learning from our history and staying vigilant as the War on Women escalates.

Photo by Chad Griffith

As someone who is clearly very invested in the moral case for abortion, how do you respond to the anti-abortion movement’s claims that preventing abortion is actually the moral thing to do?

When they say that the anti-abortion position is the moral position and the only moral position, I would ask them to clarify their understanding of what morals are. If they default to a religious understanding of what morals can be, should be and have to be, I would say that their anti-abortion position is one more of patriarchal custom that has been placed inside of religion, but it is not rooted in any unequivocal theological understanding about reproduction or abortion, and that it’s not even an antiquated notion. So I would invite them to clarify and understand that personal morals are just that—personal.

If you are going to define morals, it would be our personal orientation around what is right. Most people have a sense of what is right, but most often, people have a sense of what is right for them. Because of that, I believe that they would have to understand that there’s a difference between public ethics and public morality on average, but what each individual should do is dictated by their moral understanding. So because reproduction or abortion occurs in the body and in the life of a woman, the only morality that should govern whether or not that decision to end the pregnancy is appropriate, has to be the morality of the person making the decision.

From a societal standpoint, what we have to do is safeguard people’s right to make the decision. But we can’t be vested one way or another. We have to be supportive of a woman’s desire and intent to continue the pregnancy when she becomes pregnant, and provide her with the resources to do so. And we have to do the same when a woman decides to end the pregnancy so that she may have the means to do so safely, privately, and with dignity.

You’ve played a big role in preventing clinic closures throughout your life, and you also attended school in Kentucky at Berea College. What have your efforts been to fight against the closure of the last existing clinic in Louisville?

I recently visited in Louisville in conjunction with the efforts of Lady Parts Justice, helping raise funds and awareness of what is going on. As someone who is no longer a Kentucky resident, but who is still concerned about the well-being of women everywhere and their access to this care, I was more than happy to travel to Kentucky and to lend my support to their efforts to raise consciousness and to generate the political will to block the efforts to close that clinic.

What do you find is the most effective way to bridge the gap between you and those who oppose your efforts?

I’m clear that I can build a bridge, but I can’t make anybody cross it. I’m more interested in constructing the bridge. The bridge that I can walk across would be one of creating an air of mutual respect and insisting their there be precision to the question at hand. I would describe that as a commitment to honest disagreement, rather than one of more civil discourse. However, both honest disagreement and civil discourse require people to talk to one another. So it’s not about dismissing the ideologies of other people, but it’s about before you talk about anything—whether it’s the weather or abortion or sports—that you create an air of mutual respect and acknowledging that there is a chance and a likelihood that you will differ. And if we differ, that is fine, so long as the disagreement is honest. If it is honest, then it can lead to progress. That is what Mahatma Gandhi said—honest disagreement can lead to progress. So that means that I have to be willing to listen to you, and you have to be willing to listen to me. And that when I hear you and understand you clearly, that I can honestly reflect on my position with regard to what you have said. You can tell me abortion is wrong and I can respect you saying that, but if we’re going to have a policy conversation, and you say abortion is wrong and no one should have the right to have one, now that’s a policy question. If you’re philosophically opposed to abortion simply because of your particular religious perspective, and think that we should allow women to die because of that perspective, to that, my argument is that I can and have to respect your religious views, but I don’t have to indulge you in making policies based on those views.

Rather than having a pro-life, pro-choice debate—which I think is a poorly formed question—I would raise the issue of being opposed to reproductive rights and being in support of reproductive rights. That’s a different frame from pro-life, pro-choice. For me, supporting a woman’s right to make the decision whether or not to continue a pregnancy, that falls within my definition of pro-life, but is not anti-abortion. So when many pro-lifers say they are “pro-life” it means that they are anti-abortion. And if you’re anti-abortion and an abortion is necessary to save a woman’s life, you’re not being pro-life by prohibiting a woman from having an abortion that would save her life. So I think a more precise question is: “Are you pro-reproductive rights or are you anti-reproductive rights?”

So: a conversation set in the air of respect; an insistence on making sure that the question that we are going to engage with is precise; and finally, when it’s clear about what we’re doing, then we can proceed with a conversation so long as both parties intend to hold a scientific and evidence-based conversation. That’s my formula. Nowhere in that formula is the notion that I can convince anyone of anything, or that I need to try and change their mind. Somebody once said that minds are like doors. If a door closes, the harder you press on it, the more firmly closed it becomes.

You participated in one of the Q&A sessions after a screening of the film, Birthright. What made you want to become involved in the promotion and conversation surrounding this film? Why do you think this film is so important?

I think part of distilling reproductive rights and decisions down to just abortion obliterates the fact that there are other decisions that happen in the context of reproductive rights that are just as important. If the only thing you care about is pregnancy, and whether or not it’s going to end in a birth or an abortion, then you are missing the fact that there are myriad other questions of reproduction that affect a woman. If a woman has a miscarriage and it is found that she Googled “abortion,” and she ends up having a spontaneous miscarriage, can she be prosecuted as having ended her pregnancy even though she had a miscarriage? That is happening in El Salvador and other places.

The argument that if we criminalize abortion, women won’t be prosecuted just doesn’t pass the muster, given that in every other state where abortions are illegal, women get prosecuted. But if you’re only talking about the aspect of childbirth, questions like this won’t get addressed. So I think this film broadened the conversation around reproduction and reproductive rights in a way that forces us to really think about how we are going to frame policies, laws and rules around reproduction. It also forces us to consider whether the framing of those questions will speak to the health and safety of women, or rather to the need to maintain reproductive control over women that’s rooted in patriarchy.

Given the current political climate, would you say you have faith in the rising generations to address this issue and continue to fight for reproductive justice?

When I look at future generations, the first thing that comes to mind is what Dr. King said about progress. He said that “progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” However, my hopefulness about our ability to make women’s reproductive rights and freedom become a non-issue is not based on the notion that we’re evolving towards a higher consciousness or that younger people are going to be more inclined to fight for that right. Roe has been in place for 44 years and there are people right now in Congress under the age of 40 who are stridently leading the fight to overturn Roe. So there is not an inevitability of progress.

My hope for reproductive rights and social justice isn’t related to each generation getting better on these issues—it’s related to the fact that there will always be a spirit of humanity that will rise up in every period and every era such that even though slavery lasted for 300 years, at every juncture in history, the will for humanity and equality has always been there. I think it will always be there. The battle changes and it morphs but I don’t think it’s a question of whether or not there will always be people who will decide that humanity and equality are worth fighting for. It’s always going to be a question of degree—to what degree do people feel moved to do something or to what degree are they complacent?

I think where we are now is born in part of a complacency that was wrought by folks thinking that once Roe was decided, the battle was over. On January 23, people who are opposed to abortion regrouped and adopted a long term strategy that has now brought us back to a place where abortion access is as vulnerable as it has ever been. This is proof positive that the battle for human rights and social justice isn’t generational. It’s just a matter of what are you going to do in your generation.




Ciarra Davison is a former Ms. Editorial Intern who graduated from UCLA, where she studied English and wrote for the Politics section of FEM Newsmagazine. After a year and a half of traveling and working throughout Europe, Central and South America, she now lives in Washington, D.C., where she reports on the ground for Ms. She works to bring underrepresented stories to light, and in her spare time, enjoys hiking towards waterfalls and dancing while cooking.