Against the surreal backdrop of elected officials trying to take healthcare away from those who need it the most, Honolulu residents who attended a recent talk and book-signing hosted by Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii were glad to hear Dr. Willie Parker say simply: “I’m pro-life. And I provide abortions.” A devout Christian, Parker sees his work as a calling to protect women’s health by respecting their right to make independent decisions about their pregnancies. His book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, offers a Christian view of abortion, one informed by compassion and anchored in science.
The Catholic church and conservative Christian groups repeatedly frame the issue of abortion in misleading terms that shame women who end a pregnancy, whatever the reason. Dr. Parker makes clear through an unsparing description of the abortion process, and through his explanation of fetal development, that the sentimental slogan “life begins at conception” is not founded in fact. On this there is scientific consensus. Equally misleading is the reference to fetuses as “babies”—something they are not. To quote Dr. Parker: “Before twenty two weeks, a fetus is not in any way equal to ‘a baby’ or “a child.’ It cannot survive outside the uterus because it cannot breathe—not even on a respirator.” He continues to “remain a follower of Jesus,” but regards the “meeting of sperm and egg as a biological event, no less miraculous but morally and qualitatively different from a living, breathing, human life.”
While nearly 60,000 women religious courageously supported passage of Obamacare, and nuns again addressed the overall immorality of the most recent effort to take healthcare away from the most vulnerable, too many men of the cloth, and elected officials zero in on managing women’s reproductive rights. They propagate the fictions, the slogans, and the scare-mongering of many anti-abortion campaigns. They use their “prolife” position to place obstacles in the way of poor women, refusing to recognize every woman’s right to make independent decisions about her reproductive health. Poor women confront all kinds of obstacles, from mandatory wait periods to mis-information to ghastly regulations like the one signed into law by then Governor Pence in Indiana last year requiring funeral rites for all fetal remains. Wait periods between asking for an abortion and getting one, burden poor women, particularly women of color in rural areas, with needless additional expense as they try to get to these appointments in between juggling two or three jobs as well as responsibilities on the home front.
Research shows that one in three American women gets an abortion at some point in their lifetime. But the wealthy get it with no questions asked. The Hyde Amendment and so-called “conscience protections” that the Catholic bishops, for example, insist on in every conversation or public statement about healthcare, don’t hurt wealthy women seeking an abortion. But it surely exacerbates the suffering of poor, often single mothers who are denied Medicaid for abortions, except in the case or rape, incest or threat to their lives. (Men, however, make decisions about addressing erectile dysfunction with no one telling them that they are interfering with God’s plan for their sexuality.)
In the name of God and saving the unborn, eleven people, including four doctors, have been assassinated since the late seventies. One, Dr. Tiller was killed in church on the Feast of the Pentecost by a man who called himself “ServantofMessiah.”
Dr. Parker left the comfort of his ob-gyn practice in Hawaii for the life of an itinerant abortion provider in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. He believes that “the only Christianity that mandates an anti-abortion view is an emotion-based faith—a rigid reading of Scripture that invites no questioning or interpretive consideration.”
He is not alone. Enlightened clergy have been helping women get safe abortion care for decades now. The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, started in 1967 by Rev. Howard Moody, helped nearly half a million women before Roe v Wade. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, formed in 1973, numbers Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Unitarians, Methodists, Jews, and Congregationalists in its membership. Yet their work advancing reproductive justice is little known.
People in the pews can amplify the advocacy of these enlightened, compassionate groups by rejecting the strange double-standard and selective morality in what we sometimes hear –and do not hear–from the pulpit. If we do not question men’s decisions about their bodies, neither should we question women’s. Healthcare that is moral for the wealthy should be just as moral—and available–for the poor. The Gospel story of the Good Samaritan, says Dr. Parker, should move us towards providing compassionate care, not condemnation.
If Catholics find Dr. Parker’s approach to faith familiar, it may be because it recalls the primacy of conscience central to Vatican Two.
Conscience should lead us to stand with people like Dr. Parker and others who put their lives on the line every single day defending the rights of women, particularly poor women, to make decisions about their bodies with the same freedom men simply take for granted. It’s the least we can do for the least among us.
A version of this commentary was first published on Civil Beat, Aug 4, 2017.