In Mississippi, there is only one clinic where a woman can go if she needs an abortion. The state is trying to close it down. At that clinic, there is a doctor who tends to the needs of these women, and he has to fly in from out of state to do it. There is no shutting him down.
That’s the intro to yet another powerful, in-depth piece in Esquire magazine, titled “The Abortion Ministry of Dr. Willie Parker.”
Written by John H. Richardson, it’s the profile of a man who is “perfectly bald, with a salt-and-pepper goatee, a small gold hoop gleaming in his left ear, and a warm smile on his dark brown face.” Based in Chicago, he is one of two doctors who travel to Mississippi to perform abortions in a state that has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.
The piece is marvelous in reviewing the politics that got us to this place and in sketching a portrait of a man who dares to perform a service to low-income women — mostly of color — that few doctors are willing to do provide.
Two passages stood out for me.
One describes the 51-year-old Parker, noting that his patients know little about him:
They don’t know that he grew up a few hours away in Birmingham, the second youngest son of a single mother who raised six children on food stamps and welfare, so poor that he taught himself to read by a kerosene lamp and went to the bathroom in an outhouse; that he was born again in his teenage years and did a stint as a boy preacher in Baptist churches; that he became the first black student-body president of a mostly white high school, went on to Harvard and a distinguished career as a college professor and obstetrician who delivered thousands of babies and refused to do abortions.
The second describes his conversion, when he decided to give up a lucrative career to become an abortion doctor. He was reading the literature of civil rights and feminism and…
Eventually he came across the concept of “reproductive justice,” developed by black feminists who argued that the best way to raise women out of poverty is to give them control of their reproductive decisions. Finally, he had his ‘come to Jesus’ moment and the bell rang. This would be his civil-rights struggle. He would serve women in their darkest moment of need. “The protesters say they’re opposed to abortion because they’re Christian,” Parker says. “It’s hard for them to accept that I do abortions because I’m a Christian.”
Richardson holds back nothing in describing the medical procedure that ends a pregnancy. But neither does he hold back anything in describing the protesters who scream at women as they enter or leave the abortion clinic nor the conservative movement that seeks to impose layers of regulation aiming at making abortions ever more difficult to obtain.
It’s a helluva piece. And Dr. Willie Parker is one helluva human being.
Photographs: Maisie Crow