Dr. Willie Parker is one of the few doctors in the United States who perform later-term abortions, up to 24 weeks. He is one of three who provide abortions at Mississippi’s sole abortion clinic. A Christian from the Deep South, Dr. Parker didn’t provide abortions for the first dozen years of his career. But again and again he encountered women whose pregnancies endangered their lives, girls who had suffered rape or incest, and mothers who were too poor to raise another child. He came to wrestle with the morality of abortion—torn between his religious tradition’s teaching against abortion and his moral commitment to his patients. He listened to Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon on the Good Samaritan. According to Dr. King, the Good Samaritan was “good” because he did not consider himself but instead asked “What will happen to this person if I don’t stop to help him?” Dr. Parker was moved to examine his own conscience and to ask, “What happens to women who seek abortion if I don’t serve them?” From that day, he began to perform abortions. (This interview is well worth a read.)
Choosing to provide abortions is an act of bravery. Abortion providers face threats to their safety and families, targeted and expensive regulations, and professional and community stigma. They share much in common with human rights lawyers, union organizers, and women’s rights advocates around the globe who are harassed by their governments and the majority. This makes sense if we recognize abortion providers for what they are: human rights defenders, who work to ensure reproductive rights (the Center for Reproductive Rights has argued effectively for this framework under international law).
As we mark the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade tomorrow, we should acknowledge the courage and commitment of these human rights defenders. In the past two years, state legislatures passed more, and more novel, restrictions on women’s access to abortion and abortion providers’ practices than ever before. The “graying” of current providers represents a further challenge. In the words of Justice Blackmun, “I fear for the future. I fear for the liberty and equality of the millions of women who have lived and come of age in the . . . years since Roe was decided.” But tomorrow I simply offer thanks to those who defend our rights on the front lines.