Twelve years ago, Dr. Willie Parker was at home listening to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” sermon. Parker had heard the words many times before. But this time, he found himself focusing on King’s interpretation of the Bible story of the “good Samaritan,” who stopped to help a man who had been left for dead by robbers. Though others had passed the man by, the Samaritan stopped, King explained, because he didn’t think about the harm that might befall him if he did. Instead, he asked what might happen to the dying man if he did not.
Parker, an ob-gyn who had been practicing for 12 years at the time, suddenly felt that King’s words held meaning for his own work. Having grown up in a religious family that was active in the Baptist church (Parker was “born again” and preaching the gospel at 15), he had been brought up to believe that abortion was wrong. Up to that point, he had never provided one. He’d refer women to other providers, but was too conflicted about the moral significance for him to perform the procedure himself. But listening to King, he decided he would focus on the women who needed his help rather than on his own fears.
“There was such strong parallels with my sense of compassion for women who had unplanned unwanted pregnancies,” says Parker. “I could have certainly continued my practice without doing anything with regard to abortion. But I realized then that I was uncomfortable standing on the sidelines when I knew what women faced. ”
Guided by that revelation, Parker, now 50, has decidedly left the sidelines behind. After his epiphany, he went back to school for more training in abortion and eventually became the medical director of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington. In 2011, he participated in a project that paired abortion providers with clinics that needed physicians and was matched with the Jackson Women's Health Organization (JWHO).
At first, the idea of working in the Deep South troubled Parker, an African American who had grown up poor in Alabama. But visiting—and being reminded of the dire need in the poorest state in the country with the very highest teen birth rate—he was convinced to sign on with JWHO last year.
“I knew what a lifeline that clinic was for people who were already struggling and who were black and brown,” Parker said. “That allowed me to overcome any anxiety.”
One of two doctors who work at JWHO, Parker travels to Mississippi from his home in Chicago, where he works in another family planning clinic, for three-day work stints just once or twice a month. But with his decision last year to use his name in the suit that is now the clinic’s only hope of remaining open (the other physician plaintiff goes by “Dr. John Doe”), he has become the public face of the latest legal fight to defend Mississippi’s sole remaining abortion clinic—and opened himself to some of the ugliest local anti-abortion hostility in the nation.
Mississippi has, for years, done more to restrict abortion than arguably any other state. Women seeking to have an abortion must undergo counseling and wait for 24 hours for the procedure. Minors must obtain permission from both parents. Add to that 35 pages of regulations dealing with such building characteristics such as the width of a clinic's hallways and the size of its parking lot and you begin to understand how the number of clinics in Mississippi dwindled from six in 1996 to one in 2004.
JWHO, the site of daily anti-abortion protests and the subject of regular inspections to ensure it’s complying with the state’s voluminous regulations, has been consistently embattled since then. But last April, when Mississippi’s governor Phil Bryant signed a law that required abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, the clinic faced what may what may be its final threat.
Normally, it isn’t terribly difficult for doctors to strike arrangements with hospitals to admit their patients, if necessary. But in and around Jackson, where anti-abortion sentiment is widespread and fiery, all seven hospitals refused admitting privileges to Dr. Parker and “Dr. Doe.” Some even refused to process their applications. The Mississippi Department of Health gave the clinic six months to comply with the law. On January 11, that period ended, with neither doctor having secured admitting privileges, leaving the state with the opportunity to revoke the clinic’s license as soon as March 4.
Michelle Movahed, lead counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the clinic and Dr. Parker in a request to a federal judge to enjoin the law, is confident that the clinic will withstand this threat. The injunction challenges the law on the grounds that it was designed to ban abortion in the state, which Movahed says is clearly illegal.
But perhaps the only thing certain at this point is that the pitched battle over Mississippi’s last abortion clinic will continue. For Parker, who has already spent dozens of hours dealing with JWHO’s legal problems, more paperwork and bureaucratic hoops lie ahead. It’s hard to imagine finding the time for such tasks when you’re also commuting between Jackson and Chicago to care for patients in both cities not to mention also serving on the boards of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
But Parker insists his decision to provide abortions—and to do it in Jackson, Mississippi, of all places—has simplified, rather than complicated, his life. “It was the ultimate peace of integrating my life,” he says. “I’m oriented toward social justice and service, and providing abortions has allowed me to put all that together.”
Even concerns about his personal safety apparently don’t trump the satisfaction Parker feels about having found his true calling. Most days, protestors line the street across from JWHO, among them Roy McMillan, who has been arrested at least 62 times, threatened clinic staff (though not yet Parker), and signed a declaration calling the murder of abortion providers justifiable. McMillan was also longtime friend of Paul Hill, the anti-abortion activist who murdered abortion provider Dr. Bayard Britton and his clinic escort.
The passel of protestors regularly yell at Parker when he walks to the front of the clinic, saying he’s “killing off his own race” and a “gift of the KKK.”
“I can’t say I don’t have anxiety when I pull up in front of the place where I work or when I see that look in some of their eyes,” says Parker. “But if you think too much about that, it gets bigger than it really is.” Instead, he often lets his mind go back, once again, to Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I draw a lot of strength from thinking about how he faced more explicit danger and threats, yet continued to focus on the work he thought it was right to do.”