Feminist Conversations is a weekly series at Feminists For Choice. We spotlight activists from across the interwebs to find out what feminism means to them. Willie J. Parker, MD, MPH, MSc, is the Medical Director of Planned Parenthood Metro Washington, and a board member of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health (PRCH). We met earlier this year at a reception for Carole Joffe, and he has graciously agreed to be interviewed by me twice: first for my book Generation Roe, and now for Feminists for Choice.
1. When did you first call yourself a feminist, and what influenced that decision?
That’s an interesting question. Long before I knew what to call myself, I realized that I had a compulsion around working on fundamental issues of fairness across gender lines. As I pursued my consciousness-raising, I came across a simple book by bell hooks called Feminism is for Everybody. In it, she simplifies the fact that feminism is less about biology than it is about how one perceives and operates in the world regarding issues of gender fairness. As I look back, I conclude that while I have been working for gender-neutral equality for a while, I have self-described as a feminist since reading that book about six years ago.
2. What does feminism mean to you?
Feminism for me is the worldview and effort toward equality based on neutralizing differences in life chances based on gender. I look at feminism as a specific context in which to pursue human rights. I like the definition that I once saw on a bumper sticker: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.”
3. What led you to become an abortion provider?
My coming to this work as a family planning specialist and abortion provider, [and] having to retrain after 12 years in practice as an obstetrician/gynecologist, was prompted in part by a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “Discovering Lost Values.” Dr. King said that what made the Good Samaritan good was his ability to reverse the question of human concern: rather than thinking about what would happen to him if he stopped to help the fallen traveler, he asked, what will happen to the traveler if he didn’t stop to help? In being moved to action on behalf of women with unwanted pregnancies, my own story was similar to that of the Good Samaritan. I was concerned about what happens to women with limited access to abortion or contraception if I as a women’s health expert do not provide it. Hence, I began to provide abortions about six years ago.
4. We’ve spoken before about the various ways that choice opponents have singled out race as a reason to oppose abortion (i.e. the Georgia billboard campaign from earlier this year). I know you have very strong opinions on this issue; could you share them with our readers?
The feigned concern of reproductive rights opponents, like the effort you mentioned about black babies or the women that bear them, is insulting and odious on two fronts. First, it exploits the interests of vulnerable people for the ideological goal of extremist thought on the issue of abortion. Opposing contraception and abortion while failing to support sensible socio-economic policy that as a result victimizes the very people about whom the concern is expressed is the epitome of hypocrisy and insincerity. Secondly, the use of inflammatory rhetoric (i.e. describing abortion as “black genocide”) to exploit the perceived vulnerabilities by a group is subtle manipulation and insults the intelligence of both women and African Americans. This is more offensive in many ways to me than outright racial animus.
5. Likewise, I was struck by something you said in our previous interview, about “connecting the dots” between increased contraception use leading to a lower abortion rate, leading to a lower poverty rate, leading to greater empowerment. Obviously I’m paraphrasing, but you could discuss what you see as the connections between these issues?
Individual self-determination is essential to human dignity at both the personal and group level, and I believe it begins with responsible reproductive behavior. To oppose medically accurate sex education, contraception, and abortion while chiding people for being “irresponsible” is illogical. It is well recognized that high birth rates are linked adversely to poverty; some analysis show that decreases in unplanned, unwanted pregnancy significantly decreases poverty, and vice versa. In other words, people who can control their reproductive lives can better control their economic destinies for this reason. This relationship has to inform reproductive health and economic policies if they are to be well-crafted and just.
6. What advice would you give medical students who are interested in working in abortion care?
Medical students have to perceive abortion care as health care and, as such, they have to conclude that educational curricula deficient in abortion knowledge and practice is incomplete. This should lead to the active pursuit of medical education curriculum reform at all levels that would lead to this training becoming standard. Until that happens, a student should allow institutional positions on this issue to inform the places that they choose to train if they can, or they should plan to seek out places where they can be exposed to the content.
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.