Opinion: Memoir of Christian, Southern abortion provider shows need for choice

No issue in America is more toxic than abortion, and that’s partly because it is today so closely associated with religion. While many feminists see abortion as a matter of choice, some Christians see it as murder.

Then there are people like Dr. Willie Parker. Parker is black, feminist and driven by his Christian faith to provide abortions in the South, where women seeking to terminate a pregnancy have few options.

“I believe that as an abortion provider, I am doing God’s work,” Parker writes in his new memoir, “Life’s Work.” “I am protecting women’s rights, their human right to decide their futures for themselves, and to live their lives as they see fit.”

For the first half of his career as an OB-GYN, he refused to perform abortions. But then he had what he calls his “come to Jesus moment,” an epiphany that his calling was to help women who wanted to end their pregnancies.

Since 2002, he has been providing abortions, walking past picketers who scream that he is a baby killer. He puts up with the danger, he says, because it’s morally right to help desperate women.

If that seems incongruous, let’s remember that conservative Christianity’s ferocious opposition to abortion is relatively new in historical terms.

The Bible does not explicitly discuss abortion, and there’s no evidence that Christians traditionally believed that life begins at conception. St. Thomas Aquinas, the father of much of Catholic theology, believed that abortion was murder only after God imbued fetuses with a soul, at 40 days or more after conception.

One common view was that life begins at quickening, when the mother can feel the baby’s kicks, about 20 weeks. When America was founded, abortion was legal everywhere until quickening, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that states began enacting laws prohibiting abortions.

Even in the modern era, religion has taken a more complex view of abortion than is generally realized. In the 1960s, ministers and rabbis formed the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, advising pregnant women how to obtain abortions. More than 100,000 women sought their services.

The Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions in 1971, 1974 and 1976 calling on church members to work for the legalization of abortion in some situations.

Yet today it’s taken as self-evident among conservative Christians that life begins at fertilization — without realizing that this would have astonished many Christians throughout the ages.

Parker accepts that a fetus is alive — but says that life doesn’t begin at conception, because an egg is alive as well, and so is a sperm. “Life is a process,” he writes. “It is not a switch that turns on in an instant, like an electric light.”

Parker tells of seeing a woman whose fetus had Potter syndrome, in which the lungs do not develop. The woman declined an abortion for religious reasons, and a baby girl was born at full term — and then, as was inevitable, died a painful death because she couldn’t breathe.

“In this case, an absolute reverence for life led to a situation that, to my eyes, consisted of nothing less than pure cruelty,” he writes.

In another case, a 12-year-old girl was with her mother in the waiting room of an abortion clinic in Alabama. When the mother stepped outside to smoke, another patient tried to offer maternal guidance and steer the girl away from boys. “Who were you messing with?” the woman asked. “Don’t you know not to go around with those boys?”

“He isn’t a boy,” the girl replied. “He’s 53 and he’s my daddy.”

Parker reminds us that abortion is complicated. And that is why, in my view, we need choice