By Willie J. Parker | 18 November 2015
The New York Times
In public health, you go where the crisis is. If there is an outbreak and you have the ability to relieve suffering, you rush to the site of the need. This is why, a year and a half ago, I returned to my hometown, Birmingham, Ala., to provide abortions.
For the previous two years, I had been flying to the South from Chicago to provide care to women whose access to abortion services was limited to a few clinics, despite the fact that abortions are deemed legal by the Supreme Court. These women face harsh life circumstances and incessant hostility, merely for wanting to exercise their rights.
My decision to provide abortions represented a change of heart on my part. I had been working for 12 years as an obstetrician and gynecologist, and had never performed abortions because I felt they were morally wrong. But I grew increasingly uncomfortable turning away women who needed help.
Ultimately, reading a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged me to a deeper spiritual understanding. I was moved by his discussion of the quality of the good Samaritan and of what made the Samaritan “good.” The Samaritan reversed the question of concern, to care more about the well-being of the person needing help than about what might happen to him for stopping to give help. I realized that if I were to show compassion, I would have to act on behalf of those women. My concern about women who lacked access to abortion became more important to me than worrying about what might happen to me for providing the services.
I stopped doing obstetrics in 2009 to provide abortion full time for women who needed help. Invariably I field questions regarding my decision, with the most often asked being: Why? The short answer is: Because I can. And: Because if I don’t, who will?
The South has become one of the centers of the abortion crisis. While women across the country are losing the ability to make private health care decisions because states have passed hundreds of laws chipping away at that right, the South is the most restrictive.
Last year, it took a court ruling to prevent the closure of the last Mississippi abortion clinic; something similar occurred recently in Alabama. Last week, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear a case out of Texas, Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, that would address the many clinic closings in that state because of restrictive laws. The outcome will affect not only Texas but also any state where these restrictive laws have been passed, including Mississippi, where I also provide abortions at that last clinic. If the Supreme Court upholds the Texas law that most notably mandates that abortion providers obtain medically unnecessary hospital admitting privileges, Mississippi could become the first state with no abortion clinic.
A majority of pregnancies in the South are unintended. More than a quarter end in abortion. The rest are more likely than pregnancies that are chosen to lead to low birth weights and other poor outcomes. In some areas of Mississippi, the rate of death for black pregnant women mirrors that of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The deaths are a function of the bad health status of poor minorities.
A survey in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology in 2011 found that 97 percent of obstetrician/gynecologists nationwide had encountered a patient seeking abortion care, but only 14 percent of them provided this service. Proponents of laws that restrict women’s access to abortions often claim that these laws are put in place to protect women’s health, but the truth would suggest otherwise. Legal, properly administered abortion care holds an enviable record in medicine with a 99 percent safety rate and a less than 1 percent complication rate. Laws that restrict access to abortion do nothing to make it safer, only less accessible.
Every patient is unique. Each is grappling with a personal dilemma, deciding among non-desirable options. While their stories might differ, they all experience difficulty finding abortion services. In the Mississippi and Alabama clinics where I practice, I see women who must travel hundreds of miles for an appointment.
Years ago, I saw a patient in Mississippi whom I still think of often because of her intense grief in the midst of pregnancy. She had had five children, the youngest of whom had died the year before from cancer. She knew that she could not care for another child, financially or emotionally. She had traveled two hours to see me for her first appointment, which is for counseling only. Even though she was resolute, and knew what was best for her family, the procedure could not be done that day because state law requires that it be done in a follow-up visit, after initial counseling.
I want for women what I want for myself: a life of dignity, health, self-determination and the opportunity to excel and contribute. We know that when women have access to abortion, contraception and medically accurate sex education, they thrive.
We who provide abortions do so because our patients need us, and that’s what we are supposed to do: respond to our patients’ needs. It is the deepest level of love that you can have for another person, that you can have compassion for their suffering and you can act to relieve it. That, simply put, is why I provide abortion care.
Willie J. Parker is a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist who provides abortion care in the South. He is chairman-elect of the board of Physicians for Reproductive Health.
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