Willie Parker is an abortion doctor. He says he’s not ashamed of that. Willie Parker also says he is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ. That one’s more complicated. His new book on why Jesus would support his abortion practice shows us the end-result of a cultural Christianity in which the self can redefine anything: Jesus, the gospel, morality, justice, even life itself.
Parker is a kind of circuit-riding abortionist, spending time at various abortion clinics all over the South. The book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice is one part an autobiography, and one-part a political manifesto for the legality—and even the goodness—of abortion. Even as one who has to wade through all sorts of material assaulting human dignity, I found that I would gasp at the lackadaisical nature of Parker’s reflections.
Parker writes about his profession of faith in Christ. He even discusses listening to some beloved Christian writers—C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton, for instance—on his long drives between abortion clinics. Jesus, Parker tells us, has no issue with Parker’s vocation. And, apparently, neither does Parker. He writes, chillingly, about aspiring to learn how to do abortions. He said that he would go to the Planned Parenthood clinic “and perform abortions, over and over, like the athlete who goes to the gym after practice to shoot three-pointers.” He would sometimes do fifteen abortions, sometimes thirty “I wanted to get to the point where the procedure was automatic, a synthesis of muscle memory and mental vigilance,” he writes.
He learned not only how to do these abortions, but also how to quiet his conscience along the way. Parker doesn’t hide the grisly mechanics of abortion. He writes, step-by-step, of what he does in an abortion, and in the aftermath. “I inspect what has just come out of the woman’s body: what I’m looking for is the fetal sac, which at a later gestational age, becomes the placenta, and, after nine weeks, every one of the fetal parts—head, body, limbs—like a puzzle that has to be put back together.” This job of “recreating the fetus in the pan,” Parker writes, is what “assures me that I’ve done my job completely and well.”
The nonchalance of the metaphors is no accident. The aborted “product of conception” is a puzzle; the act of aborting him or her is like learning to shoot basketballs. Parker writes of how he calms women down as they approach the abortion, sometimes with guilty consciences. He talks to them about Dr. Seuss books or southern cooking, Parker tells us, “and if all else fails you can talk to them about football.” More specifically, he writes, he talks to them about whether they are fans of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide or Auburn.
He admires a similarly casual approach to abortion in his patients. He praises the woman who asks to see the remains of the abortion, nods her head, and goes back to her crackers and juice. He admires the woman who asks to see the ultrasound afterward but seems unmoved by it. He chastises a woman who sees the joking about the abortions by fellow patients on the table around her as lacking respect. “When she wrote a letter to complain of the atmosphere in our clinic,” Parker writes, “I was unmoved.”
And on his enemies list to be attacked in the book are not only pro-life Catholics and evangelicals but also pro-choice feminists who speak of abortion as a tragic, if necessary, choice. “Most of the women I see are utterly matter of fact about they’re doing,” he writes.
In fact, he writes, the problem is, in part, “liberal women with children who themselves became enraptured with the sonogram images they saw at the obstetrician’s office and who wept when they heard the fetal heartbeat.” This is, Parker argues, a “fetishization of motherhood and children that I don’t quite understand.”
Parker issues what amounts to a kind of altar call at the end of the book. He asks the reader whether he or she is truly committed to abortion as a moral good. “Or are you secretly squeamish about abortion rights now that you’ve seen the sonogram images of your precious and beloved children in utero?” he asks. “Do you find yourself agreeing, a little that life might begin at conception, that abortion is tragic?” If so, he implies, repent and believe in the wonders of “reproductive choice.”
How, you might ask, would one be able to boast in a practice condemned by the Christian church from the very beginning in the Roman Empire, while simultaneously claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ? Well, one does so, first of all, by moving the locus of authority away from the Scriptures. Parker will, at some places, attempt to argue that the Bible doesn’t actually prohibit abortion.
Still, these arguments don’t get him quite to where he needs to go—toward undoing the Bible’s prohibitions on not just killing but on sexual immorality as well. Parker then describes the Bible as misogynistic and patriarchal. Even God must be redefined. Parker writes of God in impersonal, cosmic terms and argues that the Christian vision of a personal God who judges the living and the dead is “a tendency to anthropomorphize” God. Not coincidentally, he argues through the book that to call a “fetus” a “baby” is to “anthropomorphize” the entity in the womb.
The biggest hurdle, though, for Parker, is to redefine life itself. Like many in the abortion movement, Parker scoffs at the possibility of fetal personhood because the child is small, “no bigger, from crown to rump, than the first two digits of my pinkie finger,” and because the child cannot live, in most cases, on his or her own outside the womb. He seems to recognize though that lack of size and lack of power won’t be persuasive on their own, so he continues to what he sees as the real problem: the idea that life is “a miracle.” Parker writes that to say that “conception, or birth, or even death is ‘miraculous’ does an injustice to God.” Life is, instead, he argues, merely “a process.”
As I read this abortion doctor’s repeated inveighing against the metaphor of “miracle” for human life, I could not help but be reminded of Wendell Berry’s manifesto against scientism and materialism, which he says demotes humanity from creature to machine. The rejection of the miracle of life, Berry wrote, leaves us with the coldness of abstraction.
“The giveaway is that even scientists do not speak of their loved ones in categorical terms as ‘a woman,’ ‘a man,’ ‘a child,’ or ‘a case,’” Berry wrote. “Affection requires us to break out of the abstractions, the categories, and confront the creature itself in its life in its place.”
Berry concluded. “We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love.” It all turns on affection.
To dehumanize the unborn child, to reduce the child’s mother to her ability to make “choices” about the life and death of others, is to dehumanize Jesus. In Christ, after all, God has “anthropomorphized” himself. And we are introduced to Jesus in the biblical story, just as John the Baptist was, as an unborn child (Luke 1:44). To keep doing his job, Parker must depersonalize the women and children he encounters. He must depersonalize God into an unblinking, non-judging cosmic abstraction.
The good news is that God has dealt with even guiltier consciences than Dr. Parker’s, and he has done so in mercy. The good news is that Willie Parker may one day see a different vision of himself, and of God. He might one day be found in Christ Jesus, a new creation. That’s happened many times before, to many of us. And this new birth is not just a process but a miracle.