Life's Work

A Moral Argument for Choice

LIST PRICE £11.99

About The Book

In this “vivid and companionable memoir of a remarkable life” (The New Yorker), an outspoken, Christian reproductive justice advocate and abortion provider reveals his personal and professional journeys in an effort to seize the moral high ground on the question of choice and reproductive justice.

Dr. Willie Parker grew up in the Deep South, lived in a Christian household, and converted to an even more fundamentalist form of Christianity as a young man. But upon reading an interpretation of the Good Samaritan in a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he realized that in order to be a true Christian, he must show compassion for all people at all times.

In 2009, he stopped practicing obstetrics to focus entirely on providing safe abortions for women who need help the most—often women in poverty and women of color—in the hotbed of the pro-choice debate: the South. He thereafter traded in his private practice and his penthouse apartment in Hawaii for the life of an itinerant abortion provider, becoming one of the few doctors to provide such services in Mississippi and Alabama.

In Life’s Work, Dr. Willie Parker tells a deeply personal and thought-provoking narrative that illuminates the complex societal, political, religious, and personal realities of abortion in the United States from the unique perspective of someone who performs them and defends the right to do so every day. In revealing his daily battle against mandatory waiting periods and bogus rules, Dr. Parker makes a powerful Christian case for championing reproductive rights. “At a moment when reproductive health and rights are under attack…Dr. Parker’s book is a beacon of hope and a call to action” (Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood).

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Life’s Work includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these questions will enrich your conversation, deepen your understanding of the book and give your group some ideas about how to get involved.

Introduction

In Life’s Work, an outspoken, Christian reproductive justice advocate and abortion provider (one of the few doctors to provide such services to women in Mississippi and Alabama) pulls from his personal and professional journeys as well as the scientific training he received as a doctor to reveal how he came to believe, unequivocally, that helping women in need, without judgment, is precisely the Christian thing to do.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. In the book’s opening sentence, Dr. Parker says the waiting room in his abortion clinic is “as hushed as a church.” Did this comparison surprise you? Why or why not? How else is an abortion clinic similar to or different from church?

2. Life’s Work lays out what Dr. Parker calls “a moral argument for choice,” but it is also a memoir. Why do you think Dr. Parker includes the story of his childhood and education in a book about abortion rights? How does his biography support his argument?

3. When Dr. Sweet changed the rules at Queen Emma Clinic to forbid abortions, Dr. Parker writes, “I could no longer defer my ethical engagement.” (p. 31) How did Dr. Sweet’s decision force Dr. Parker to reexamine his own feelings about abortion? What other factors influenced his “conversion”?

4. Dr. Parker grew up in deep poverty, but, he writes, “I wasn’t unhappy” (p. 43). Why does he recall with fondness what many people would describe as a difficult childhood? How did material deprivation affect him as he grew up? How did his family and community support him in ways other than financial?

5. Describe Dr. Parker’s relationship with his mother, Jackie. How did he develop an identity as “my mother’s good child” (p.47) and how did it influence the course of his life?

6. Dr. Parker writes that he “judged” his sister Earnestine upon learning she was pregnant (p. 58). Why does this continue to haunt him 40 years later?

7. Earnestine wanted to have an abortion, but her family could not raise the money in time. Her story had a happy enough ending, however, as she wound up raising a successful and beloved son. Why does Dr. Parker believe that anti-abortion activists would be wrong to use Earnestine’s example to support their cause? (p. 59).

8. Who is Mike Moore? How does he influence Dr. Parker’s moral and spiritual development? Why does Dr. Parker later describe himself as “in recovery… from organized religion” (p. 203)?

9. In Chapter 6, Dr. Parker describes various abortion procedures, including vacuum aspiration, dilation and evacuation, and medication abortion. How do his descriptions differ from the way abortion is depicted in political arguments for and against reproductive rights? How did they change your own perception of these abortion methods?

10. How do state laws in Alabama and Mississippi affect Dr. Parker’s practice? What impact do they have on his patients? What role does the law have in some of his patient’s decisions to consider “DIY” abortions before visiting a clinic (p. 104)?

11. Why does Dr. Parker compare the fight for reproductive rights to the fight against slavery (p. 107)? How do his race and his upbringing in the South inform his understanding of his patients’ situation and the politics of abortion?

12. Who was Dr. George Tiller? How did his murder influence Dr. Parker’s decision to become more outspoken about reproductive rights?

13. Dr. Parker and his colleagues are aware of the history of violence against abortion providers, and they know they may be risking their lives to do their work. Is the risk worth it? Why or why not?

14. In Chapter 9, Dr. Parker writes, “Nothing enrages me more than the antis’ most recent strategic gambit: the black genocide movement.” Why does this campaign inspire special fury? In what ways does he believe anti-abortion forces support the aims of white supremacists?

15. Dr. Parker chides “progressive and humanist people” for “failing to offer a moral, spiritual, ethical, or religious case for abortion rights.” Why do you think people who support abortion rights have “ceded those arguments to their opponents” (p.117)? Were you surprised to learn that many faith traditions have a history of supporting reproductive justice? Why or why not?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Beyond Roe v. Wade, which established the right to abortion up to the point of viability, there is little federal law surrounding reproductive rights. But states—and, to a lesser extent, local governments—have passed a whirlwind of anti-abortion legislation over the past decade. What are the abortion laws in your area, and how do they affect the availability of abortion care? (Visit www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/laws-policies.) What are your elected officials’ positions on abortion? Do they reflect the values of your community?

2. For a variety of reasons, poor women and women of color have more difficulty securing reproductive healthcare. What obstacles might you or a loved one face if you needed an abortion? How do your race, class and support network affect your access to reproductive healthcare?

3. Dr. Parker is a Christian, and he frames his argument for reproductive justice as a moral one. Explore your own religious tradition or that of your family. What is the role of women in your faith, and how has it changed over time? What do your sacred texts or religious leaders say about women’s rights, abortion and contraception? When does your faith hold that life begins? Do you agree?

4. Dr. Parker calls Martin Luther King, Jr. his “personal saint… my conscience’s mentor and its guide” and he described his “conversion” on the abortion issue as taking place as he listened to King’s final sermon, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” (pp. 33-34) Listen to the sermon, which you can find online at youtu.be/ixfwGLxRJU8, or read the text at stanford.io/2npI0QD. Dr. King was speaking in 1968. Do you believe his words are also applicable today? Have you ever found yourself in the position of the people who came upon the injured man on the road to Jericho? What did you do?

Ways to Help

1. Planned Parenthood is the single largest provider of abortions nationwide and a cause worthy of financial support, but the majority of abortions take place in small, locally-owned clinics where it may not be possible to offer patients a sliding scale fee. You can help women pay for abortion care by donating to a local abortion fund. Visit the National Network of Abortion Funds at abortionfunds.org/need-abortion to find one in your area, or help patients in Alabama and Mississippi via the Dr. Willie Parker Abortion Fund for Abortion Access in the South, at abortionfunds.org/introducing-dr-willie-parker-fund-abortion-access-south.

2. Support the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, better known as the Pink House, where Dr. Parker provides abortions in Mississippi. Visit wakeupmississippi.org to learn how.

3. Anti-abortion protesters can present a daunting obstacle for patients seeking reproductive care, so clinics often make use of clinic escorts, who shield patients from protesters and help them get safely inside. Contact your local abortion clinic to ask about volunteer opportunities.

4. Abortion is not just a women’s issue. If you are a man, think about the ways in which you can support women’s reproductive rights, in your own relationships and within the wider community. Join Men for Choice, at menforchoice.com, to get involved and speak out.

5. Poor women and women of color are more likely to need abortion care and more likely to have trouble securing it. If you are white or wealthy, examine how your privilege might lead you to take reproductive care for granted, and think about the ways in which you can support reproductive rights for all women. Do you agree with Dr. Parker that “upscale, liberal circles” often “fetishiz[e] motherhood and children” (p. 178)? How does this attitude contribute to the isolation of poor women of color in places like Mississippi?

6. As many as a third of American women will have an abortion during their lives, yet stigma still surrounds this common medical procedure. If you have had an abortion, consider sharing your experience with others.

Further Reading and Exploration

“The Abortion Ministry of Dr. Willie Parker,” by John H. Richardson. Esquire, July 30, 2014. esquire.com/news-politics/a23771/abortion-ministry-of-dr-willie-parker-0914/

Jackson (2016), a documentary by Maisie Crow, about the Pink House, the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, jacksonthefilm.com

Trapped (2016), a documentary by Dawn Porter about the impact of anti-abortion laws, trappeddocumentary.com

After Tiller (2014), a documentary about doctors who provide late-term abortions, pbs.org/pov/aftertiller

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas A. Blackmon (Doubleday, 2008)

Sacred Work: Planned Parenthood and Its Clergy Alliances, by Tom Davis (Rutgers University Press, 2005)

Ministers of a Higher Law: The Story of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, by Joshua D. Wolff (1988). Available online in full at classic.judson.org/MinistersofaHigherLaw

About The Author

© Chad Griffith

Dr. Willie Parker sits on the board of institutions at the forefront of the fight for reproductive justice, including as the chair-elect of the board of Physicians for Reproductive Health. He is the recipient of Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award, an honor also bestowed upon Hillary Clinton and Jane Fonda, and appeared on Ebony’s Power 100 list. He has been featured widely for his work, including in Slate, Jezebel, Cosmopolitan, NPR’s Morning Edition, Salon, and more. While a fascinating profile on Dr. Parker in Esquire sparked national interest in 2014, he is now the subject of Trapped (Trilogy Films), a documentary about the legal battle to keep abortion clinics in the South open.

Product Details

  • Publisher: 37 Ink (April 4, 2017)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501151149

Raves and Reviews

"Life’s Work is a vivid and companionable memoir of a remarkable life."

– The New Yorker

“[A] compelling memoir…a must-read for policymakers, reproductive-rights activists and anyone who’s had trouble articulating their support for a woman’s right to choose.”

– Ms. Magazine

"[An] imperative memoir... Parker refuses to cede the moral ground, making an impassioned case – rooted in science, history, and theology – for the sanctity of a woman's autonomy over her own body." 

– O Magazine

"Life’s Work is a vivid and companionable memoir of a remarkable life."

– The New Yorker

“…the most crucial text we have on the subject of choice…read Dr. Parker's book cover to cover and then pass it on, so that we're all prepared for the next moral argument with grace and power.”

– Lena Dunham for Lenny Letter

“Uniquely informed, extraordinarily empathic, and faith-deepened.  At [the] crossroads, Parker determined that the truly Christian thing to do regarding unwanted pregnancy is to give women the help they need.” 

– Booklist, STARRED review

Parker writes from a place without judgment, and his voice resonates with compassion that is far too often lacking in discussions of abortion. A thought-provoking read of many sides of the issue.

– Library Journal, Starred Review

"At Planned Parenthood, our motto is 'care, no matter what' — words that might as well have been written with Dr. Willie Parker in mind. At a moment when reproductive health and rights are under attack like never before, Dr. Parker's book is a beacon of hope and a call to action. In it, he transcends politics and cliche to show readers the world through the eyes of a doctor who approaches his work with humility, compassion, and defiance. Life's Work is inspiring, surprising, and very much needed. This book will change lives."
 

– Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America

 "It says something deep about Life's Work and its author, Dr. Willie Parker, that you learn first not about him, but the women he serves as patients. As a poor southern boy who became a great doctor, he shows us how race and sex bias limit and kill, how possible it is to undo that bias with kindness, and how Christianity might actually include women. I wish everyone in America would read this book."

– Gloria Steinem

“[A] compelling memoir…a must-read for policymakers, reproductive-rights activists and anyone who’s had trouble articulating their support for a woman’s right to choose.”

– Ms. Magazine

“Dr. Willie Parker shares with readers in his powerful and insightful memoir, Life’s Work, that “the abortion clinic is a woman’s world.” With keen insight and passion, he allows us to see that world through the eyes of a compassionate, caring male doctor—one who loves justice, who cares about female agency, who embraces gender equality, who believes women should have access to reproductive justice, and that includes abortion.  Whether you are pro-choice or pro-life, this is a book that everyone should read. It offers us a clear and compassionate understanding of what all woman and girls face as we claim our right to make decisions about our bodies.”

– bell hooks, author of All About Love: New Visions and Feminism is for Everybody

“Dr. Willie Parker’s compassion and respect for his patients, as well as his profound commitment to social justice, shine through this beautifully written memoir. This book puts to rest the notion that a deeply held religious faith is incompatible with a staunch support for legal and accessible abortion. Life’s Work will be an eye-opener for those not familiar with the fortitude required to be an abortion provider in the contemporary United States, especially in the South.  For those already committed to reproductive justice, Dr. Parker’s account of his journey will serve as a much-needed source of renewed inspiration, as this beleaguered field faces new challenges in the Trump era.”

– Carole Joffe, author, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients and the Rest of Us; professor, Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, University of California, San Francisco.

“Dr. Parker’s story is a wonderful account of how his belief and faith in both God and in humanity has led him to provide abortion: a medical service that is chastised by some as the evil. He explains in the most compelling way how, inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s telling of the story of the Good Samaritan, he has felt unable to turn away from women in need of help. Dr. Parker is a hero of our movement and, as a truly compassionate Christian advocate of women’s choice. I challenge everyone who believes that abortion doctors must be ‘bad’ and immoral, or self-interested and profiteering, or privileged and exploitative, to read this book. Dr. Parker speaks from his heart and his words can’t fail to touch the heart of every reader.” 

– Ann Furedi, author of The Moral Case for Abortion and CEO of British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

"Valuable as both moral testimonial and as a medical memoir and sure to inspire heat as well as light."

– Kirkus Reviews

“A bold stance on the moral imperative for safe and legal abortion.” 

– Color Lines

"[An] imperative memoir... Parker refuses to cede the moral ground, making an impassioned case – rooted in science, history, and theology – for the sanctity of a woman's autonomy over her own body."

– O Magazine

“His book provides the language [doctors have] been searching for.” 

– Slate

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