When I saw that The Atlantic had interviewed someone about abortions in the South, naturally I was interested. Here was an African-American doctor talking about why he makes huge sacrifices to make sure southern states have access to abortions.
Being that 35 percent of all aborted babies are black even though black women are only 6 percent of the U.S. population, that says something about the large numbers of black babies who will never see the light of day. And since this doctor is in Birmingham, Ala., in the rural South, which is heavily black, I thought he might have something to say about why that clientele has such high abortion rates out of proportion to their share of the population.
One more thing: Since the kicker above the article says he would be discussing his Christian faith, I was even more interested. Would the reporter know enough, I wondered, to challenge this doctor with theological questions about this topic? Or would this be one of a zillion sympathetic profiles of abortion providers out there? Also, there is another obvious question: What is this man's church tradition?
The story begins:
Willie Parker is an imposing ob-gyn who has been traveling across the deep South providing abortions since 2012. At times, he has been one of the few providers in the only abortion clinic for hundreds of miles. Though he had been flying down from his home in Chicago twice a month to provide abortions in Mississippi and elsewhere, he recently moved to Birmingham, Alabama -- closer to the center of the abortion wars.
He is also a practicing Christian, and he frequently refers to his faith as being the reason why he does what he does. It’s the argument he lays out in his recently published book, Life’s Work, and in his new position as board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, a prominent pro-choice advocacy group.
The link after the words ‘his faith’ is to an enormously sympathetic 2014 profile of the same doctor done by Esquire. By now I already know where this article is heading.
Still, the writer, Olga Khazan, does ask the question:
Khazan: Earlier you mentioned religiosity, and that’s certainly such a huge part of the abortion debate. I know it’s impossible to condense down to a couple of minutes, but how would you explain how you came to be pro-choice while maintaining your faith? And what would you advise to other people who struggle with this issue and also have a faith practice?
Parker: I grew up in the South in the early ’70s. I refused to perform [abortions] because I wasn’t clear about what the appropriate role should be as a Christian.
[When I was] on faculty at the University of Hawaii, for the first time in my career [I was] forced to take a more critical look at my faith identity and what it actually said about abortion. And what I found is that Christianity says nothing about abortion in its sacred texts.
Lots of folks would challenge that assertion quite a bit. Khazan moves on to another question.
Khazan: A few people have brought up the idea that there actually are prohibitions against killing and on sexual immorality in the Bible. One post brings up the fact that the Didache, an early Christian treatise, explicitly prohibits abortion. How would you respond to those arguments?
Parker: You cannot take a text, pull it out of context, and go back and make it mean something that you want it to mean.
Most of the effort to delegitimize abortion based on religious understanding has been the citation of passages of sacred text or Christian text that don’t speak to abortion. It did not address reproduction or procreation because that understanding of how humans reproduced wasn’t held…
Say what? The text in the Didache could not have been more clear about abortion. As in:
... The second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten.
How can he say it’s been taken out of context? (For you non-church history buffs, the Didache is a set of first-century writings that, although not on the same level as scripture, are venerated as teachings by second-generation Christians who were trained by the original 12 Apostles.)
The reporter tried to challenge him once more, furnishing a criticism of him via a quote from the Rev. Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Commission. But the doctor turned it into a lecture on patriarchy.
I once interviewed LeRoy Carhart, the Nebraska physician who is infamous for late-term abortions, and it was a tough go once I used the word "baby" for that object in the womb. When I challenged him with a question he didn’t like, the interview was over. So I know there’s pressure on a writer to keep the questions coming with no hassles.
A reporter who's going to talk to an abortionist about faith has to know it's not going to be a comfortable interview, even when the doctor insists that his or her beliefs support abortion. Why do so many journalists chicken out on this topic? And why did the article advertise that this man was speaking about his faith when it didn’t even reference what kind of church he grew up in? (Esquire said he was a Baptist although it didn’t say what kind). Or whether he ever heard the voice of God and whether he doubted this calling.
I also wish the reporter had quoted statistics on black abortions to him, then asked whether he felt he was contributing toward what some term “black genocide.” Does he ever make the connection?
Again, it’s tough to skewer an interviewee when you know you need to get a 2,800-word article out of him. But if you’re going to run a come-hither headline, then the magazine needs to deliver the goods, which it did not in this case. Unless –- scary thought -– the writer and her editors thought that letting Parker wiggle out of the faith questions was delivering the goods.
If so, that’s a pretty low bar.