Converts to Abortion Rights

The word “conversion” fits the abortion-rights cause awkwardly. There is no progressive equivalent to Priests for Life, a website cataloging the stories of sidewalk protesters-turned-Planned Parenthood donors. Abortion rights were, in the beginning, a public health issue. Opponents started framing the cause in moral terms—something that defenders were at pains to avoid. The president of the Association for the Study of Abortion, Jimmye Kimmey, is credited for coming up with the phrase “pro-choice” in 1972. She preferred, she wrote in a memo, because “what we are concerned with is, to repeat, the woman's right to choose—not with her right (or anyone else’s right) to make a judgment about whether that choice is morally licit.”

Dr. Willie Parker’s new book attempts the unusual and difficult task of reconciling support for abortion rights and abiding religious belief.

Dr. Willie Parker

Dr. Willie Parker. Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. Simon & Schuster, 2017.

In the late 1970s, and again in the early ’80s, two movies were released that were both named The Silent Scream. Their covers could be easily confused. “Terror so sudden there is no time to scream” and “Now the whole world can see the truth” were the taglines. On the 1979 VHS tape, a blurry black-and-white mouth is seen mid cry. (It is, as you might guess, a college-student protagonist about to be chopped up by her landlord.) On the 1984 version, an even blurrier black splotch appears to emerge from a pixelated face. It is, the cover tells us, “A first trimester suction abortion on an ultrasound screen from the victim’s point-of-view.”

The 1984 Silent Scream would reach many more people. Widely distributed by churches and activists, the 29-minute educational film was also screened by Reagan’s White House. Like its earlier namesake, the ’84 Silent Scream was (in part) a horror film, employing slasher tropes—dissonant, stabbing music and quick cuts to gore—to punctuate an otherwise dry pseudo-scientific lecture. “The science of fetology,” narrates a doctor in a white coat, has “exploded by means of the introduction of great new medical technologies, such as ultrasound imaging . . . available as a clinical tool since 1967.” He gestures with a pencil towards a television screen. “We can see the child’s wide mouth open in this particular freeze frame. . . .For the first time, we are going to watch . . .  The child [is] destroyed by the unfeeling steel instruments of the abortionist.”

Bernard Nathanson narrated the 1984 Silent Scream and was also credited as its producer. Only a decade earlier, however, the OBGYN was a prominent advocate for abortion rights. A co-founder of NARAL, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, he fought for the procedure to be legalized in New York state, then served as medical director for New York City’s first free-standing clinic, where he claims to have overseen some 60,000 abortions before his “conversion.” In his 1997 memoir, The Hand of God, Nathanson describes his about-face as “clean and surgical.” It was not religiously motivated, at least initially. Instead, it was provoked by ultrasound images: “For the first time, we could see the fetus, measure it, observe it, watch it, and indeed bond with it and love it.” The bond lead him to new conclusions. If, on an ultrasound, a fetus appears to recoil during an abortion, doesn’t that prove it experiences pain? Even though leading medical experts refuted the claim — “There is a difference between a reflex and a subjective experience,” noted one pediatric neurologist—for Nathanson, seeing was believing. Later confronted by a journalist about the physiological impossibility of a screaming 12-week fetus, Nathanson conceded, “Of course it’s metaphorical license. There is no such thing as a silent scream, is there?” But his embellishment, he felt, spoke to the larger truth.

Nathanson, who died in 2011, was one of the earliest high-profile converts to anti-abortion activism. Today, narratives like his are a fertile sub-genre. Won by Love, by Norma McCorvey, aka “Jane Roe,” tells the story of how the once-anonymous plaintiff in the landmark case became a spokesperson for legalized abortion—and finally a born-again Christian, and ardent anti-abortion advocate. Unplanned details how a former director of a Texas Planned Parenthood clinic became an anti-abortion crusader. Life After Abortion, and several others like it, detail the regret the author experienced after having an abortion herself. The website Priests for Life collects less formal testimonies, organized by category: Women Who Regret Their Abortions, Abortion Survivors, Attended Healing Program, Former Abortion Providers, Abortion and Substance Abuse.

Narratives of self-described converts to the abortion-rights cause are harder to find. This is one of the distinguishing features of Dr. Willie Parker’s new book, Life’s Work, which also attempts the unusual and difficult task of reconciling support for abortion rights and abiding religious belief. Parker—whose Jackson clinic is the only abortion provider in the entire state of Mississippi—grew up a fundamentalist Christian in neighboring Alabama. For most of his medical career, he declined to offer the procedure. When he did change his mind, it was a “spiritual punch to the gut,” he writes.

Conversions make good stories. They have clear beginnings and ends, climaxes and nadirs, commitments, resolutions, transformations, and often regrets. In the cases of Nathanson and Parker, the narratives reflect the social movements each participated in, and how each movement sought to develop tactics of persuasion on a broad scale.

Bernard Nathanson’s story starts in New York City. His parents were secular Jews from Montreal, relatively affluent, unhappily married. His first encounter with abortion was as a practical matter: while studying at McGill, his girlfriend became pregnant. Later, as a doctor in the ’60s, he performed an abortion himself, on another girlfriend. “It was aseptic and clinical,” he writes. “I felt gratification I had done my usual briskly efficient job.” Nathanson was motivated to join the abortion rights movement in the late ’60s because he saw so many maimed women in hospital wards—victims of poorly performed illegal abortions. It was an overwhelming experience: torn intestines, shredded uteri. There is some foreshadowing that, later, the visceral sight of ultrasounds would change Nathanson’s mind again.

In The Hand of God, Nathanson self-describes someone who considers data carefully. His manner is erudite, self-deprecating and grandiose. He recounts his difficulties with his parents, only to ironize his own efforts. (“Why do I recount this familial bilge to you? I will spare you the ineluctable Tolstoyan observation, but I implore you to consider the psychological abyss that yawned beneath me.”) There is a touch of the technological idealist about him. In 1985 profile by New York Magazine in 1985, he describes the possibility of eliminating developmental disabilities and being able to “perfect the human race, create a super-race.” His former colleagues, doctors and activists, were shocked by his embrace of the anti-abortion movement. “No matter what people say about Bernie [Nathanson], he’s a serious fellow—a Joyce scholar, a chess player, a thinker,” said a former medical partner. “I’m sure he has reasons for changing his mind, but why would he want to spend all his time with those people?” Betty Friedan, a former colleague, expressed surprise when she heard about his conversion. “He’s gone that far now?” she told New York. “How sad. Well, I guess there are precedents . . . Whittaker Chambers comes to mind.”

Parker grew up in nearly opposite circumstances: poor, black and deeply religious in the post-segregation Birmingham of the 1960s and 1970s. As a teenager, he met a charismatic minister, and became a born-again Christian, joining a church even more severe than the one he was raised in. His first encounter with abortion was one spring when, as he was gearing up to leave home as the first in his family to go to college, he found out that his fourteen-year-old sister, Earnestine, was pregnant. Parker’s four other siblings raised money for her abortion, but Parker declined to help. “I did the most un-Christian thing imaginable. I judged her. I shut my little sister out,” he writes. Earnestine never got the abortion—when another brother, Fred, was arrested over unpaid parking tickets, the family used the money they had been saving to post bail.

Writing forty years later, Parker admits that he regrets his cruelty. Still, his writing seems less tormented than Nathanson’s. He writes optimistically, as someone who has found a purpose. In college, as he learned more about science, he started questioning whether the Bible should be taken literally. Later, as a doctor in California in the ‘90s, he encountered a young woman who had become pregnant through incest. “I remember thinking that if I had the skills to do her abortion, I would do it, right then and there.”

The “conversion,” as he describes it in a chapter with that name, occurred as he was marveling at his affluent surroundings—a penthouse-floor condo, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlooking the Pacific—and listening to a book on tape of Martin Luther King, Jr., discussing the Good Samaritan. King uses the parable to make a case for Christian social responsibility, comparing the actions of the Samaritan, who helps a man lying robbed and beaten on the road, to another group of passersby, who keep walking. The others might not have been callous, King argues: “Maybe they felt it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.” Perhaps, he speculates, they were also afraid of stopping on a dangerous road. What made the Samaritan good was that he considered not what would happen to him, but to a stranger.

The dichotomy provoked an epiphany for Parker: “For the Samaritan, the person in need was a fallen traveler. For me, it was a pregnant woman,” he writes. From that moment, “not providing abortions and not living out my convictions would have been a fate worth than death.”

The word “conversion” fits the abortion-rights cause awkwardly. There is no progressive equivalent to Priests for Life, a website cataloging the stories of sidewalk protesters-turned-Planned Parenthood donors. Abortion rights were, in the beginning, a public health issue. Opponents started framing the cause in moral terms—something that defenders were at pains to avoid. The president of the Association for the Study of Abortion, Jimmye Kimmey, is credited for coming up with the phrase “pro-choice” in 1972. She preferred, she wrote in a memo, because “what we are concerned with is, to repeat, the woman’s right to choose—not with her right (or anyone else’s right) to make a judgment about whether that choice is morally licit.”

Parker’s book represents a departure from this logic. “The antis seized the moral high ground nearly forty years ago, and they retain it to this day, because abortion rights activists, the people who have been fighting for the rights of women, have never mounted a significant religious or moral counterargument,” he writes. His book is an attempt to do so. The root of the problem, per Parker, is the assumption that procreation—“a morally neutral, purely biological event”—is more sacred than abortion. It’s not just opponents who fall into the trap, but also “liberal women with children,” who, much like Nathanson, “became enraptured with the sonogram images they saw at the obstetrician’s office and who wept when they heard the fetal heartbeat.” During the second term of George W. Bush, Democrats in search of common ground began acknowledging that abortion was a “sad, even tragic choice,” as Hillary Clinton put it in 2005. The political maneuver backfired, Parker argues, in the form of new anti-abortion legislation. Progressives should instead frame abortion as neither moral nor immoral, no different from miscarriage and childbirth, Parker argues. Morality is present not in individual decisions but in our capacity to make them: to terminate a pregnancy or not, to help a woman in need or not. “The God part is in your agency,” he writes.

Why frame this tactical argument, which might otherwise be a kind of organizing manual, as a memoir—a memoir of conversion? “I hope that other people of faith might find in my evolution some comfort and perhaps some inspiration to see abortion as part God,” Parker writes. Here, Parker plays to the genre’s traditions. More than just good stories, Christian conversion narratives have long centered on imitation and models—modes of behavior to those seeking the true path. “I was on fire to imitate him,” St. Augustine wrote of his friend Victorinus, a Roman rhetorician who converted to Christianity, shortly before recounting his own conversion under a fig tree in a Milanese garden.

Parker’s book isn’t likely to provoke quite so passionate a response. Abortion is perhaps our most divisive political issue, framed as genocide by one side, as a fundamental right by another. It’s hard to imagine anyone reading a book about it that doesn’t conform to her existing perspective. Life’s Work’s cover features a blurb by Gloria Steinem; by comparison, The Hand of God depicts a close-up of the Sistine Chapel. Yet by providing succor, hope, and language to activists who are themselves working to influence public debate, Parker also seeks to persuade indirectly. Nathanson’s conversion via the sight of ultrasounds did as much, influencing not only the aesthetic of the Silent Scream, but also his contemporaries in the wider anti-abortion movement, who, thanks to the film’s success, devoted time and energy in the 1980s to producing similar arresting imagery. “One picture can speak louder than a truckload of words,” remarked one Texas advocacy group who regularly rummaged through medical waste for photographic subjects during that era.

Could Life’s Work have commensurate influence? In 2013, Planned Parenthood announced it was moving on from “pro-choice” language, which most people, according to its surveys, no longer identified with. In its place has emerged an alignment with the broader cause of female empowerment. Consider the slogans on the organization’s social media today: “Everyone loves someone who had an abortion”; “Believing in the power of women and girls.” They attribute, as Parker does, a loftier purpose to the fight for abortion rights than than non-interference in others’ choices. Whether or not you believe, like Parker, that correcting injustice against women by supporting abortion is Christian, you might be swayed by such messages into thinking it’s right.

Perhaps, though, the best chance Parker has at influencing the future is his past. Though Life’s Work might not reach skeptics, Parker’s prolific media appearances over the past few years could: over the past few years, he’s recounted his life story to dozens of publications, including Esquire, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Time. It’s a strategy that mirrors the one which, in 1985, NARAL picked to respond to The Silent Scream. In a campaign called “Silent No More,” 40,000 men and women wrote letters recounting their individual experiences with abortion, many of which were read aloud in a series of nationwide protests. “I have been married 38 years; I am the mother of 5 wanted and thoroughly loved children; grandmother of 3,” started one. “I am a 32 year old Black female. I am a Baptist by faith,” began another. This was a kind of autobiography: persuasion by way of memoir. An ad for the campaign showed the faces of women of different ages and races, one of whom was holding a baby. The tagline: “We are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your friends.” Their faces weren’t pixelated.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

December 16, 2011

We knew we hadn’t managed to recreate Seattle, but we didn’t have a method or language for evaluating what we had done.

July 1, 2022

Why didn’t I learn more about discussing and providing abortion during my years of medical school?

Issue 7 Correction

People at the financial institutions, I think, really did start to think that because you’d spread risk, you’d eliminated risk.

March 24, 2021
The People, It Depends

More by this Author

September 4, 2013

This corporate carnival is what Walmart calls “Shareholders’ Week,” though it’s open to associates only.