“The women of Mississippi were most vulnerable and they needed to have their rights prioritized,” said Dr. Willie J. Parker, speaking to a standing-room- only crowd of more than 160 last week at Brown’s Alpert Medical School, explaining how he came to provide abortions in one of the poorest states in the country. “Needless to say not everyone was excited about my arrival.”
Dr. Parker, a physician with a background in obstetrics and gynecology and preventive medicine, who is African American and grew up in poverty in Alabama, said “there is an American epidemic of repression” and it is important to “target all the resources we can muster” to places where people have the most need.
Dr. Parker, who is also the board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, exhorted the medical students and health providers in the audience to be prepared to act even with a new administration not favorable to reproductive health needs: “As healers and health care providers you can still choose to care for people affected by pernicious policies.”
He described women he has met and cared for in Mississippi. “I think of the 15 year- old whose grandmother brought her. They were so poor they had to sell their couch to pay for an abortion.”
“While people who oppose abortion frame it as a luxury or option, for these women it was anything but.”
Dr. Parker’s talk marked the 22nd annual Stanley D. Simon, MD, lecture and forum at the medical school. Dr. Simon was a local orthopedic surgeon. His wife, Marion Simon, endowed the lectureship to “memorialize the values of community and physician’s place in society, which carries privileges as well as responsibilities,” according to the event’s program.
Dr. Stanley Simon’s son, Dr. Peter Simon, Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics and Epidemiology at the medical school, said Parker’s invitation was a “student centered effort” and that Dr. Parker brought a message to the students that was emotionally, socially and academically resonant for our current time.
Waynesha Blaylock, a first-year medical student from Mississippi, said she’s “very familiar” with the landscape Parker described. He “shined a light on a really important issue that I think is sometimes overlooked”—that so many women have difficulty accessing abortion in that state.
Dr. Melissa Nothnagle, director of the Brown Family Medicine residency, asked what Dr. Parker would say to medical students interested in offering abortions but worried about their own safety.
He replied: “You’ve got to decide what do you live for rather than what may result in your death.” His decision to return to the South did not mean he’s “fearless…it’s about right-sizing the risk.” He receives expressions of support from many people: “You have to realize the majority of people in this country support abortion.”