Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice by Dr. Willie Parker is a new book defending abortion rights by an African-American doctor who is a self-proclaimed "Christian" (the reason for the quotes around Christian will become evident below). For all the lip service Parker says about rationality and wanting to approach the issue rationally, I've rarely read a more irrational defense of abortion rights.
Doctor Parker is, having grown up a poor black kid with all the struggles that brings with it, adamant about protecting the rights of women by ensuring that they have the "right to abortion." Unfortunately, what Parker doesn't understand is that by dehumanizing the unborn, he is doing exactly what white people used to do to black slaves, dehumanizing them so that they can justify killing them because they're in the way of what bigger and stronger people want. He actually says, unironically, that "A fetus is not 'a person.' Is it not, therefore, entitled to the rights of 'a person'" (p. 154). I bet Parker is glad white people aren't saying that about black people any longer.
This is going to be a fairly lengthy review. Parker has said a number of things that I should respond to. I'm going to split it up into four sections and show the various reasons his book is so irrationally argued: First, I'll show how he has contradicted himself in several places, even sometimes in the same paragraph. Then I'll respond to some of his pseudo-scientific arguments against the humanity of the fetus. After that, I'll respond to some of his pseudo-biblical arguments for abortion. Then finally I'll show why Parker is not a Christian in any meaningful sense, based on some of the statements he makes in his book.
A few preliminary notes. Parker's book commits a couple of critical errors. He has no table of contents in his book, and he doesn't source any of the information he uses. Absolutely none. He does occasionally allude to another source that might support something he is saying, but he doesn't actually source anything. As such, I can't look up his information to know whether or not he's telling the truth on any of it. Additionally, Parker has failed the ideological turing test. Badly. He tries to tell his abortion-choice readers what pro-lifers believe and think. He tries to put on an air of charitability, but in reality he doesn't know what he's talking about. Parker never responds to any of the scientific arguments pro-life people make. Instead, he continually insists the only reason pro-life people are opposing abortion is because they want to control womens' bodies (which is an all-too-common claim) and because they want white women to have as many babies as they can to continue being the dominant race in the United States (this is seriously an assertion he makes in his ninth chapter, titled "Black Genocide and the White Majority"). I guess black people and other minorities are invisible to Parker unless they worship at the altar of abortion rights.
Despite the subtitle to Parker's book, it's mainly an autobiography. He really presents no "moral argument" throughout the book other than "I grew up in a difficult situation, so I need to give women abortions to help them through their difficult situations." Other than that, he does present a few arguments from science and Scripture that I'll be getting into in their respective sections. The only other thing worth mentioning is that he claims certain people, like Martin Luther King, Jr., as his heroes and thinks of them in his fight for "abortion rights." Of course, he completely ignores the fact that King, a Baptist minister, opposed same-sex marriage and opposed abortion. But let's not let facts get in the way of polemics.
I'm not going to talk about literally everything in the book, but I'll hit most of the highlights.
Let's start off by talking about how Parker claims to want to help these women. He constantly talks about the poor women who come into his clinic, who can't afford to go elsewhere. He decries the fact that pro-life legislators have passed pro-life laws to make it "more difficult" to get abortions, but there are still abortions that Parker won't do (those after viability). These pro-life laws cause the woman to delay, and then not be able to get an abortion from him because of it. Of course, Parker seems to think that the only help these women need are abortions. But if he really wants to help them, why won't he offer to drive one of these women to another clinic, or give them some money for transportation and to stay in the hotel? He claims to want to help women, but the only help he wants to offer them is to kill her child.
His next contradiction appears early on (p. 10). He says that [one of] the underlying assumptions behind these pro-life laws is that their doctors can't be trusted to tell them the truth, when in the paragraph immediately preceding that he fully admitted that he refuses to tell them simple things such as "abstinence is the surest way of birth control."
In chapter two, he describes a doctor he gives the pseudonym Dr. Sweet as a lovely person, having a "gentle, nonconfrontational demeanor." A couple of paragraphs later, he describes this sweet, nonconfrontational, lovely person as waging a war on abortion rights.
There are, of course, others. But one of the most glaring contradictions occurs on p. 195. Parker writes that he will not perform abortions after the point of viability, but since he doesn't believe morality is absolute, he will refer out for them. He tells of a mother who is seeking an abortion for her daughter, so Parker referred them to clinics in Colorado and New Mexico. Then he writes, "I did not tell them that the doctors in those places would probably not perform the procedure because, at twenty-eight weeks, patient preference -- or 'I messed up' -- is not a medical indication. It is not my role to block anyone from pursuing their interest or to withhold information." At this point I was asking myself if he even pays attention to himself. In the span of two sentences he says he doesn't withhold information from anyone right after informing us that he withheld information from a mother and daughter seeking an abortion.
Arguments from Science
Let's now talk about Parker's pseudo-scientific claims. Parker doesn't believe the fetus is equal to a baby or a child because it can't survive outside the uterus since it can't breathe, nor can it form anything like thoughts. Of course, he never justifies why these things are necessary to be equal to us older people; he just assumes it. The only reason the fetus can't breathe or form thoughts is because it is too young to do so. And of course, the fetus does breathe, it just breathes via the umbilical cord, not through its nose. It is still taking in oxygen. Then he says that despite what "the antis" say (his not-so-nice term for pro-life people), a fetus can't feel pain up until 29 completed gestational weeks. He says this is the scientific consensus, though he doesn't give any source to support his claim.
Chapter eight is where Parker really tries to offer a more extensive scientific case. He first starts off by stating that no one (not doctors, legislators, etc.) judges or shames cancer patients for their decisions, even if those decisions lead to death. This really shows Parker's inability to understand the other side, because of course there's a difference in performing an act that one foresees may be detrimental to him- or herself (such as refusing cancer treatment to remain lucid as long as possible, even though getting treatment may extend her life) and performing an act that results in the death of another human being (i.e. having an abortion).
Parker goes on to state that the political conversation around abortion has "obliterated truth and crushed any nuanced understanding of what it means to live a human life" (p. 143). By this he means that pro-life people are too black and white by arguing that human life begins at fertilization. Parker doesn't believe we can pinpoint when human life begins because "life is a process" (and of course, he completely ignores the fact that his own argument means that he can't even prove a human infant or the woman he gives the abortion to is alive, since he makes no attempt to tell us when human life begins).
Parker tries to put himself forth as an authority on when life begins, but as an astronomer is not an authority on evolution, nor is a biologist an authority on what the atmosphere of Mars is composed of, Parker is not an authority on whether or not embryos are human beings just because he has scientific training -- embryologists are, and they consistently agree, without significant controversy, that human life begins at fertilization. Parker's a pretty lousy doctor if he doesn't even know this basic biological fact. Of course, he dismisses the idea that "life begins at conception" as a "deeply held religious belief" and doesn't even attempt to interact with the scientific arguments pro-life people give for that view. He then appeals to Justice Blackmun's ruling in Roe v. Wade, though, of course, Blackmun's ruling was not scientific in nature -- it was philosophical (and bad philosophy, at that). I bet Parker would not accept as an argument for young-earth creationism that "scientists, philosophers, and theologians all disagree on the age of the earth, so neither should we take any particular stance on what the age of the earth is." But this is exactly the kind of reasoning Blackmun used in Roe, and Parker apparently finds it quite convincing.
Parker also repeats the myth that abortion was illegal in common law to protect the life and safety of women. This is a false narrative (though Parker doesn't seem very interested in refuting false narratives if they agree with his). As Joseph Dellapenna showed in his book Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History, abortion was illegal in common law to protect the life of the fetus, not to protect the health of the mother. A stark difference is that Dellapenna has provided many, many sources to support his claims, and Parker doesn't offer a single one to support his.
Parker then tries to argue that life is a continuous process -- the man and woman are alive, the sperm and ovum cells are alive, and the resulting zygote is alive. This is, of course, not new information, nor is it particularly interesting. Of course life is a continuous process. But there is a zero point at which the sperm and ovum cells cease to exist and a new, genetically distinct human organism arises in its place. This is the consensus among embryologists, even abortion-choice embryologists. Parker mistakenly thinks this shows that there's no point at which the "switch for life is flipped on," so to speak. But Parker is wrong. He even tells his readers on p. 181 of his book, "Life is a process. Your life is a process." Considering this is the main reason he denies human embryos and fetuses are alive, to be consistent he must not believe anyone reading his book is alive.
He next speaks of embryos that implant but fail to thrive, resulting in miscarriages. Aside from the fact that, again, he doesn't source his claim that as many as one in five embryos fail to thrive, he seems to indicate that an embryo's failing to thrive means that it isn't a "life." Of course, many infants fail to thrive, as well. Perhaps Parker would be okay with infanticide, since his scientific argument would also show that infants are not "lives" based on his ridiculous criteria.
Arguments from Scripture
Parker fancies himself as a modern day Apostle Paul (though he doesn't seem to accept Paul's admonition not to forsake the assembling together, as had become the habit of some). On page 15 of his book, Parker talks about the woman caught in adultery and how Jesus told the people who wanted to stone her "if any of you are without sin, go and cast the first stone." Of course, what he fails to mention is that Jesus also told her "go and sin no more." In other words, "leave your life of adultery." Parker's Jesus is a Jesus who does not judge the sins of man (boy is he in for a shock). Additionally, on page 69, Parker tells us he offers a counternarrative to the disapproval of Christianity: "...that God gave every woman gifts and the agency to realize those gifts, and that nothing about choosing to terminate a pregnancy or to delay childbearing puts a woman outside of God's love." Of course, this "modern day Apostle Paul" also seems to have forgotten that Paul wrote, in Romans, "Shall we sin so that grace can abound? Certainly not!" Parker is no philosopher. He doesn't seem to understand that having the volition (the agency) to do something does not mean that we are justified in making any choice we make just because we have it.
Parker, himself, repeats the oft-asserted claim that Christianity is sexist. He claims that Christianity "threw Eve under the bus" (a slogan he repeats several times throughout the book), and while it's true Adam tried to blame Eve for his sin, what Parker conveniently leaves out is that Adam was punished for sinning, just like Eve was, and Jesus proclaimed that it would be through a woman that Christ would eventually conquer Satan. However, as David Marshall points out, Christianity does not oppress women; just the opposite. It has always been the great liberator of women (see his article here and the subsequent parts in this series for evidence for that claim). Just a couple of examples: it was Christians who discouraged female infanticide in the early Roman world. And let's not forget that it was Jesus, in the Scriptures, who opposed Jewish societal etiquette and talked to women (such as the Samaritan woman at the well).
Parker reinterprets Martin Luther King, Jr.'s sermon I've Been to the Mountaintop and his discussion of the Good Samaritan. This is not unique to Parker; abortion-choice philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson also abused the Good Samaritan tale to justify her stance on abortion rights. Parker sees himself as the "good Samaritan" in performing abortions on women he thinks are in need of them.
In chapter seven, Parker attempts to make a more detailed Biblical case for supporting abortion rights. He argues that the Bible does not contain the word "abortion" in it. Of course, this is just the old argument from silence fallacy. The Bible not expressly condemning it does not mean the Bible condones it. What we do have is one of the earliest Christian documents, The Didache, expressly forbidding both abortion and infanticide, so to claim that Christianity is consistent with support for abortion is historically and theologically confused. The Bible also says "you shall not murder" (Ex. 20:13, Deut. 5:17), that child sacrifice had never even entered God's mind to command (Jer. 19:5), and that Jesus had high regard for children (Matt. 18:6, Matt. 19:14). That God would support abortion to make our lives easier is a concept that is foreign to Scripture.
He also goes on an irrelevant tirade over how "misogynistic" he feels the Bible is. As this is irrelevant, I won't go into defending the Scriptures here. But needless to say, while there are many difficult passages, the Bible is ultimately not a misogynistic, racist, etc., book. Parker is simply ignorant about why these rules he decries in the Old Testament were necessary (e.g. the fact that they didn't have advances in hygiene like we do, so they were told to avoid having sex with women who were menstruating). He also admits that in the Bible, bearing meany children was "a woman's most important job". While it's laughable how ignorant and extremist Parker is about Scripture, his claim here that having children was very important for women to do contradicts his other claim that the Bible's silence on abortion is confirmation that it is moral.
He refers to the passage in Exodus in which if two men are fighting and hit a pregnant woman, if her child dies the offender is to pay the husband a fine. He uses this to illustrate that the loss of the fetus was not a capital crime. I have responded to this passage elsewhere, but briefly, what is in mind here is not miscarriage, but premature birth. If the two men are fighting, the baby is born prematurely, and there is no further harm, the man must pay the husband a fine. But if there is loss of life (either the mother's or child's), then the offender was to be put to death.
Parker also alleges that throughout Jewish Scripture, a fetus becomes human only when its head emerges from the birth canal. Aside from not supporting his claim with any sources, this is absurd on the face of it. It may be different in other Jewish texts, but at least in the Torah, the same word for "child" is used to refer to either unborn or born children. The text makes no differentiation between children.
Parker does decry pro-life people using Jeremiah 1:5 as evidence that human life is present in the womb, and he dismisses it with an amusing instance of poisoning the well: he says they use an "obscure verse" from the Book of Jeremiah. Considering the Book of Jeremiah was written by the scribe of a major prophet, in what sense was Jeremiah's book "obscure"? Of course, he doesn't seem to understand that pulling one passage out of Exodus regarding a law of how to treat two men fighting around a pregnant woman is much more obscure than pulling a verse out of Jeremiah in which God tells Jeremiah he's been consecrated to be God's prophet.
Parker is Not a Christian in any Meaningful Sense
Parker simply worships a god of his own creation. Throughout the book, he uses phrases such as "the god I worship", or "the god I believe in". This is likely because he doesn't believe there is any right interpretation of Scripture (p. 127) and that there is no such thing as absolute morality (p. 195). However, Parker's beliefs land him square outside of orthodoxy, meaning that he is not a Christian in any meaningful sense. Of course, this won't prevent people like Gloria Steinem and Cecile Richards from holding him up and saying, "see, you can be a Christian and support abortion." As Parker proves in his book based on his rejection of it, you can't be an orthodox Christian and support abortion.
On page 55 of his book, Parker writes the following: "God is love, and God does not judge; but God's people can become overly pious and haughty, and they can become inflexible." It is astounding that anyone who thinks himself a Christian can believe that God doesn't judge. Would you try to tell that to Ananias and Sapphira? To Tyre and Sidon? To Sodom and Gomorrah? To the Canaanites? To the Amalekites? The list goes on and on. Hebrews 9:27 states, "It is appointed for man to die once, and after this comes judgment." All over Scripture we're told that God will judge the quick and the dead. What Bible has Parker been reading? It's also worth noting that despite the fact Parker thinks God doesn't judge, and he condemns pro-life people as being "overly pious and haughty," Parker has no qualms with judging pro-life people ten ways to Sunday, going so far as to bear false witness against pro-life people (but maybe he doesn't think the Ten Commandments are very important, either).
Chapter 13 is really where Parker talks more about his views on Christianity. He says he was in "recovery from organized religion" (so much for being a modern-day Paul). He did join a Quaker church because among other things, he liked the fact that Quakers have no formal doctrine or creed, and no one is in charge in their meetings. I guess being an abortionist is easier when you don't have to believe you're doing anything wrong.
I really shouldn't have to explain why his further statements about God are just theologically confused. He makes a statement on p. 204 that "If God is human and humans are of God, then God has to love everything about us, and we have to love all that belongs to God." He's not clear about what he means. God isn't human, of course -- he's divine, immaterial. Does he mean Jesus? Even then, his statement doesn't follow because Jesus became one of us specifically to lead us out of a life of sin. God doesn't have to love everything about us. He's not even obligated to love us. It's because of his love that he wants us to stop sinning and spend eternity with him. God doesn't love us because we're lovable, we're lovable because God loves us.
He goes on to state that "I began to understand that I had to find a thinking person's religion or abandon God entirely," and by that he obviously means "I had to find a religion that wouldn't judge me for my immoral acts, even killing unborn children." Some of the most brilliant people who have ever lived have been Christians. There were a long line of physicians before Willie Parker who were followers of Jesus and treated all human life, even unborn human life, as if it is sacred.
I could go on and on, but this is enough to show how irrational Dr. Parker actually is in his defense of abortion rights and his performing abortions. This is really only the tip of the iceberg of what's wrong with Parker's book. On p. 29, he writes the following: "The living, breathing women who carried those fetuses in utero were cast as less than fully human -- either as criminals, on the one hand, or mentally incompetent on the other -- and thus not in possession of any rights at all." In this sentence, he seems to be stating that criminals and the mentally incompetent are less than human and not deserving of rights. This is barbaric. I hope he didn't mean what he actually wrote, which would just make him a sloppy communicator, not a barbaric person.
Unfortunately Doctor Parker is completely oblivious to the plight of the unborn throughout this book. The First-Wave Feminists understood that as women were treated as property, it was shameful for any woman to then treat her own child as property to be disposed of as she saw fit. Unfortunately Doctor Parker didn't get this memo, as despite how black people have been treated in our country, he is perfectly willing to dehumanize the unborn because they are in the way of something they want, be it not being pregnant, financial freedom, etc. He has the audacity to frame his fight for "abortion rights" in the language of civil rights, despite the fact that he kills innocent human children. His own lack of self-awareness is astonishing.
Doctor Parker's book is garbage. It is not worth reading, so save your money. The best defense of abortion in print is still David Boonin's A Defense of Abortion. Considering the poor level of critical thinking abortion-choice activists tend to be at, I don't see this changing any time soon.