‘Our Battles Don’t Change Based on Who Is in Power’: A Q&A With Dr. Willie Parker on Trump’s Cabinet

One Alabama doctor finds it hard to believe that the anti-choice Sessions will protect his rights as an abortion provider when the congressman becomes attorney general.

"I feel compelled to address the misinformation or outright lies that imperil the health of women, wherever they come from. When figures in our celebrity culture willfully or ignorantly misinform, I try to rebut misinformation with truth," said Dr. Willie Parker in an interview with Rewire Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for the Center for Reproductive Rights

Dr. Willie Parker hails from Alabama, an accident of birth and geography that’s probably the only thing he shares with Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, the man who has been selected to become the next attorney general of the United States.

Parker is arguably among the country’s best-known abortion providers, racking up airline miles flying in and out of states where clinics, abortion-providing doctors, and friendly legislatures are few and far between. His continuing work in Alabama has been featured in the documentary Trapped, which explored the arbitrary, unnecessary, and nitpicking regulations levied only against abortion clinics.

Meanwhile, Sessions—the legislator raised in the civil-rights cauldron of Selma—has been an ardent foe of abortion rights during his time as Alabama attorney general and in the U.S. Congress. He’s on the record as saying that Roe v. Wade was one of the most “colossally erroneous” U.S. Supreme Court decisions of all time. While in the Senate, Sessions earned a 100 percent “pro-life” voting record according to the anti-choice National Right to Life Committee, and his current cabinet nomination has received the enthusiastic endorsement from none other than longtime anti-abortion extremist group Operation Rescue.

Rewire talked to Dr. Parker via email about what having Sessions as the nation’s top lawyer means to him, how he’s weathering the Trump transition, and the changes the new administration will inevitably bring.

Rewire: You’ve seen Sen. Sessions’ hostility toward abortion rights. What have you observed?
Willie Parker: During his time in the U.S. Senate, he has been an ardent supporter of defunding Planned Parenthood. He voted for defining a fetus as an unborn child eligible for state insurance coverage; to prohibit minors crossing state lines for abortion; to bar Health and Human Services grants to organizations that perform abortions; and to block efforts to reduce teen pregnancy through education and contraceptives. His actions in the Senate reflect his politics when he was at the local level.
In Alabama, we continue to fight extreme legislation moved forward in the conservative spirit of his time in state government. The waiting period to have an abortion has been expanded to 48 hours and there is a 20-week abortion ban in place. Advocates recently obtained an injunction to block implementation of a law that prohibits abortion clinics within 2,000 feet of a school, comparable to sex offender restrictions.
Rewire: Abortion providers are able to do their work partly because of the prospect of federal prosecution against those who harass and terrorize abortion providers. It’s been noted that Sen. Sessions has voted, multiple times, against protections for abortion providers. It’s also been noted that abortion providers have been increasingly targeted with threats during the presidential campaign. Is that something you’ve experienced?
WP: I have. I have received death threats on the internet. My apartment has been picketed. The protesters take pictures and call me by name as a means of intimidation. I have a hard time believing that Sen. Sessions will be diligent at protecting me as a citizen and health-care service provider when he is so fundamentally opposed to what I do.
Rewire: During his hearing yesterday, Sessions suggested that perceptions that he’s a racist have everything to do with having a “Southern name” and being from Alabama, and little to do with his political record or comments (and noted that, as a Southerner, he “saw” racism). As an Alabama resident, what do you say about that?
WP: I find that an odd thing to say. Hank Aaron, baseball’s true home run king, is from Alabama, and that has hardly tainted him. Just as Aaron’s notability is defined by what he has done, Sen. Sessions has not been able to outrun his legacy of racism, homophobia, and patriarchal desire to control the lives of women when he was a high-level government official both locally and nationally. It caught up with him during his last confirmation process for a federal judgeship in 1986, and my anticipatory regret is that it probably won’t catch up with him this time. As far as seeing racism, Sen. Sessions has been a very powerful man for a very long time, and I don’t know many people of color who have had the power to affect his life the way he has affected theirs.
Rewire: What are you doing to prepare for this incoming administration, as an abortion provider and an American?
WP: I will not spend the next four years being right about how this election went wrong and what could have been or should have been different. I will spend them active. I began November 9 focusing my efforts on getting this dangerous politic out of power, and I will continue to make this the country that I want to live in. I will work for progressive politics by figuring out how to engage the nearly half of all eligible voters who didn’t vote. I will press for coalition building to build the power that is going to be necessary to fight the ideologues who now have access to power. I am going to continue the work that I know is critical to women’s health, and I know it’s critical for our country to protect the rights of women and to protect me as I provide that care. We say that we are a nation committed to law and justice. I am going to insist that we prove it.
Rewire: Dr. Ben Carson is also facing the Senate confirmation process to become the director of Housing and Urban Development. He’s one of the loudest voices who repeats claims about abortion as Black genocide and, for example, compares women who have abortions to slaveowners. While he’s not up for a health leadership post, what harm does it do to have a cabinet member advancing these ideas about race and reproductive health?
WP: I feel compelled to address the misinformation or outright lies that imperil the health of women, wherever they come from. When figures in our celebrity culture willfully or ignorantly misinform, I try to rebut misinformation with truth. It is very injurious when people in influential positions don’t act responsibly in what they say. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) once said “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts.”
And the facts are the following: Black women, followed by Hispanic women, have disproportionately high rates of abortion, making them together the greater proportion of women having abortions. But the largest absolute number of abortions happen for white women, the larger population group. Abortions come from unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, not from race-based allocations of abortion resources.
Rewire: With a future cabinet so packed with abortion opponents, what do you say to people in the reproductive rights and justice movements—and people who are now feeling motivated to do something, if they hadn’t before?
WP: As the wise old women in my community used to say in the face of civil rights setbacks, “In times like these, it has always been times like these.” Our battles don’t change based on who is in power. They may become easier or tougher, but the commitment cannot wane. We have to embrace the notion, “Tougher times don’t always last, but tough people do.” We have to remain clear-headed and be as creative in our resolve for goodwill as ideologues are in their misguidance.
Rewire: There are people who ask, “Why engage in political action? You’re a doctor.”
WP: Because as a trusted member of society with influence, I consider it my responsibility to use whatever influence I have to speak up on behalf of the disenfranchised. Someone once said, “The first job of a citizen is to keep your mouth open.” I cannot remain silent in the face of injustice, and we have the potential for a lot of that to go around soon.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.