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Denise Balkissoon
Denise Balkissoon

Denise Balkissoon

The pro-choice memoir we all need right now Add to ...

A pregnant teenager learns that the fetus she is carrying will be born without a functioning circulatory system. At no point will it be able to breathe for itself – there is no way that it can live. The teenager decides not to terminate the pregnancy, telling her obstetrician that she is “praying for a miracle.”

Twenty weeks later, the teenager gives birth. In a new memoir, the doctor, Willie Parker, writes of his “horror” watching the newborn’s immediate, inevitable death. “Born at term, the baby could feel pain … ” Dr. Parker writes. “She must have felt all the anxiety and panic that would accompany suffocating to death.

“In this case, an absolute reverence for life led to a situation that, to my eyes, consisted of nothing less than pure cruelty.”

This is just one of the unflinching passages in Dr. Parker’s Life’s Work. There are many from the story of his life, which is that of a black boy raised by a poor single mother in Alabama who became a Harvard-educated obstetrician-gynecologist. And there are many from his time as an abortion provider, a career choice he made in midlife after deciding that his Christianity imposed a moral duty to help women choose the paths of their own lives.

Obfuscation is not Dr. Parker’s game. He describes exactly what happens during both surgical and pharmaceutical abortions, what parts of a fetus develop when and how he decided his personal gestation cut-off for performing the procedure.

He also discusses his patients, from a 12-year-old who didn’t understand it was wrong for her stepfather to rape her, to a scholarship athlete about to be her family’s first college student. He details his own regrets, including his first encounters with coerced abortions – he’s better now at spotting signs of physical abuse, or that a fetus is unwanted because it’s female.

The result is the pro-choice manifesto we need right now, and that includes Canadians. The federal government’s recent targeting of unused “zombie laws” includes debating the Criminal Code section that makes it illegal to “procure the miscarriage of a female person.” Quiet passage of Bill C-39 seems unlikely. Abortion access isn’t the literal battleground here that it is in the United States, but it has been before, and it could be again.

Dr. Parker’s argument for access is deeply considered, both personal and political. It also touches on various current political challenges, including the derision of experts, specifically in science, and the proliferation of propaganda, or what Kellyanne Conway calls “alternative facts.”

The unnecessarily painful death of that teenager’s baby is just one example in the book of a consistent denial of medical truth. Others are systemic and therefore worse. Abortion providers in a number of states are required by law to tell women that medication abortions done with mifepristone (called Mifegymiso in Canada) can be “reversed,” which is a lie.

“It’s an intentional and willful misrepresentation,” Dr. Parker said on the phone. He agrees that clinic protesters carrying placards of full-term babies labelled as 12-week fetuses are on the same continuum as climate-change deniers posting bogus bar graphs on Facebook, calling it all “junk science.”

Real scientists need to get out of the lab, he says, and not succumb to the “unintentionally arrogant” belief that empirical evidence speaks for itself. “People are feeling frustrated that junk science holds the day,” he says. “This is what happens when you abdicate your civic responsibility and don’t get involved politically.”

Dr. Parker practises what he preaches. In 2011, he became a “circuit provider,” travelling from clinic to clinic in the American South. His life is literally in danger, and some of the people he works with are permanently injured from bombings at the clinics. So when, near the end of his memoir, he criticizes wealthy, middle-class, white and city-dwelling women for abandoning those still fighting for access, any defensiveness that might rise is unjustified.

Again, it’s relevant over here. Prince Edward Island just got its first abortion provider in 35 years, Dr. Lianne Yoshida. There are still many barriers to access around the country – including that Mifegymiso, which costs $300 a dose and isn’t covered by provincial health plans. That’s inconsistent (surgical abortion is covered) and unfair to the many women in Canada for whom that is a lot of money. Dr. Parker writes that his life story helps him feel such costs “at the level of my bones.” Those who don’t are still wrong to flinch and look away.

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Follow on Twitter: @Balkissoon

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