Books: Life’s Work

My first impulse when I came across Life’s Work in the New Books section of the college library was to put it back on the shelf. Why would I want to read a book with the subtitle “A Moral Argument for Choice”? But it’s good to sometimes read arguments we disagree with, to better understand them and be sure we’re disagreeing with their real position and not just what we’ve been told (often by those whose ideas we agree with) our opponents think.

Mostly Willie Parker’s argues his case by telling stories. He tells how he became a doctor, how he came to specialize as an ob-gyn, then how he because convinced of his moral duty to provide abortions. And he tells stories of women who come to him for abortions, the dreams they have and the courage he sees in them.

He rails against the laws that make it harder for a woman to get an abortion by requiring a waiting period between the woman’s first visit to the abortion clinic and when she can get the abortion done. They’ve had plenty of time to make up their minds, he says, before the initial visit.

All the waiting period accomplishes, he claims, is make the whole process cost more, because it means another day missed from work and another long drive (since there are so few abortion clinics) or having to pay to stay somewhere overnight. And sometimes even a  short waiting period pushes them far enough into the pregnancy that it costs significantly more, or even past the point when it is permissible to get an abortion at all (in that state, at least).

No doubt to many pro-life people (those whom Parker calls the “antis”), this is good news, since it means fewer women will get an abortion. That is, Parker is sure, the goal of those who put these and other restrictive laws in place, not to make abortion safer but harder to get.

He makes valid points, I thought, about the impact of those laws in ways that many abortion opponents may not have thought of. But he offers opinions of the motives of the pro-life movement that cannot help but alienate. Those who want to curtail a woman’s ability to choose an abortion, he believes, want to “put all women back in their place.” He refers to the prominently male legislators creating the laws, but does not discuss all the women who oppose abortion.

He does, finally (in the latter part of the book), mention the pro-life arguments about life beginning at conception and the personhood of the unborn child, but only to express disdain for such claims. He claims that “as a Christian and a scientist, I can authoritatively attest that life does not begin at conception.” His own view is that “life is a process” and that “it is not a switch that turns on in an instant, like an electric light.”

As to personhood, he calls the attempts to write “fetal personhood” into law “an unconscionable, immoral waste of time and taxpayer dollars.” He understands that people look at ultrasound pictures and see what looks like a small human being, but believes that people are conflating “sentimental yearning about parenthood and children with biological truth.” The use of these images by the “antis” to make people think that a six-week-old fetus is a baby is manipulative, Parker says, and worse, “a blatant lie.”

Since Parker believes the motives for such manipulation and lying (as he sees them) are rooted in cynicism and desire to control other people’s lives (he makes comparisons to slavery, and is indignant that abortion opponents “co-opt the language of the human rights movement), he does not attempt to understand why people do believe that life begins at conception and in the personhood of the fetus – other than that they have been duped by those pushing the anti-abortion agenda.

But it is precisely the belief that what is growing in the mother’s womb is a person with the right to life that motivates all the pro-life people I know. If the fetus is just “a biological organism with the potential to become” a person, then it would make perfect sense to frame the issue in terms of a woman’s right to choice. There may be some abortion opponents who are more interested in controlling women’s lives than in protecting unborn children, but I don’t think the movement would have the strength that it does if they were in the majority.

So I was disappointed in the book. I had hoped that Parker would engage these issues, when life begins and when personhood begins, with some acknowledgement of what both sides believe and why, and offer his arguments, not just scorn, to try to persuade people.

I admire the fact that Parker refuses to do an abortion if he believes the woman is being coerced, as that means he really believes in choice. He thinks our society, particularly among those in the upper socioeconomic levels, is too sentimental about motherhood and children (he grew up in poverty and without such sentimentality). But motherhood to be the woman’s choice, neither forced on her nor taken from her.

He does mention abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, whose illegal and unsanitary practices led to the hospitalizations of many and at least one death, and who is often cited by pro-lifers as justification for laws that more tightly regulate abortion clinics. But Parker sees Gosnell as the result of overly restrictive laws, not a reason for them.

“Gosnell is what happens when abortion becomes too difficult to procure, and when the occupation itself – abortion provider – is something too socially disreputable for any young, idealistic doctor to undertake.” There are going to be women desperate for an abortion, and if there are not good doctors and good clinics to provide them, they will find someone who will, despite the awful risks they take in going to someone like Gosnell. And there are going to be opportunists like Gosnell who take advantage of the situation.

I don’t find myself convinced by Parker’s “moral argument.” But I do find food for thought in his book, and the first thing I did when I finished it was look for a book that attempted to look at different views on abortion and challenge each with the other’s arguments. I have a book like that on hold from the library, but in the meantime I read Charles Camosy’s Beyond the Abortion Wars, which attempts to find common ground among those who think abortion should be allowed sometimes but not always, and which will be the subject of my next post.

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