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When I Was Forced to Deny Care to a Poor Woman in Need of an Abortion

Dr. Willie Parker—a devout Christian and one of the last abortion providers in the deep South—explains how restrictive abortion laws discriminate against women by income and zip code.
Photo by Chad Griffith courtesy of 37 INK/Atria Books

The following passage is excerpted from LIFE'S WORK by Dr. Willie Parker, published by 37 Ink/Atria Books. Dr. Willie Parker is a board-certified OB/GYN who provides abortion care in the South. His memoir, LIFE'S WORK, can be purchased here.

A young woman—in her twenties, with a couple of kids—came to see me in the Mississippi clinic. She thought she was about nine weeks pregnant, but when we did the sonogram we discovered that she was really more like thirteen weeks. This put her in a different price category. Mississippi has a twenty-four-hour waiting period, so if she could have scraped together the additional money, she could have come back the next day. But she did not. The next time I saw her was three weeks later, when I was back in Mississippi again. This time, when we did her sonogram, we calculated that the gestational age of the fetus she was carrying was at sixteen weeks plus one day. I had to tell her that, because she was over the line, I could not perform her abortion.


The woman started to beg. Please, she said to me. Please. I wanted to do her abortion. And I was incensed at the arbitrary turn her life had taken, due to the caprice and whim of several dozen legislators. She exceeded the ban by one day because she was poor. But I wouldn't perform her abortion. I couldn't. I live in a world where health department inspectors check my patient files and root around in my garbage cans. I could not risk breaking the law, even a law that I find unjust, to help one woman, and in so doing jeopardize my ability to help all women.

Photo courtesy of 37 INK/Atria Books

The best I could do was to tell her about the Tuscaloosa clinic, which is a three-hour drive away. But she kept begging. She didn't know how she was going to get the extra money (as a pregnancy progresses, the cost of an abortion procedure rises) or how she was going to get to Tuscaloosa. I didn't tell her the thing that burned me most of all. If she lived in another place with less restrictive laws—Washington, D.C., for example—we could have seen her, done her counseling, and performed her abortion all on the very same day. She was penalized not just for being poor, but because she lived in the wrong zip code.

Delays, dead ends, and restrictions lead women to start feeling desperate. It should come as no surprise that the number of do-it- yourself abortions is on the rise. In March 2016, a New York Times op-ed writer and economist named Seth Stephens-Davidowitz used Google to demonstrate a correlation between women seeking information on DIY abortion and restrictive laws passed by states. He looked at search terms like "how to have a miscarriage" and "how to self-abort," and found some 700,000 such Google searches in 2015. Eight of the ten states with the highest search rates were also the states with the most restrictive laws. Mississippi, with only one abortion clinic, had the highest rate of searches for DIY abortion.

Lead photo by Chad Griffith.