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Meet the Doctor Fighting to Save Mississippi’s Last Abortion Clinic

Dr. Willie Parker talks about his work on women's human rights — and what motivates him to do even more.
 
 
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Mississippi may soon become the first and only state in the nation without a single abortion provider. The Jackson Women’s Health Organization — the lone clinic left in the state — has been offering abortion care and reproductive health services to the women of Mississippi for decades, but it’s never been easy. The health provider has long been the target of an avalanche of regulations and restrictions passed by a deeply conservative state legislature that has only gotten savvier and in recent years. The latest and most dangerous threat to the clinic couldn’t come in a more innocuous package — a measure requiring the physicians who perform abortions at the facility to obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

But the clinic has never backed down in the face of a threat, and Jackson Women’s Health is staffed by fighters. Dr. Willie Parker is one of them.

Twice a month, Parker leaves his home in Chicago and heads to Mississippi to work at the clinic and ensure women have access to the medical care that they need. When he arrives, protesters are there to greet him. But he endures the harassment, the intimidation and the constant legal threats because there’s far too much at stake if the clinic folds. Women’s lives are on the line, and he knows it.

Parker is one of the plaintiffs named in the court case challenging the admitting privileges requirement — a case that will likely decide the fate of legal abortion in the state of Mississippi. He spoke with Salon about the legal challenge and the increasingly bleak reproductive health landscape in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South.

Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Mississippi may be on the verge of becoming the first state without a single abortion provider. The Legislature has been targeting your clinic for years, but this admitting privileges requirement is the closest they’ve come to really ending legal abortion in the state. You’re named as a plaintiff in the case trying to keep that from happening. What was the scene in the courtroom this week?

The hearing was an appeal by the state of Mississippi to have the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals set aside the injunction [against the admitting privileges requirement] that the district court had put in place to stop the state from closing our clinic. It was a hearing before a panel of three judges. Our representation, the Center for Reproductive Rights, had their say — that the district court judge got it right by enjoining this law because there would be irreparable harm to women. The change in regulations would close the only clinic in the state.

My confidence in how this process plays out — not so much for or against us — but rather, my confidence in the fact that — irrespective of who the appointee to the court [is] — the judges will be ruling on the facts of the case. That it doesn’t always work out when you try to guess at the outcome based on whether this is an Obama appointee or a Reagan appointee or a Bush appointee, whether they are a conservative or liberal. The judges made it clear to the state that they are paying close attention to the whole notion of undue burden that was codified in the [Planned Parenthood v.] Casey ruling back in 1992. So the state had the burden of proving why they thought the judge had acted in error in blocking them from implementing the law. The justices heard that and now we’re awaiting their decision.