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  • Paul Stark

An abortion practitioner's 'Good Samaritan' argument for abortion

Willie Parker is a well-known and prolific practitioner of abortion, including late-term abortion. He performs abortions in places (the South) where they aren't always easily accessible. He says he left a comfortable job to do this work because he thought it was the right thing to do.

In a New York Times op-ed, "Why I Provide Abortions," Parker, who identifies as a Christian, writes that he used to feel that abortion is "morally wrong." But he decided to start performing them after thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan:

The Samaritan reversed the question of concern, to care more about the well-being of the person needing help than about what might happen to him for stopping to give help. I realized that if I were to show compassion, I would have to act on behalf of those women. My concern about women who lacked access to abortion became more important to me than worrying about what might happen to me for providing the services.

"We who provide abortions do so because our patients need us," Parker concludes. "It is the deepest level of love that you can have for another person, that you can have compassion for their suffering and you can act to relieve it."

Or course, Parker would never agree to kill a two-year-old child in order to relieve the tough circumstances and anxieties experienced by the parents of that child. Indeed, that would be a perversion of the lesson of the Good Samaritan. It would be a complete failure to care for the child's well-being, meet her needs, and show her love and compassion.

But if, like the two-year-old, a human embryo or fetus is an intrinsically valuable human being, someone who has rights and deserves our respect, then killing that child is also a perversion of the lesson of the Good Samaritan. We ought to have compassion for pregnant women who face difficult circumstances. We ought to help meet their needs. But compassion doesn't include taking the life of an innocent person who also has needs and who also should receive love.

Parker recognizes that the status of the unborn is crucial. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, he says, "If I thought I was killing a person, I wouldn't do abortions. A fetus is not a person; it's a human entity." This, then, is the key question: Is the fetus a "person," an individual who has a right not to be killed?

Parker is open about the nature of what he does. A profile published in Esquire relates the aftermath of a first-trimester suction abortion performed by Parker:

[Parker] points out the scattered parts. "There's the skull, what is going to be the fetal skull. And there are the eye sockets."

Floating near the top of the dish are two tiny arms with two tiny hands.

Parker continues to examine the tissue. He points to a black spot the size of a pencil tip. "That's an eye."

"That black spot?"

"That black spot is an eye. And here's the umbilical cord." ...

Very few outsiders are invited into this room, and rare is the doctor who would show this to a reporter. But today he made a conscious decision not to hide the truth. "At some point, we have to trust that people can deal with the reality of what this is," he says.

That is, indeed, the reality. What reasons, though, does Parker have for thinking that the tiny humans whom he dismembers and kills don't matter morally? Why aren't they "persons"?

In the Esquire story, Parker offers his argument:

But here's the vital question: Is it a person? Not by the standards of the law, [Parker] says. Is it viable outside the womb? It is not. So this piece of life—and remember, sperm is alive, eggs are alive, it's all life—is still totally dependent on a woman. And that dependence puts it in the domain of her choice. "That's what I embrace," he says.

There are a few claims here, and they are remarkably weak. First, it's true that the law doesn't recognize the personhood or rights of the unborn. (In a speech at Princeton University, Parker said something similar when dismissing rival views: "The rights of personhood are conferred by the state.") But what the law currently happens to be is distinct from (1) what the law should be and (2) whether abortion is morally right or wrong. Parker, who likes to reference Martin Luther King Jr., must know that the legality of a practice doesn't make it just, as Dr. King so powerfully taught.

Second, Parker compares the embryo and fetus to sperm and egg, which are also alive. (In the New York Times Magazine interview, he seems to make the same point: "Life is a process, not an event.") Gametes, however, are mere parts, not whole organisms. They are not individual members of the species. But embryos and fetuses—like infants, toddlers, and teenagers—are individual human organisms (human beings). That, of course, is why abortion is controversial, while the death of sperm is not. "Although life is a continuous process," explains a major embryology textbook, "fertilization … is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed."

Third, and more substantially, Parker suggests (as he has also implied elsewhere) that "viability" is what makes the moral difference. Human beings who currently depend on their mother's womb for care and protection (i.e., who are "non-viable") are not persons and thus may be killed. The utter dependency of one human being on another, then, renders it permissible to take the life of the former. As a defense of abortion offered by someone who embraces the parable of the Good Samaritan, this is stunningly ironic.

The Good Samaritan parable comes from the book of Luke. Jesus affirmed that one of the greatest commandments is to "love your neighbor as yourself." A lawyer then asked him, "Who is my neighbor?" And Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan. The story makes clear that even a beaten, neglected, and totally helpless stranger lying on the side of the road is our neighbor—someone whom we should love.

Jesus then turned the lawyer's question around by asking which of the parable's three travelers (two of whom passed by the beaten man, and one of whom, the Samaritan, stopped to help) "proved to be a neighbor." The real question isn't the status of the dependent man as our neighbor. The real question is whether, like the Samaritan, we are acting neighborly toward those in need.

And here is the paradox of Willie Parker. His stated motivation for performing abortions is the parable of the Good Samaritan. But his stated justification for performing abortions entails a rejection of the lesson of the Good Samaritan. Jesus taught that the neediness of the man on the side of the road meant that we ought to help him. Parker says that the neediness ("non-viability") of the child in womb means that we may tear off her arms and legs and end her life.

If you're going to kill dozens of human beings a day, as Parker reportedly does, you better have some firmer ground to stand on than this swamp of contradiction.

"Who is my neighbor?" The parable of the Good Samaritan opens our eyes to the needs of other human beings and widens the scope of our moral concern. It should open Willie Parker's eyes—and all of our eyes—to the dignity and worth of our neighbors who have yet to be born.

Destroying them is not the act of a good neighbor.

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