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A review of the book "Life's Work: A Moral Argument for Choice" by Dr. Willie Parker

willieparkerby Bill Fortenberry, Director, Personhood Alabama

Let me begin this review by pointing out that Dr. Parker would take exception to my use of the word “children” in the title.  He made it very clear in his book that he does not like people using “the loaded term ‘unborn child’ interchangeably with the more medically accurate ‘embryo’ or ‘fetus’”  According to Dr. Parker, “Before twenty-two weeks, a fetus is not in any way equal to ‘a baby’ or ‘a child.’”  Of course, he also says that he sees nothing wrong with abortions after twenty-two weeks either, so I’m not real sure why he objects to using the term “child” in reference to prenatal humans prior to twenty-two weeks of gestation.
Dr. Parker claims that the term “child” is not a medically accurate term for such human beings, but the facts say otherwise.  The American Heritage Medical Dictionary and Mosby’s Medical Dictionary both define the term “child” in a way that includes fetuses.  And the National Library of Medicine lists more than 800 medical documents which use the phrase “unborn child.”  Perhaps Dr. Parker is relying on some arcane definition of the word “child” that makes a distinction between children and fetuses, but I think the use of this term within the field of medicine gives me sufficient justification to refer to prenatal human beings as children.
Dr. Parker’s approach to the definition of the term “child” is indicative of his approach to the entire question of the morality of abortion.  His book is a loosely organized collection of personal anecdotes punctuated with bold but dubious assertions and filled with very thinly veiled vitriol against those who disagree with him.  In spite of the books title, Dr. Parker devotes very little space to the discussion of the morality of his view, and he never actually presents a formal argument in favor of a mother’s right to kill her prenatal child if she so chooses.  It is possible, however, to ascertain two formal arguments from Dr. Parker’s various musings, and I’ll discuss both of those arguments before addressing a few of the errors and falsifications that permeate the book.
The first argument which Dr. Parker appears to advocate is as follows:

    If the fetus is a person, then it is wrong to kill it.
    The fetus is not a person.
    Therefore, it is not wrong to kill it.

 As I said, Dr. Parker never presents this argument in a formal structure in his book, but it is obvious that this argument undergirds much of his book.  For example, Dr. Parker’s acceptance of premise number 1 is evident from his multiple denunciations against people who killed other people.  He rightly condemns the assassination of abortion providers who were “killed in cold blood,” and he justly condemned the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  Dr. Parker obviously believes that it is wrong to kill people, and it follows that if he believed that the prenatal child was a person, then he would also believe that it is wrong to kill prenatal children.
The second premise is just as easily derived from Dr. Parker’s statements.  In his book, he makes a distinction between prenatal children and what he refers to as “real people” saying that “these are humans I am caring for—real people, not merely biological organisms with the potential to become such.”  And in a later chapter, he wrote: “The antis may want to call a twenty-two-week fetus a ‘person,’ but if born, it will die.”  These statements seem to line up very well with the second premise of my formulation of Dr. Parker’s argument.  Dr. Parker does not think that prenatal children are people, and that is the reason that he thinks he is justified in killing them.
We can know that this is an accurate formulation of Dr. Parker’s argument because is almost identical to what he said about his argument in an interview with the New York Times.  In that interview, Dr. Parker said:

“If I thought I was killing a person, I wouldn’t do abortions. A fetus is not a person; it’s a human entity. In the moral scheme of things, I don’t hold fetal life and the life of a woman equally.”
This statement confirms that Dr. Parker’s primary moral argument for choice is:

    If the fetus is a person, then it is wrong to kill it.
    The fetus is not a person.
    Therefore, it is not wrong to kill it.

There are three glaring flaws in this argument.  First, the argument itself is illogical.  Second, premise 2 is demonstrably false.  And third, Dr. Parker’s second argument makes his primary argument completely irrelevant.  I’ll address each of these flaws in order.
Dr. Parker’s argument is a classic example of the logical fallacy known as denying the antecedent.  The error in this fallacy can best be understood by simpler example such as:

    If I am in Tennessee, then I am in America.
    I am not in Tennessee.
    Therefore, I am not in America.

This is the exact same construction as Dr. Parker’s argument, yet it should be obvious that the argument is false.  The mere fact that I am not in Tennessee does not in any way mean that I must not be in America either.  I could be in some other part of America.  Similarly, even if the prenatal child is not a person, that does not in any way mean that it is then okay to kill him.  It may be wrong to kill him for some other reason.  Dr. Parker’s argument only addresses a single reason that it may be wrong to kill a prenatal child and ignores any number of other possible reasons just as I ignored all the other states in America in my example.  This is the main reason that Dr. Parker’s primary argument fails.
Additionally, however, there are also many ways to demonstrate the falsity of premise 2 in Dr. Parker’s argument.  I do not have time to cover all of them here, so I’ll just cover the one that Dr. Parker alludes to in his book, and that is that there is no morally relevant change which takes place at birth to prove that personhood is obtained at that time.
In his New York Times interview, Dr. Parker said that “a fetus is not a person” and that he does not view “fetal life and the life of a woman equally.”  Now, it is important to note that a child does not stop being a fetus until he is born.  Thus, when Dr. Parker says that “a fetus is not a person,” he means that a child does not become a person until he is born.
Dr. Parker’s denial of personhood until birth is also evident from several statements in his book.  For example, Dr. Parker attempted to use the Bible to justify performing abortions by saying that the Bible teaches that “a fetus becomes human when—and only when—its head emerges from the birth canal.”  In reality, there are at least seven passages of Scripture which teach that the child is a human being and a person from fertilization, but Dr. Parker’s insists that the Bible – which he claims is inspired by God – teaches that personhood begins at birth.
In another part of the book, Dr. Parker said that he views the prenatal child as “morally and qualitatively different from a living, breathing, human life, imbued with sacredness only when the mother, or the parents, deem it so.”  This again indicates that Dr. Parker denies the personhood of the child until he has been born and is breathing.  Prior to birth of the child, Dr. Parker views the sacredness of the child’s life as being wholly dependent upon the wishes of the mother.
Additionally, there are several places in his book where Dr. Parker indicates that he sees nothing immoral about killing a prenatal child in the third trimester of gestation.  He admits that he does not perform late term abortions because doing so might cost him his license, but he praised George Tiller effusively for having the courage to perform abortions in the third trimester.  Dr. Parker also said that he sees nothing wrong with referring women to another abortionist if they come to him seeking a late term abortion.   
Dr. Parker’s belief that personhood is imbued at birth creates a very serious problem for him as a medical doctor.  You see, as a gynecologist, Dr. Parker knows that there is no difference between a child inside the womb at 40 weeks of gestation and a child that has just exited the womb at 40 weeks of gestation.  At the moment the child exits the birth canal, he is biologically identical to what he was when he entered the birth canal.  If passage through the birth canal gives the child personhood, then those children who were delivered via C-section would not be real people even as adults.
By the same token, if the child’s first breath is what gives him personhood, then Kermit Gosnell would be justified in killing newborn babies as long as he prevented them from breathing before they were killed, but Dr. Parker condemns Gosnell rather strongly.  Furthermore, if the ability to live without attachment to the body of the mother is what determines one’s personhood, then the child is a person from fertilization since he does not become attached to his mother’s body until about a week later.  There is simply nothing that takes place at birth which justifies killing children prior to birth.
There is a point in the book at which Dr. Parker seems to realize this problem.  When he begins discussing late term abortions, he abandons his primary argument of denying prenatal personhood and relies instead on a very different argument.  The fact that Dr. Parker switches arguments at this point reveals that he is aware of the weaknesses inherent in premise 2 of his primary argument.
The argument that Dr. Parker uses to justify late term abortions is expressed in three statements that Dr. Parker makes in his chapter on “Ethical Abortion Care.”  Those three statements are:

    “I don’t believe in moral absolutes.”
    “I don’t think of the world in terms of good and evil.”
    Therefore, “no one is entitled to sit in judgment of others.”

Now, Dr. Parker doesn’t link these three statements together as I did here.  They are scattered throughout the chapter and referenced as he speaks about various aspects of his approach to the ethics of abortion.  However, the theme encapsulated by these three sentences is evident throughout the book, and Dr. Parker’s eventual expression of this ideology resolves the conflict between his approach to the ethics of abortion and his position on various other ethical issues that are mentioned in his book.
The problem with the view that Dr. Parker expresses in these three statements is that they are self-refuting.  In essence, Dr. Parker is claiming that:

    There is no such thing as right and wrong.
    Therefore, it is wrong to say that abortion is wrong.

It should be obvious to everyone that if there really is no such thing as right and wrong, then it cannot be wrong to say that abortion is wrong.  In other words, if there is no such thing as right and wrong, then there is nothing wrong with sitting in judgment of others.  And if there is no such thing as right and wrong, then there is nothing wrong with a law recognizing the prenatal child as a person and declaring abortion to be murder.  The problem with Dr. Parker relying on this particular ethical framework is that it not only declares itself to be false but also denounces all of Dr. Parker’s own statements of about ethics.
Throughout his book, Dr. Parker mentions many things that he believes to be actually wrong.  For example, it is apparent from the book, that Dr. Parker views slavery as something that is actually wrong.  He also believes that it is actually wrong for someone to murder abortionists in cold blood.  If these things really are actually wrong, then Dr. Parker’s denial of the existence of moral absolutes or good and evil must also be actually wrong.  Dr. Parker wants to believe that there is no such thing as good and evil when speaking of his own actions, but he refuses to accept that belief when he sits in judgment of the actions of others.
Thus, both of Dr. Parker’s moral arguments for choice are shown to be flawed.  His first argument fails for two reasons: it relies on a fallacy of logic, and it includes a false premise.  And his second argument fails because it is self-refuting.  As much as Dr. Parker may wish otherwise, the simple fact of the matter is that there is no moral argument for killing children.
Having addressed Dr. Parker’s failed moral arguments, let me also address the aspect of Dr. Parker’s book that is the real reason for its widespread acceptance.  Dr. Parker may think that it is his great intellect which has made his book so popular, but the interviews and reviews that I’ve seen tend to disregard his intellectual acumen and focus instead on his claim to be a Christian abortionist.  It is not Dr. Parker’s logic but rather his theology which has made his book so popular.
Throughout his book, Dr. Parker makes no less than 37 claims that he is a Christian.  That’s an average of one claim to Christianity for every 6 pages of text.  I have read very few books in which the author proclaims his own Christianity as often as Dr. Parker does in his book.  And yet, in spite of all of Dr. Parker’s claims to be a Christian, his book makes it abundantly clear that Dr. Parker’s god is not the Christian God.
One of the early hints at the nature of Dr. Parker’s god is found in the third chapter where Dr. Parker writes: “God is love, and God does not judge.”  The first part of this statement is true of the Christian God, for the Bible tells us in I John 4:8 that “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.”  But the second half of Dr. Parker’s description is definitely not a description of the Christian God.
The God of the Bible is a God of judgment.  The Bible tells us in Hebrews 9 that "it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment."  In the book of Jude, we read: "Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all."  And the ninth Psalm declares in no uncertain terms that God has "prepared his throne for judgment, and he shall judge the world."  There are well over 600 verses in the Bible which reference judgment, and only about 400 that speak of love.  If Dr. Parker’s god were the God of the Bible, then he would be a god of both judgment and love.
Dr. Parker’s Jesus is also very different from the Jesus of Christianity.  According to Dr. Parker:
“The Jesus I love … realizes that the petty rules and laws laid down by the fathers and authorities are meaningless, and that to believe in a loving God is to refuse to stand in judgment of any fellow mortal.”
But the Jesus of the Bible said: "as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father."  He also said, "I have many things to say and to judge of you."  And in I Timothy 4, we read that "Lord Jesus Christ … shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing."  When Dr. Parker says that the Jesus he loves does not stand in judgment of anyone, he is admitting that his Jesus is not the true Jesus of Christianity but rather a fictional character of derived from Dr. Parker’s own imagination.
The Bible, according to Dr. Parker, is a book of “many picayune rules” and “a ruthless, unsparing record of the historic misogyny of the early Jewish and Christian people.”  Dr. Parker does claim that the Bible is inspired by God, but I’m not sure exactly how his loving and non-judging god managed to inspire a book filled with hatred and rules.   Either Dr. Parker’s view of God is wrong, or his view of the Bible is wrong, or both.  His insistence that an all-loving god wrote a book filled with hatred reveals that Dr. Parker is creating his own ad hoc theology that changes and morphs into whatever he wants it to be at any given time.  And when we consider that Dr. Parker also said, “There is no ‘right’ interpretation of Scripture,” we can only conclude that Dr. Parker’s own interpretation of Scripture must be wrong.
Dr. Parker’s most revealing statements about his theology are found, of course, in the chapter entitled “A New Theology of Abortion.”  In a classic example of ad hoc reasoning, Dr. Parker begins this chapter with the claim that “God is human” and ends it with the opposite claim that “God is not human.”  And it is in this chapter that Dr. Parker plainly admits that he does not worship the one true God.  The true God is the Christian God, the God of the Bible.  But Dr. Parker rejects that God because he “needed a God of transcendence and justice more than I needed one that enshrined and preserved the Bible’s antique, patriarchal worldview.”  
It is this rejection of the God of the Bible that has made Dr. Parker’s book so popular among those who also reject God, but this is a very dangerous position for Dr. Parker to hold.  The Bible frequently warns us that we will all face the judgment of God and it tells us that those who reject the God of the Bible will one day hear Him say "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire."  Dr. Parker is literally playing with fire, and if he does not repent, he will find himself burning for all eternity.