If he were alive, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be pro-choice.
Yes, the Baptist minister and slain civil rights leader would support a woman’s right to an abortion, concludes Dr. Willie Parker.

Dr. Willie Parker, abortion doctor and reproductive justice advocate

Parker too is a man of faith and a native of the South. He is also an abortion doctor and staunch advocate for reproductive justice.

Parker’s evidence: In 1966, Planned Parenthood Federation of America awarded Dr. King its inaugural Margaret Sanger award, named for the organization’s founder.

In King’s acceptance speech, delivered by his wife Coretta in King’s absence, he wrote of the “striking kinship” between the civil rights movement’s work and Sanger’s.

“…Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist — a nonviolent resister… For the Negro, therefore, intelligent guides of family planning are a profoundly important ingredient in his quest for security and a decent life.”

Because King understood the inextricable link between reproductive justice and economic justice — which remains as strong today as it was then — “I think Dr. King would have been pro-choice, if you think of choice as a verb instead of a noun,” Parker says.

Parker, who received Planned Parenthood’s Sanger award in 2015, is the keynote speaker at Planned Parenthood of Greater Memphis Region’s James Awards Sept. 28.

As it was with King — who Parker calls his “personal saint” — Parker’s work comes at considerable personal risk. Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis nearly 50 years ago while in pursuit of justice for striking black sanitation workers. Although Parker regularly receives threats, he won’t wear a bulletproof vest.

“I travel secure in my decision, but not with security,” he says by phone from Chicago’s Midway airport.

Parker practices at Mississippi’s lone abortion clinic. He also practices in Alabama, which has gone from 12 to five abortion clinics in 15 years.

In his recent book “Life’s Work: A Moral Argument For Choice,” Parker plainly and methodically deconstructs the most common arguments conservative Christians lob against abortions.

His faith doesn’t conflict with his pro-choice convictions; it informs them. 
 Raised a Pentecostal, Parker made his last church home at a Quaker meeting in Hawaii, where he practiced as a doctor.

“I remain a follower of Jesus,” Parker writes. “And I believe that as an abortion provider I am doing God’s work. I am protecting women’s rights, their human right to decide their futures for themselves, and to live their lives as they see fit.”

Wrote King in 1966 in his Planned Parenthood acceptance speech: “The Negro constitutes half the poor of the nation. Like all poor, Negro and white, they have many unwanted children.”

Five decades later, 47 percent of black children in Memphis live in poverty.

If you want to rile Parker, repeat the myth often used by antis: Abortion is a campaign of black genocide.

The myth originates from Sanger’s eugenicist beliefs, which both national and local Planned Parenthood officials acknowledge and reject.

As recently as the late 1960s, the local Planned Parenthood office in Memphis produced a booklet with pictures of unkempt black women and warnings that a “vicious cycle of poverty and fertility is at work.” It was part of a local fundraising campaign for a $500,000 federal grant to fund birth control access.

Wrote PPGMR CEO Ashley Coffield in a July editorial for MLK50: “To be clear: the solution to poverty in Memphis is not, never was, and never will be a systemic reduction in the number of people of color in our community.”

“Our goal is to extend the full range of reproductive rights to all people, in respect for their agency and freedom, not as means for mitigating the perceived economic burden on the dominant culture.”

Anti-abortion laws mirror slavery, Parker says, dictating what women can do with their bodies are close cousins to laws that allow men to own women’s bodies.

A lack of access to health care and accurate sexual education contribute to unplanned, unwanted pregnancies, so “it doesn’t take rocket science to understand that the people who have the highest rates of unintended pregnancies are going to have highest rates of abortion,” he says.

Yet the same antis — as Parker calls those who oppose abortion access — are also the same people who would defund Head Start and weaken government programs that would make it easier for low-income women to care for their children.

Low-income women are five times as likely as rich women to have an unintended pregnancy, according to a 2015 Brookings Institution report.

According to a 2016 Guttmacher Institute report, no single racial ethnic group made up the majority of women who receive abortions. Nearly 30 percent were black, nearly 40 percent were white and 25 percent were Hispanic. More than 60 percent of women who received abortions identified with a religion, including 24 percent who were Catholic, 17 who were mainline Protestant and 13 percent who were evangelical Protestants.

It’s no coincidence that many of the protesters outside abortion clinics are white men.

“By 2050, there will be no clear-cut numerical majority of any (racial) group in this country,” Parker points out. Abortion restrictions are the machinations of white men “feeling racially paranoid about becoming obsolete.”

“It looks like a feigned concern about black women and black babies, but it’s about controlling the fertility of white women.”

The ascension of Donald Trump, who has courted white supremacists, into the nation’s highest office puts Roe v. Wade at greater risk than it’s ever been, Parker believes.

“In a country uncomfortable about race, the beast of racism is like a caged animal. We kept it locked away, but we didn’t kill it… and then you had someone like Trump come and feed that monster and then he took the lock off the cage.”

“This is a monster we could have killed a long time ago.”

Where do we go from here?

Watch Dr. Willie Parker’s TedX talk on reproductive justice and his spot on “The Daily Show.”

Support local reproductive justice organizations with your time and donations. Start with Sister Reach and Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region.

Register for Sister Reach’s 2017 Reproductive Justice Summit Oct. 20–21. This year’s theme: Faith, Advocacy and Education.

Read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s acceptance speech for the 1966 Planned Parenthood Margaret Sanger award.

Learn more about the connection between economic justice and abortion access. Start here, with ThinkProgress’ “Abortion is about economic justice: Restrictions on abortion perpetuate economic inequality.”

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.