Until March 25, 2019, Dr. Willie Parker was a highly respected and much-loved abortion provider in Alabama, the celebrated author of a best-selling book, Life’s Work, in which he defended abortion from a Christian perspective, and a frequent, charismatic speaker and honoree at pro-choice conferences and events. An imposing middle-aged black man who grew up poor in Alabama, he was the movement’s rock star. That all changed overnight, when Candice Russell, a 35-year-old Latina volunteer in Dallas, posted an article on Medium, “To All the Women Whose Names I Don’t Know, About the Pain We Share, the Secrets We Keep, and the Silence That Shouldn’t Have Been Asked For.”
Although her account was somewhat hard to follow, she basically accused him of rape—having sex with her when she was far too drunk to consent—about two years earlier. Parker’s response denying that their sex was nonconsensual went up on Medium the next day, but its unapologetic tone only made matters worse. Within 48 hours, he resigned under pressure from his board positions with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and Physicians for Reproductive Health and then from Lady Parts Justice League (now the Abortion Action Front). Before long, he had lost or backed out of his upcoming engagements, even in Brazil.
I didn’t understand at the time why there was such eagerness to cancel him, and I still don’t. Why didn’t movement leaders follow longtime black feminists Loretta Ross and Toni Bond and resist the rush to judgment? Why not say, “These are serious allegations, and we’re going to look into them”? After all, Russell did not just claim Parker had assaulted her; she claimed that he’d done the same to many others, “whispers” abounded about his inappropriate behavior, higher-ups in the movement knew all about it, and they had hushed it up.
Except for the night in question, which only the two people involved experienced, her claims are likely checkable. I spent a week last spring trying to track down those whispers and came up with very little: “He bought young women drinks they hadn’t asked for.” One woman told me Parker made an off-color remark to her but didn’t remember what it was, and the person who was with her (I checked) had no memory of anything unusual. Others said they had been warned to be wary of him. Still, by themselves, the rumors don’t add up to much.
More interesting than the rumors themselves was people’s reluctance to share them with me. I had “clapped” on Parker’s Medium piece, so perhaps I was perceived as his ally. One person said I was not seen as a friend of the reproductive justice movement. Two others suggested I was the wrong person to write the story because I wasn’t an investigative reporter. Not very flattering, but in the end I thought they might be right. If I were a real reporter, I would have been able to get Russell’s supporters to talk to me.
Now comes Maggie Bullock with a deeply reported article in The Atlantic, “The #MeToo Case That Divided the Abortion Rights Movement.” She did six months of interviews and research, and she didn’t come up with much, either. The rumors almost always concerned someone else, who couldn’t be contacted or named. The incidents Russell regarded as proof positive of Parker’s being a serial predator didn’t happen quite that way, according to others who were there. Other than Russell, no women told Bullock they were raped, molested, assaulted, touched, or even propositioned. In August one person came forward to claim Parker sexually harassed her: Yamani Hernandez, the head of the National Network of Abortion Funds, said he made salacious remarks to her, including that “he would tell his boys back home I was one of his new honeys.” (He denies having said that, and claims the other remarks have been taken out of context.) Playful teasing? Too familiar? Sexist disrespect? For Hernandez, they definitely crossed a line into inappropriate communications to a movement colleague who barely knew him. Still, given that the man lost his reputation, his board positions, and the speaking engagements he told me made up the majority of his income, you would just expect there to be more there there.
But then, not everyone agrees that Parker has suffered. The author and activist Robin Marty wrote on a listserv, “He never lost his career, instead he was removed from being invited to events, his role in boards, his speaking engagements, etc.” Oh. “Nobody has a right to be a celebrity,” the activist Mallory McMaster wrote me. “If someone has shown they’re willing to use their celebrity status or their power in a harmful way…people aren’t obligated to keep lifting that person up.” True enough, but what does fame have to do with Parker being disinvited from doing grand rounds at the New York University School of Medicine?
The original charge of rape has now become something more nebulous: According to several women I spoke with, the problem was bigger than a lack of consent—a word that didn’t come up; the issue was a general power imbalance and Parker’s refusal to acknowledge it. He, a famous doctor and author 20 years her senior, had more power than Russell, a novice activist and freelance writer, and so it was incumbent upon him to acknowledge fault and step away. Reproductive justice, I was told, means centering the less powerful person. “I don’t think we should be working from a framework of the impact on abusers or people who have been accused of abuse,” McMaster said. “We should be working on creating safety.”
Many people reminded me of the disbelief and shaming that women who come forward have typically been subjected to. Of course, they’re right. Taking women’s claims seriously is what Me Too is all about. But it isn’t dismissing a woman’s claims to investigate them fully. Isn’t Parker owed something from the movement he has devoted himself to for decades? Even as I wrote that question, I wondered if I am guilty of “himpathy”—taking the man’s side because he is, after all, the man. I can’t say for sure that I’m not doing that, but as readers of this column know all too well, it would certainly be a first for me. What I mostly feel is that it’s wrong to treat someone as guilty without looking into the accusation. I’ve spoken to many people who have known Parker and worked with him for decades. They think what happened is a travesty.
Men accused in Me Too cases often argue that they were denied due process, and sometimes it can sound like a dodge or an excuse or an attempt to impose an impossible burden of proof. I get that. And yet Willie Parker was ousted and ostracized and humiliated on the basis of an accusation posted on a website and rumors of rumors so vague, it isn’t even clear if they are different claims or versions of the same ones. Meanwhile, the potentially verifiable claim of a cover-up by pro-choice leaders has disappeared.
I asked Parker what due process would mean in his case. He replied, “It would mean that if someone makes a charge, there would have to be some effort to figure out if the accusation is true.”
Is that too much to ask?