There’s a #MeToo Scandal Brewing in the Reproductive-Rights World

Dr. Willie Parker speaks to other reproductive rights advocates. Photo: Neilson Barnard/2014 Getty Images

Candice Russell, a Texas-based reproductive-rights activist, has accused a prominent abortion provider of sexual misconduct. In a Medium post published on Monday evening, Russell asserted that Dr. Willie Parker, who chairs the board of Physicians for Reproductive Health and is the author of Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, sexually assaulted her after they shared a bottle of wine in his hotel room. Though this appears to be the first time Russell has come forward publicly with her story, her account portrays his behavior toward women as something of an open secret. Complaints of his “inappropriate” behavior had become “increasingly prevalent,” within the movement, she wrote, adding, “The whispers had become so loud they were more like shouts.”

Russell’s story will rock the reproductive-rights movement. The fight for abortion access has entered an especially perilous time; activists worry that the addition of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court guarantees that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, or at least hollowed out so that the right to access abortion is only available to a privileged few. High stakes make a tight-knit movement, and Russell is well-known within it. So is Parker, but unlike Russell, he is also well-known outside activist circles. Russell has taken on a giant.

Parker owes his public profile to his work, which makes him a target for domestic terrorists, and to his personal story, which is compelling. “Dr. Parker is black, feminist and driven by his Christian faith to provide abortions in the South, where women seeking to terminate a pregnancy have few options,” Nicholas Kristof once wrote in his regular column for the New York Times. Parker once objected to legal abortion because of his religious convictions; now, he says, those same convictions direct him to perform terminations for women who need them. A 2014 profile in Esquire referred to his abortion as “ministry”; at the time, he was one of two abortion providers who traveled to Mississippi to provide care. Parker’s Christian case for abortion rights is effective counterprogramming, but it’s beneficial for Parker, too. He’s a fixture on the progressive speaking circuit, a sought-after source for commentary on abortion rights, and to some, a hero.

He is also a predator, according to Russell. And as she tells it, people know he is a predator. In her post, Russell said that she stopped attending reproductive-rights conferences “since SisterSong in New Orleans.” SisterSong is a reproductive rights organization, and its 2017 conference was held in New Orleans. At that conference, Russell wrote, she had an “awkward run-in” with Parker and “a complete stranger from another state,” who was described to Russell “as ‘one of Willie’s girls’ with enough innuendo in her tone to ensure I knew exactly what she meant.”

Parker has now denied Russell’s allegations in his own Medium post, published on Tuesday afternoon. In it, he says that he has known for two weeks that “a rumor” was about to drop, though he adds that he “had no clue of what it could possibly be.” Spliced in between compliments of Russell’s intelligence and writing talent, Parker denies all allegations of misconduct. He says that he has never seen Russell drunk, that he is a teetotaler and thus would not purchase a bottle of wine for his own use, and that their encounter was consensual.

But Russell’s detailed account is credible, and some reproductive-rights organizations have already distanced themselves from Parker. On Tuesday, UltraViolet released a statement that affirmed its support for Russell and added, “Demanding accountability from leaders in our movement only makes us stronger. Now that Candice Russell has done just that, it is on us to model what justice really looks like. We stand with her and thank her for her bravery.” As Jezebel reported on Monday, the National Network of Abortion Funds also released a statement that indicated its support for Russell.

Abortion opponents, meanwhile, have pointed to the news as proof of the abortion-rights movement’s innate moral hypocrisy:

A thorough investigation is due. If rumors of Parker’s misconduct had become so widespread, it’s time to find out who knew what, and when. But whatever revelation comes next, it’ll have no actual bearing on the case for abortion access. Parker is not the first progressive figure to allegedly commit sexual misconduct — and on this subject, the conservative movement doesn’t exactly have the moral high ground. Sexual misconduct is a problem that transcends partisanship, facilitated by power differentials that exist independently of political views. “I had to turn off the email on my rarely-touched website last night after I was spammed by a repeated message telling me that coming forward was selfish, and warning me of the blood that would be on my hands,” Russell wrote. Justice is always a fight, whether it’s for abortion access, or for survivors of sexual abuse.

A #MeToo Scandal Is Brewing in the Abortion Rights World