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Celebrating Abortion Providers

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AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

You'd think, what with the incessant campaigns to hobble, harass and vilify them, that abortion providers would be somewhere right up there with ax murderers, and at least lying low under the radar. But you would be wrong.

The National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers is at hand. It will be officially celebrated today, March 10, by Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice, assorted other reproductive rights organizations and every woman whose life has been honored and restored following the decision to have an abortion. The day comes exactly 21 years after the murder of Dr. David Gunn at his clinic in Pensacola, Fla., a tragedy that was followed by the killings of Dr. John Britton and clinic escort James Barrett in 1994, Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998 and Dr. George Tiller in 2009.

The irony of such losses is that abortion providers -- who still face serious risks -- save the lives of countless women every day. Is a day of appreciation enough? One day in return for all the millions of days of life returned to millions of women? I vote for celebrating at least throughout the month of March.

My own abortion, a back-alley experience following a 1956 workplace rape, was emblematic of a time when there were no such people to honor. Luckily, I got my life back. No one will ever know how many women did not, how many were left maimed or dead because they had no safe, legal option. Since 1973, thanks to passage of Roe v. Wade (but no thanks to those who are trying to send us back to the dark ages), they have had trained professionals motivated by compassion -- and by the stories of women like me.

Early on there were individuals like Dr. Harry S. Jonas, now retired after long years of medical practice, teaching, and advocacy for family planning. Jonas speaks of a woman he met when doing an OB/GYN residency some years before Roe v. Wade. She was dying of massive infection and multiple abscesses from a botched self-induced abortion after having endured 14 pregnancies. "I still remember that patient," Jonas says. "I remember what she looked like. I remember the bed she was in on Ward 1418. I will never forget it."

Today there are providers in heavily regulated states -- most of whom remain anonymous for very good reasons -- with similarly tragic stories. They tell of women who misuse abortion-inducing drugs because they can't get to a clinic; girls, barely past puberty, who are too frightened by protesters to access the care that is their constitutional right; a 14-year-old incest victim pleading for help to reach the nearest clinic many miles away; a sick, troubled mother of five having to choose between multiple required -- and unnecessary -- trips to the clinic and the job she desperately needs to keep. The physicians who are there for these women often face the need to treat their souls as much as their bodies.

Among those who choose to be open in their activism is my personal hero, Willie J. Parker. I have never met Dr. Parker, an African-American OB/GYN, other than on phone calls while researching Perilous Times: An Inside Look at Abortion Before -- and After -- Roe v. Wade. He speaks with passion and conviction. Currently Associate Medical Director of Family Planning Associates Medical Group in Chicago, Parker grew up Southern Baptist in a community that taught that abortion is wrong. His own views changed upon hearing a sermon about the Good Samaritan preached by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He recalls:

[King] said that what made the good Samaritan 'good' was that instead of thinking about what might happen to him if he stopped to help the traveler, he thought about what would happen to the traveler if he didn't stop to help. That led me to ... place a higher value on compassion. I couldn't stop to weigh the life of a pre-viable or a lethally flawed fetus against the life of the woman sitting across from me.

In addition to his day job, Parker offers help in other parts of the country where help is critically needed. He shrugs off questions about personal risk.

Almost any one of today's providers could make more money, and have a far easier life, in another job. Instead, they choose to do what they do so that women can choose to control their bodies and their lives. That's worth celebrating.

So light a candle. Write your congressperson. Send a few bucks to the nearest clinic and the organizations that fight for women's reproductive rights. One national day is just a fraction of the appreciation abortion providers deserve.