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When Willie Parker came to town

So last Thursday an editor in Texas shoots me a text. Seems he somehow has seen a photo of a poster circulating around Mississippi State, one inviting people to hear a certain speaker make a “Christian case for choice.”

A few hours later Daughter No. 2 and I are headed up Hwy. 25 to an event that for a solid week has put our state’s second largest university in the news. I mean, MSU is no Berkeley, after all. They’re better known for producing veterinarians and engineers than hosting controversial speakers.

Nonetheless, when we arrive on campus, Willie Parker is being feted like a celebrity in the Colvard Student Union. For those of you who don’t know, Parker is an itinerant abortionist, meaning he travels to perform abortions in five states, including Mississippi. He recently told Newsweek he does more than a thousand abortions each year. He’s also the author of a book entitled “Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice.”

We skip that reception and head toward Old Main Auditorium where Parker is scheduled to speak. On the sidewalk, we pass protesters and preachers and police.  Inside we are wanded and our bags are searched before we find seats in the press row, which is sparsely populated. The rest of the room is not. By 6 p.m. (showtime), I could count the number of empty seats on two hands. I do some math and estimate it’s a 400-plus size crowd.

The head of MSU’s Gender Studies Program (something new, alums?) begins by listing Parker’s accolades, topped by Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award, that organization’s highest prize. Then Parker takes the stage. First thing, he takes a selfie.

“Moments like this are few and far between,” he laughs.

No kidding.

An audience member highlights that same point a few minutes later by standing to his feet and hurling some pointed comments in the direction of the podium. He receives an immediate escort to parts unknown.

That’s when I notice all the security officers stationed around the edge of the room. No worries, though. The rest of the speech goes off without a hitch. 

Anyone there would have to admit Willie Parker is a good speaker. He has a commanding stage presence and a polite, respectful manner. He is, after all, a nationally-known figure. He’s been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and Esquire magazine, which titled its story: “The Abortion Ministry of Dr. Willie Parker.”

Yeah, you read that right. Ministry. 

Parker is big on churchy words like that. In his speech, the native Alabamian talks about his abortion services and advocacy in explicitly Christian terms. He says his fundamentalist background shaped him and gave him a respect for the Bible as a “sacred text.” He quotes Scripture. He points to hearing MLK’s “Good Samaritan” sermon as the epiphany moment that moved him from a practice of delivering babies to destroying them.

“I’m a good Samaritan,” Parker says, describing himself as showing compassion to women “who don’t feel the obligation to bring forth fetal life.”

The only time I see him get rattled occurs during the Q & A session. A young African American woman puts the microphone to her mouth and puts Parker on the spot: What about all the damage abortion has done to the black community?

They spar until the lady holding the mic (that would be the head of the Gender Studies Program) decides to move on. But not before the young questioner hits her mark at full volume: Abortion is killing dreams. Parker pauses while a sizable portion of the audience claps in agreement.

But the other sizable portion of the audience, at evening’s end, gives Parker a standing ovation.

Which brings me to the thought expressed by my editor as we prepared for broadcast: Was Parker really there to sway opinion, or were audience members already firmly pro-life or pro-abortion?    

I don’t know, but I told him one thing’s for sure. The college years are a time when many students are making up their minds about these issues. Parker’s appearance had a lot of swaying potential.

On the other hand, State’s decision to invite a “Christian” abortionist to speak seemed to galvanize pro-lifers across the board. A petition requesting the school provide a counter-viewpoint circulated throughout the state, garnering 13,000 signatures. Personhood Mississippi brought representatives to Starkville to speak one-on-one with coeds. Sign holders held their ground at street corners. And most notably, MSU Students for Life and Catholics Campus Ministry pressed the administration for equal time and got it. The prize concession? Pro-life speaker and author Christina Bennet, who spoke yesterday in the same spot where Parker was lauded last week.

That’s good, and all the school’s talk about public funds not being used to bring in Parker may be true. But here’s the kicker. His visit came at the request of a litany of university sponsors: the Gender Studies Program, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Provost, the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center, African American Students, the Department of Sociology-Race in America Lecture Series, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and the President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities.

Bennett’s invitation, in contrast, came as a result of pushback.

Bulldogs beware.