He grew up Christian in Alabama and became a doctor at the suggestion of a college mentor. In Life’s Work, he explains why he’s now an abortion provider
When you first became an ob-gyn, you did not perform abortions because you felt it conflicted with your Christian principles. What changed?
I’ve been a Christian longer than I’ve been a physician. When I chose a career as a women’s health provider, I had to think more seriously, more deeply about the fact that I see women on a regular basis who have unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. The compassion that welled up inside me for each woman — each woman had a story, a circumstance — it came to a point where increasingly it was uncomfortable to be saying no. What I believed and what I practiced began to come into conflict.
How did you reconcile your religious beliefs with your sense of professional obligation?
My epiphany came while listening to a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King. In that sermon he described what made the Good Samaritan good. Someone had been robbed, left on the side of the road injured, and multiple people passed that person by. They all were afraid of what might happen to them if they stopped to help. A person not from the community described as the Samaritan stopped and provided aid. Dr. King said what made that person good was his ability to reverse the question of concern, to ask what will happen to this person if I don’t stop to help.
On that particular day, while listening to that sermon and contemplating my role as a women’s health provider, it became very personal for me. I became the person on the road having to respond to the need of another person — in this case women asking me to help them safely end their pregnancies.
Why did you decide to provide abortions in the South?
When I left Alabama at the age of 18, I was of the mind-set that Alabama is a better place to be from than to be in. But increasingly with my skill in abortions came the awareness of the degree to which access to abortion care is limited. I decided that out of a sense of commitment to the background from which I came, if I couldn’t make women in the South — a disproportionate number of whom are poor and of color, which is my background — if I couldn’t make those women a priority, who would?
Abortion providers have been the targets of violence, yet you don’t have a bodyguard and don’t wear a bulletproof vest. Do you fear for your life?
If I succumb to an anxiety that leaves me more preoccupied with what can happen to me than the good I can do, that’s already a form of death.
Are women’s reproductive rights more vulnerable now than they were before Roe v. Wade?
In my opinion there hasn’t been a day since Roe v. Wade became legal in 1973 that women haven’t had to fight to maintain access to this very important service. Roe has been in place for 44 years, but never has it been more vulnerable.
What will happen if Roe is overturned?
If Roe were to be overturned, abortion would not become illegal in this country. But it would go back to pre-1973, when we had states like New York, California, Hawaii and several others that legalized abortion before the Roe decision. Women would have their reproductive rights determined by their zip code. The real peril is that if states are left to their own mechanisms, in most states women would lose access to abortion services.
Are you hopeful about the future of women’s reproductive rights?
If I were not hopeful for the future, I would not get out of bed every day. I really believe that hopelessness and despair will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
This appears in the April 24, 2017 issue of TIME.