On a 92-degree morning in September, three clinic escorts gathered in the meager shade of a tree outside the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives. They arrive here at 8:30 a.m. on the dot, regular as clock-punchers, on the three days a week the Huntsville clinic is open to perform abortions. The women and girls arrive dressed for comfort in sweatpants and shower slides, carrying pillows from home or holding the hand of a partner or friend. The escorts, meanwhile, wear brightly colored vests and wield giant umbrellas to block the incoming patients from the sight, if not the sound, of the other group that comes here like clockwork: the protesters.
Sometimes there are as many as a dozen. This day there were four: one woman, three men, all white. Four doesn’t sound like that many until you’re downwind of them maniacally hollering: Mommy, don’t kill me! You’re lynching your black baby! They rip their arms and legs off! They suffer! They torture them!
But escorts are made of stern stuff. Josie, with her short snow-white ponytail and T-shirt spangled with buttons (fearless flawless feminist, abortion is normal), doesn’t get paid to defend, as she puts it, “these patients, these doctors, this staff.” Nevertheless, that’s her job. Among those Josie has sworn to protect is Willie Parker, an ob-gyn who has worked here for the past several years and who, until recently, was a hero of the reproductive-rights movement.
Last fall, while trying to defend Parker—not in this parking lot, but in the no-less-divisive wilds of Facebook message boards—Josie got dragged into a dispute that has shaken the reproductive-rights movement, from its uppermost reaches to its grassroots volunteers. One of Josie’s fellow escorts was called “trash” after she spoke up for Parker; others were told they didn’t deserve to be escorts. The people hurling the insults were not pro-lifers but fellow abortion-rights foot soldiers: How dare Josie—how dare anyone—not believe Candice?
On March 25, 2019, the activist Candice Russell posted a 3,300-word essay on the website Medium titled “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.” In prose that was by turns confusing and moving, Russell wrote that after a year and a half of casual texting and a handful of face-to-face meetups, she and Parker had met for dinner in Dallas in October 2016. She got drunk, while he, she discovered partway through the evening, stuck to tonic water and lime. Then they went back to his hotel room, where she continued to drink, and they had sex.
Russell did not write that she’d told Parker she didn’t want to sleep with him, but she strongly implied that, having downed “four martinis and an entire bottle of wine,” she was inebriated beyond any practical ability to consent. And, in a sweeping accusation that extended far beyond what had happened between the two of them in that hotel room, she called him a “predator.” She’d gradually learned, she wrote, that the way he’d treated her was part of a pattern. Rumors about his behavior swirled in “whispers [that] had become so loud they were more like shouts”—and unnamed movement leaders were refusing to expose him.
Russell did not report Parker to the police, and unlike, say, the cases of Matt Lauer at NBC or even Al Franken in the Senate, a workplace investigation was never on the table: The activist and the doctor operated in the same sphere, but they weren’t colleagues. Instead, the case of Russell versus Parker has been battled out largely on message boards and in closed-door conversations within the insular, impassioned realm of abortion rights, among people, mostly women, for whom the cause of bodily autonomy was a calling long before the dawn of the #MeToo movement. Yet its tentacles stretch much further, bringing into the open generational and, to an extent, racial divisions in our rapidly shifting views on sexual assault—the kinds of questions and doubts that are typically expressed only in private. How does alcohol figure into culpability? What constitutes appropriate sexual behavior when one person has more power than the other? And perhaps most crucial, how absolute is the duty to believe women—the rallying cry of #MeToo?
That the saga of Candice Russell and Willie Parker is set in the abortion-rights world heightens the stakes, and not just for the two of them. Sooner rather than later, one of the recent spate of state laws prohibiting abortion after six weeks’ gestation may have its intended consequence: provoking a ruling by the right-leaning Supreme Court that could further erode, if not eliminate, the rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade. Within the reproductive-justice movement, talk of a post-Roe America is not an if but a when—planning is well under way for how to help women in red states get abortions when the procedure is no longer federally protected. Indeed, with only one abortion clinic per state in six states, you could argue that many Americans are already living in a post-Roe reality. All of which makes Russell’s allegation against Parker a potential chink in the armor of the movement itself—one that could, as an activist put it, “reify the narrative that ‘abortionists abuse women’ simply by providing abortions.”
This isn’t just a theory. Three days after Russell’s essay was published, Life Dynamics, a Texas group known for sending “spies for life” into abortion clinics to try to dig up information that might be used to close them down, reveled in the allegations against Parker, claiming on Twitter that it had proof that “thousands of women have been sexually assaulted or raped by abortionists. Some of the abortionists that we documented are still working!”
More recently, Gloria Gray, the owner of a Tuscaloosa, Alabama, clinic where Parker worked last fall, told me that one of her regular protesters had begun making the baseless charge that she was employing a “sexual molester” who’d “fondled patients.”
Willie Parker and Candice Russell met in 2015, at the Hartford, Connecticut, airport, after attending the annual Civil Liberties and Public Policy conference. The bald-headed, then-52-year-old Parker, who wears round, black-framed glasses and a silver hoop in one ear, had been a featured speaker. The Latina Russell was, at age 32, a “scholarship kid,” as she jokingly puts it—a freelance writer and fledgling activist allowed to attend for free. As she recalls, she sat down at the gate, plunked down her bag, and accidentally bumped Parker. As the two chatted, other conference attendees kept interrupting to take selfies with him.
It would be hard to overstate Parker’s prominence within the reproductive-rights movement at the time. He was its most visible male figurehead—indeed, its only one. A black, devoutly Christian ob-gyn born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Parker spent the first half of his career refusing to perform abortions. Then, in 2003, at the age of 41, he had what he has described as a “come-to-Jesus moment.” He radically reversed course, becoming not just an abortion provider but, you might say, the abortion provider: a traveling doctor who—eschewing the bulletproof vest favored by some in his high-risk profession—zigzags across the Deep South tending to patients, most of whom are poor women of color, at clinics in Alabama and Mississippi.
That was only part of it. Parker posted himself up at the movement’s front line with the same zeal with which he had once handed out religious pamphlets as a born-again teenage preacher. At one event after another, he cast abortion as a moral imperative that ensures a woman’s human right to lead the life she wants to live. This message refashioned the most controversial medical procedure of our time as the Christian thing to do—and gave the abortion-rights community a language it sorely needed. The abortion storytellers’ organization Shout Your Abortion sold T-shirts bearing Parker’s face. The novelist Jodi Picoult modeled a character on him. In 2017, Parker would publish his own book, a memoir called Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice.
One reason Parker was so beloved is that he never acted superior. Exalted as he became, he never lost his easy affability or his appetite for conversation; even in the procedure room, he’s known for keeping up a steady stream of comforting small talk. That day in Hartford, he offered to save Russell a seat on the plane—he was in boarding group A; she was in C—which was not unusual. It was Parker being Parker. But to Russell it was a big deal. On the plane, she shared a story she’d written for HuffPost; he compared it to the work of James Baldwin. (She had to Google the name in the airplane bathroom.) Parker told her he was working on his memoir—maybe he could send her some chapters to read? When we met in a Tuscaloosa hotel’s conference room in September, about six months after she posted her essay, Russell relived the thrill of the request: Here was “the Gloria Steinem of the movement, and he wants to be writing partners?” she recalled thinking. “This is awesome.”
Russell’s own come-to-Jesus moment—though she’d never describe it as such—had occurred a couple of years earlier, after she finished a bartending shift at a place she calls “Ye Olde Irish Hooters.” When she got into her car and turned on the radio, the news was all about the Texas legislation later known as H.B. 2, which proposed banning abortion after 20 weeks, among other restrictions. This was 2013. State Senator Wendy Davis was soon to become famous for filibustering the bill in her hot-pink Mizunos. Sitting in her car listening, Russell thought, “They’re talking about abortion like it’s this horrible thing. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
She drove straight to Austin, 200 miles south, changed into a dress that was in her trunk, and marched into the capitol rotunda, where she waited in line for hours to testify about her abortion before the state Senate. Russell had gotten pregnant after dating her then-boyfriend for only a month and a half and, at 21, had had an abortion without regret—she views the procedure as the key to her future, and her personal freedom. Making her story more powerful, Russell is what anti-abortion activists call an “abortion survivor.” When her mother was 14 and about to have what would have been her third abortion, she decided at the last minute to keep her baby, Candice. Russell’s narrative flipped the pro-life assumption that no one who’d almost been aborted would ever terminate her own pregnancy.
Eventually, telling this story—and that of her second abortion, which she had at age 30—became a sort of job for Russell. As a member of the advocacy group We Testify (an arm of the National Network of Abortion Funds), she shared her account with reporters at The New York Times, The Guardian, and CNN.
But in 2015, when she met Parker, Russell was still looking for a way into the movement, volunteering at local Texas organizations without gaining much traction, she told me. Curled up in an armchair, Russell looked dramatically different from the bright-eyed, sprightly woman in Facebook photos taken back then. She seemed deeply fatigued, with dark circles under her eyes, and she was noticeably heavier: Russell had had gastric-bypass surgery in 2009, shedding almost 180 pounds to become, at 5 foot 2, a petit size 4. But since the night with Parker, she said, she’d gained some 80 pounds, which she attributed mostly to alcohol. Still, a certain dorm-room girlishness remained, with her chipped black nail polish and black floral dress; flashes of wit and charisma made it easy to imagine the funny, “boisterous” woman Parker says he was initially charmed by.
After that flight together, Russell said, Parker became a “very close and personal friend,” thanks to a bond based on shared childhood trauma. As he wrote in his memoir, Parker and his five siblings grew up on food stamps. Their mother was twice hospitalized after psychotic breaks and eventually was diagnosed with manic depression.
Russell’s own mother was a stripper and sometime sex worker, and was addicted to meth and heroin, she says. By the time Russell was a preteen, she had been abandoned to live with her stepfather and two half-siblings. But during a brief reappearance, her mother sold her 12-year-old daughter for sex—one of multiple incidences of sexual abuse in her childhood, Russell says.
Russell herself struggles with mental illness, she told me, and in the months leading up to her October 2016 get-together with Parker, she’d been diagnosed with severe PTSD due to childhood trauma. She’d been looking forward to confiding in Parker about this at dinner that night, in fact. On the handful of occasions when they’d met in person, the two had had hours-long conversations, she said, in which she told him “things I hadn’t even told my [ex-]husband.”
Listening to Parker describe his relationship with Russell is like listening to a record played backwards: A completely different sound comes out. At 5 foot 11, Parker is barrel-chested and physically imposing, a presence that is offset by his signature collection of professorial bow ties and ascots. But the day we met, at a Manhattan sidewalk café, the city was sweltering, and he wore a crisp button-down, no tie. As he talked, in long blocks of uninterrupted speech, he frequently removed his glasses to mop his brow.
What Parker said he knew about Russell, you could learn at a cocktail party: She was from Seattle, had been married, had a stepson she was still in contact with. Their conversations, he said, covered music, the Seattle Seahawks, their activism, Russell’s various jobs—over time, she was appointed to the board of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and hired as an executive assistant by the National Network of Abortion Funds. She “absolutely” never opened up to him about her childhood trauma or mental-health problems, he said. If she had talked about her mother, he likely would have shared about his own, he added, “but we didn’t have that kind of fluency.” Their interactions were “too inconsistent for me to become a close confidant to her,” and he said he never asked her to read his book-in-progress.
Parker got married for the first time in August 2018, seven months before Russell posted her story, to a 54-year-old flight attendant with whom he now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. But until then he’d been an object in motion, always on the road for his advocacy or abortion work, finding connection where he could—people he’d grab a bite with when he happened to land in their town. In his mind, the only thing that differentiated Russell from those friends is the fact that on one occasion they’d had sex.
Both Parker’s and Russell’s recollections of the night of October 8, 2016, are fragmented—hers, she says, because of alcohol; his, he says, because of the erasure of time. They agree on this: They had dinner at a Cajun restaurant in Dallas, where he’d come for a conference, before heading to a rooftop bar called Happiest Hour. Around midnight, they returned to his hotel and had sex.
Parker’s version of the story hinges on a moment—maybe at the bar, he’s not certain—when Russell looked at him and said something along the lines of “There’s this undeniable chemistry between us. It’s mutual. What are we going to do about it?” This surprised him, he said. He’d found Russell attractive, but they hadn’t seemed destined for anything more than friendship. Still, to him, this was the moment not just of consent but of initiation: She made the first move.
In Tuscaloosa, when I repeated this part of Parker’s story to Russell, she practically doubled over in pain. “That’s not how I talk,” she said, spitting out the words. And even if she had come on to him—which she doesn’t remember doing—she said she was drunk enough that any indication of consent was irrelevant. “I don’t care if I said ‘Let’s go fuck in the bathroom.’ ”
In some ways, Russell’s and Parker’s conflicting views of the night all boil down to this. Russell said Parker could not have missed that she was plastered: She drank a few martinis at dinner, at least one more at the bar, and a whole bottle of wine in his hotel room, and she describes herself as “clumsy” when she drinks. “I sway a lot, fall a lot. I slur. If I’m brownout drunk—so drunk, I’m not remembering—I’m sloppy at that point.”
But Parker, a lifetime teetotaler, said that he didn’t count Russell’s drinks, never saw a bottle of wine in his room, and didn’t witness Russell act as she describes. Removing his glasses to rub his eyes, he recalled her condition using a physician’s parlance: “There were no slurs, no incoherent thoughts, no motor-function impairment.” Until the Medium post, Russell hadn’t given him an inkling that she thought their night together was anything other than consensual, he said, and the two continued to text periodically. At some point, Russell must have “decided to feel some other kind of way about” sex she’d agreed to and so reframed it as an “exploitative, predatory thing”—the kind of thing “nobody would question.”
With at least part of this analysis, Russell would concur: She did change her mind. For a long time, she described the encounter to herself and others as “problematic.” But the more she thought about it, the more that idea began to break apart and reassemble into a different shape. If another woman had told Russell that she’d gotten “brownout” drunk and had sex, she says, “would I be calling it ‘problematic’? No, I would call it rape.”
The day after Russell’s March 25 letter, Parker took to Medium to post a point-by-point rebuttal of her allegations, but that did not keep him from being swiftly disappeared from the movement. On the 26th, he stepped down, under duress, from his position as chair of the board of Physicians for Reproductive Health. He says he was disinvited from four upcoming academic talks and lost his seat on the boards of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and the Abortion Access Front (formerly Lady Parts Justice League), an organization led by the comedian and activist Lizz Winstead, who until then had been one of his closest allies. The National Network of Abortion Funds declared solidarity with accusers, and said it already had been in the process of dropping Parker’s name from one of its two national funds. NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue, perhaps the most powerful abortion-rights leader in the country after Cecile Richards resigned in 2018 from the top post at Planned Parenthood, tweeted: “We #believesurvivors and we believe Candice Russell. Sexual assault does occur in movement spaces, and we should have no tolerance for it.”
The fierce constituency that rose up around Russell demanded no proof. None was necessary. She was one of their own, clearly the David to Parker’s Goliath, the older, richer, more powerful male—the movement “rock star” 20 years her senior. To these ardent, instant supporters, the thinking was: Why would anyone do what she did—reveal a humiliating experience, including her own hard drinking, and risk being ostracized by the abortion-rights community for tarring its MVP—unless it was true? What could she possibly have to gain by lying about such a thing?
“That is literally an option of last resort,” says Amanda Reyes, the founder and executive director of Alabama’s Yellowhammer Fund, a reproductive-justice organization that helps pay for abortions in that state. After reading Russell’s Medium post, Reyes wrote to Russell—whom she’d never met—to say I believe you. In recent years, Reyes told me, groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL have leaned hard on hashtags like #trustwomen, meaning that we should trust women to make their own decisions about whether to terminate a pregnancy. “If I do not extend that [same trust] to survivors,” Reyes said, “then who am I?”
As it happens, Reyes’s belief led to one of the more unlikely plot twists in this story. In June, Reyes offered Russell a job as the deputy director of Yellowhammer, which practically overnight had gone from a shoestring operation to a force to be reckoned with. After Alabama passed the country’s most restrictive abortion ban in May, the group’s bank balance leaped from $5,000 to more than $2 million in just two months, enriched by the online activism of celebrities like Rihanna and Reese Witherspoon.
For Russell, the job meant moving to Tuscaloosa to work for an organization whose primary mission is funding abortions in Alabama—including those Parker performs. But she was undeterred: This was a chance to do important work at a level she’d only dreamed of. And her supporters had her back; all summer, the fire Russell had lit continued to rage online, and with increasing vitriol. Why was Parker, “a serial rapist,” even allowed to perform abortions anymore? one activist asked on a Facebook page called #IbelieveCandice. “I wouldn’t feel safe under his care.”
For all his eloquence on the subject of a woman’s right to choose, Parker is not deft at expressing the emotional impact of his exile, or of such invective. He uses phrases like profound disappointment and moments of pain. But he once offered, piercingly, that the way Russell had written on Medium of his hands all over her had made him sound “animalistic,” like the stereotypical sexualized black man.
While Parker says he prefers not to dwell on the racial dimensions of this story—a black man accused of a crime and condemned with no recourse—one of his close friends, the social-justice advocate Wyndi Anderson, believes that on some level he had been steeling himself against this possibility. “If you grew up in the South, this is what we think black men do—rape women,” says Anderson, who is white and was raised in South Carolina. “As a black man who has been putting his hands on and in white women and [other] women, he has been waiting for this fucking thing, this charge, since the day he started doing this work.”
The few who did publicly take issue with Russell’s denunciation of Parker were lambasted for victim-blaming, or written off as “rape apologists.” The documentary-film maker Dawn Porter, who spent three years in Parker’s orbit while shooting her 2016 film, Trapped, about the diminishing number of abortion clinics in the Deep South, uncorked her outrage on Twitter: “What did i miss? You drank 4 martinis and a bottle of wine on your own. Did he force you to do that? You slept with him and you regret it? That makes him a PREDATOR?” Mallory McMaster, one of Russell’s fellow abortion storytellers, fired back: “Dawn, your next documentary should follow your abrupt departure from the movement after showing us all that you don’t share our values.”
The notion that a woman who drinks too much is at all responsible for unwanted sex has become verboten in recent years—understandably, because it risks reopening an old window, allowing back in the creeping suspicion that women are in some way to blame when they’re assaulted. But in reality, things get messy. In her Medium post, Russell herself wrote, “If I had done the right thing, left at the appropriate time, stopped after two drinks like I should have, none of this would have ever happened.” By the time we met six months later she was free of any ambiguity. The fact that Parker was sober figured prominently in her thinking. If they’d both been drunk, the sex would have been “not great, but not predatory,” in Russell’s estimation. But because he’d had his wits about him and she hadn’t, she said to me, as if addressing Parker directly, “That’s your bad. You’re a feminist leader and a physician, and you are choosing to count that as consent. That is your mistake. That makes you a predator.”
The law draws no such distinction. These days, we all know that a person cannot consent to sex when incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, but what constitutes incapacitated, exactly? In most states, including Texas, an accuser who drinks of her own volition (versus, say, being roofied) must be fully unconscious—literally unable to resist—to qualify as such. So legally, it doesn’t matter how wasted Russell was—as long as she wasn’t passed-out. Cynthia Godsoe, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who specializes in gender and sexuality, says the standards in this area are beginning to shift: Under Title IX rules, which govern how colleges address sexual assault on campus, people who are visibly drunk are sometimes considered past the point of consent. And coincidentally, a bill is now pending in the Texas statehouse to expand the definition of sexual assault to include cases of what Godsoe calls “serious drunkenness,” or, in the language of the legislation, cases in which “the actor knows the other person is intoxicated” to the point that he or she can’t “appraise the nature of the act.”
Of course, defining that level of intoxication isn’t necessarily straightforward, nor is proving that one person knew how drunk another person was. “Some people act sloppy; some don’t,” Godsoe says. “Someone could drink four martinis and be okay; someone else would not.” The limits of the justice system are one reason the writer Tanya Selvaratnam—who told The New Yorker in 2018 about being domestically abused by then–New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman—last April wrote an op-ed for Glamour backing Russell. For many victims of sexual assault and harassment, Selvaratnam contended, “the court of public opinion” is the best or only option available. (Schneiderman was never criminally charged.)
Post-#MeToo, many people have become comfortable trusting narratives that wouldn’t have been credited before. Christine Blasey Ford recalled her alleged assault by Brett Kavanaugh with great specificity and also with occasional imprecision, more than 30 years after the fact—and polls showed that 45 percent of Americans believed her (versus 33 percent who believed Kavanaugh). Andrea Constand recalled an assault during which she had been only half-conscious, thanks to three little blue pills she’d been given by Bill Cosby—and the comedian was convicted of aggravated indecent assault. Russell’s drinking, her spotty memory, and her troubled past make her exactly the kind of woman whose account of sexual harassment or assault was for generations disregarded, dismissed without a backwards glance. What is #believewomen, after all, if you don’t believe this woman?
The mounting force of this duty to believe was apparent the week after Russell posted her essay, when two elder stateswomen of the reproductive-justice movement called for due process—and were roundly ignored. In an op-ed, Toni Bond Leonard and Loretta Ross exhorted the abortion-rights community not to rush to judgment, lest they violate Parker’s human rights. “What is painfully evident,” they wrote, “is that our lack of process is fracturing the movement, often along racial and generational lines, through a dangerous collision of #MeToo with reproductive justice.” Six months later, not one activist I spoke with had been swayed by this sentiment: The generational divide Leonard and Ross had identified was real, they all told me, and the elders were on the wrong side of it.
Ross helped coin the phrase reproductive justice, which emphasizes the needs of marginalized communities (the poor, people of color) and has replaced pro-choice as the dominant framework for abortion-rights activism. From 1979 to 1982, she was the director of the first rape crisis center in the country, in Washington, D.C. “I’m pre-#MeToo,” she told me last fall. No one who’s seen what she has wants to undermine the credibility of survivors, Ross continued, but by the same token, “no reasonable veteran of the anti-rape movement is going to agree that every so-called survivor is absolutely telling the truth. That’s just not true.”
At this time in history, in the circles in which Ross operates, that is an extremely controversial statement, but she didn’t hedge. “A lot of people tell stories through the lens of their trauma that are as real as can be to them. That doesn’t make it the objective truth. While you want to hold that story for that person, you have to be very, very careful what you do with it. Because you have to have other evidence—something to back it up, other than their feelings.”
Russell might never have gone public, based on her own telling, were it not for the stories she says she heard about Parker hitting on other drunk or vulnerable women—the “whispers [that] had become so loud they were more like shouts.” Indeed, her essay reads as an invitation to those who suffered similar harm to join her in publicly naming Parker. That hasn’t happened: No one else has come forward to say she has been sexually assaulted by the doctor.
One woman accused Parker of sexually harassing her: Yamani Hernandez, the executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, who happens to be Russell’s former boss. In a series of tweets in August, Hernandez said that during a 2015 photo op, Parker leaned in and whispered in her ear that “he would tell his boys back home I was one of his new honeys.” Later, when those pictures were posted on the group’s Facebook page, and someone joked that they looked like wedding shots, he commented on the photo that he would “draw [Hernandez] a bath with oil and flowers and rub [her] feet.” When Hernandez then texted him to ask if he wanted to say something to her privately, Parker replied (in communications he shared with me), “All just jokes, if I was interested in you, you’d have known by now”—a comment intended, she thought, to “knock me down a peg.” (Parker wrote Hernandez in August to say that while he didn’t remember their exchanges the same way she did, he was sorry for “ever” offending her. She thanked him for the “important step toward repair,” adding that she hoped he would “seek education.”)
Russell knew about Parker’s sexually tinged comments to Hernandez, and she says they’re one of the “whispers” that persuaded her to write her essay. As for the other stories that influenced Russell, I followed up on each, and, among those I could trace, her version had marked differences from the one offered by others.
The moment Russell said she was sure she “wasn’t alone” came one evening when she was confiding in a female colleague about Parker. The woman stopped her. “She said she could finish my story, because it had happened to her best friend,” Russell told me. Specifically, an activist younger than Parker had gotten drunk past the point of consent and had sex with him. When I spoke with this colleague, however, she said that while she believes Russell is telling the truth about her own experience, she’d told Russell only that she’d heard other “shady” things about Parker—and she’d been alluding only to inappropriate remarks he’d made to a friend.
Russell collected another piece of damning information, she said, at a 2017 conference called Let’s Talk About Sex, held a year or so after her encounter with Parker. There, another higher-up in the movement (who declined to be interviewed) said to her, “Oh, you must be one of Willie’s girls.” To Russell, this suggested that reproductive-rights power players knew that Parker took advantage of young women and weren’t doing anything about it. How many other victims are out there? she thought.
Cherisse Scott, the founder and CEO of a Memphis reproductive-justice organization called SisterReach, told me she made a “Willie’s girls”–like comment in front of Russell at that conference, but her intention was close to the opposite of Russell’s interpretation. Watching Parker and Russell sitting together at a table near the hotel bar—the pair’s only in-person meeting after their encounter—Scott got the impression that Russell was irritated when other women tried to join them. (Russell, meanwhile, said she was just trying to be “cordial” with Parker because she “didn’t want to make a scene” in public.) At the time, Scott, who is African American, thought Russell was white, which to her put the physician at risk. In a country where black men have “historically been fetishized by white women,” she wrote in an email to me, “he could easily become ‘Native Son.’ ” Scott determined to intervene, with a light touch. “Dr. Parker,” she recalled exclaiming as she approached their table, “you are always holding court. The girls know they love them some Willie Parker!” After Russell left the table, Scott warned Parker to be careful—which at the time he considered unnecessary, he told me, because he was confident in his ability to handle himself with women.
Russell said she was finally moved to divulge her story by at least two people who mentioned that they’d seen, or heard tales of, Parker “sidling up” to unidentified young women at conferences. She wouldn’t disclose the name of one of those people, however, because the story was told to her in confidence. The second person, a board member of a reproductive-rights group, told me that while he believes and supports Russell, he didn’t remember telling her this—he wouldn’t have firsthand knowledge of such behavior anyway, he said, because he was never around Parker.
In Tuscaloosa, Russell showed me a video clip that someone had forwarded to her before she wrote her letter. It showed Parker dancing at a conference, “humping somebody to some stupid ’90s slow jam,” as she described it—proof that he’d become “brazen, emboldened,” and had to be stopped. The video is 15 seconds long, and shot from a distance. In pink light, on a small platform in the middle of a dance floor, Parker is dancing surrounded by five women, maybe more; it’s hard to tell. He’s the outlier, older than the rest and, well, male. With his shirtsleeves rolled up and his bow tie undone, he looks exactly the way one activist described him to me: “like your fun uncle,” right before last call at a wedding.
At the eight-second mark, Russell jabbed a finger at the screen. “Do you see that?” Revulsion was thick in her voice. “His hand, it’s on her hip. He’s practically grinding on her.”
We replayed it, twice. I strained. I squinted. Did Parker’s hand graze the woman’s hip? Maybe. Though to me, it looked like he was worried she was about to fall off the platform and was reaching out to catch her. I began to get the surreal sense that Russell and I were watching two different videos: Mine was benign; hers was evidence of predatory behavior.
Beyond trying to track down the leads Russell gave me, I contacted numerous members of the reproductive-rights field to ask: Was Parker’s bad behavior an open secret in their world? The overwhelming majority of people I spoke with, many of them Russell’s own allies, said they had never heard anything untoward about Parker before her Medium piece. There were two exceptions. Laurie Bertram Roberts, a co-founder of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, told me that a year before Russell posted her story, another woman had disclosed that she’d had sex with Parker when she was too drunk to consent and considered it rape. Parker denied this, and Bertram Roberts would not ask the woman to speak with me; doing so, she argued, would only retraumatize her. In addition, Bertram Roberts said four women have told her Parker made comments that made them feel “uncomfortable,” along the lines of what he said to Hernandez; Bertram Roberts would not share their names or any specifics.
Separately, a former journalist who covers reproductive rights (and asked not to be identified because he didn’t think it was his place as a “cisgender man” to get too involved) said that before Russell’s Medium post, two female activists had mentioned to him that Parker “had a reputation” for taking advantage of young women at conferences. Both of his sources declined to be contacted, so it’s impossible to know whether they were talking about what happened with the two women already on the record—Russell and Hernandez—or other women. (Parker said that none of this is true.)
Before Russell’s story went live, Bertram Roberts said a rumor was widely circulating that an abortion provider had sexually assaulted someone in the movement. Later, she realized the gossip was about Russell. So again, were there many women with stories to tell about Willie Parker? Or were the stories of Russell and Hernandez gaining momentum as they reverberated in the tight-knit community?
Even if that’s the case, Bertram Roberts told me that she doesn’t think Parker should be let off the hook. Take Russell’s rape allegation out of the equation—what’s a man like Parker doing in bed with a woman like Russell in the first place? she asked. A 41-year-old queer woman, Bertram Roberts is also something of a rock star in the movement; she knows what it’s like when these “18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds” run up and ask to take a selfie. “They’ll be all doe-eyed,” she said. “Can I just sit and talk to you? Can I come hang out in your room?” Her answer, invariably, is “Hell no.” Refusing to bask in that kind of abject admiration, she says, “is an ethical choice.”
Parker considers this a false equivalency. When he and Russell met, she wasn’t 19; she was 32. “I’m still questioning what authority I had over Candice, even if she says ‘I looked up to you as a hero,’ ” Parker told me, shaking his head stubbornly. Such reasoning, he contended, strips women of sexual agency. Any woman who admires his work—or for that matter, any woman who admires a man who is richer, more successful, better-looking—“is unable to give consent?” If it’s a question of age, “how old would Candice have to be to assert herself toward me, and for me to be able to say yes without being regarded as [having] preyed upon her?”
Two weeks after I got home from Alabama, I learned that friends of Russell’s had become worried about her mental health. Increasingly anxious to provide proof for this story, and claiming that it was a hit piece on her, she had begun to lean on people to back up her narrative, including one woman who told me Russell had asked her to say that she’d overheard conversations she had not. (After two days of interviews in Alabama, Russell did not answer any further questions from me or the magazine.)
What happened in the hotel room with Parker, we’ll never truly know. But in the course of reporting this story, I couldn’t help but think that Russell may have confabulated or exaggerated her version of the ensuing drama. The generous view is that, at an exceedingly vulnerable time, Russell heard what she needed to hear, mistaking, for instance, a comment about “shady” behavior as a sign of corroboration. The less generous view is that, out of either a growing sense of desperation or malevolence, she made up parts of the story.
When pieces of a story are not true, what does that mean for the whole? I’ve wondered what would have happened if, from the beginning, Russell had simply stuck to her own account of her experience with Parker and left out the rumors about other women. Whatever you believe about the truth of it, it’s at least, in the vernacular of #MeToo, “her story to tell.” Of course, Russell may have written about many women being harmed by Parker because she thought there were many. But also, maybe, she did not think it was enough to talk about a single, relatively powerless woman: Candice Russell.
Coming forward has clearly been painful and destabilizing for Russell, as it has been for many women who have alleged sexual harassment or assault. Although the online chorus was mostly on her side, she took the doubt expressed by revered leaders such as Ross as a hostile attack. But it was when she described other blowback to her Medium piece that her inability to support her claims became most conspicuous. Russell told me that her website was flooded with “hundreds and hundreds” of emails declaring that the blood of the women of Alabama and Mississippi would be on her hands. But when I asked to see some of them, she said they’d been lost after her website was hacked. Russell said Ross called her a “whore” and “a stripper with a $75,000-a-year salary” on social media, but she couldn’t show me the posts because they’d been eliminated—perhaps by an internet “scrub” company, she added darkly. (Ross denies harassing Russell online, dismissing her claims as “delusional and self-serving.”)
Russell did show me screenshots of three threatening text messages—“Nobody will ever believe the daughter of a $2 crack whore,” one reads—but they looked somehow off to me, so I showed them to a digital-forensics expert. He said that the font didn’t look like a standard Apple one, and the file had been saved in an unusual format, using the now-defunct software Picasa—which raises questions: If Russell had captured these on her phone, why would they have gone through extra editing and storage software? It’s extremely difficult to tell when a text has been doctored, and I have no way of knowing whether these were, but the expert told me that he’d be “concerned about the authenticity of the images.”
One friend of Russell’s, Robin Marty, the author of Handbook for a Post-Roe America, believes it was Parker’s own Medium essay that led him to be so completely ostracized from the movement. Had Parker recognized the power disparity between himself and Russell; had he said something like “I did not realize at the time how those actions were perceived by you—I am going to look at how I have done things and see if there are things that I can change within my own life,” the outcome might have been different. Instead, he indulged in textbook “gaslighting,” she says, treating a woman as if it was all in her head.
When I shared Marty’s language with Parker, however, he was unmoved. Russell was blatantly fabricating, he said. So, on principle, he could not accept responsibility for harm—not even if doing so would somehow restore him to his former prominence. “Not even to make this go away,” he told me firmly.
Even if Parker had managed to sound more humble—or more evolved, as Marty might put it—he probably wouldn’t have helped himself much. Grassroots activists told me that the stain of doubt Russell’s charges put on Parker immediately rendered his presence untenable at meetings and conferences, particularly because they’re valued as “safe spaces” for people who are regularly subject to ugly threats. These female activists, many of them volunteers, many of them young, arguably keep the fight for reproductive rights afloat. Who could risk alienating them?
Jodi Magee, the longtime president of Physicians for Reproductive Health, whose board Parker chaired, refused to disclose details of confidential deliberations about him. But she did say that, in the Trump-Pence era, with “state legislators coming after us every single day,” her job is to keep the wheels on the bus, so to speak. I took that to mean: Keep the organization above reproach, so that it can stay on task and avoid throwing red meat to anti-abortion forces.
This past fall, when no one else had accused Parker of sexual violence, Tanya Selvaratnam told me she felt compelled to revise her post for Glamour. It weighed on her that the doctor had been banished seemingly with no “due process.” She wrote: “I believe in investigating allegations. If we don’t establish the veracity of the allegations and the credibility of the accuser, if we don’t distinguish between men behaving badly versus men committing horrific acts against women and causing lifelong trauma, we do the #metoo movement a great disservice.”
Such calls for due process, though, give rise to the question: Due process administered by whom, exactly, and how? In June, the leaders of some 30 abortion-rights organizations gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss, in part, how the movement might handle complaints of sexual misconduct in the future. Though the deliberations were off the record, Fatima Goss Graves, the president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, which helped convene the meeting, told me that the overarching goal wasn’t “due process,” a criminal-law standard established to protect the accused, but “fair processes” for the accused and the accuser, like those used in workplaces. What this means practically for a movement made up of interwoven but independent groups is hard to fathom, but Goss Graves said it was unlikely that a central entity might be formed to resolve complaints. All she would say is that the first step is to make sure that every organization, large or small, informs its employees and volunteers that if they’re harassed—whether at the office or at a meeting or an event—“we want to know about it.”
There is no evidence that the conflict over Parker, or his sidelining, seriously damaged the abortion-rights cause. But it did open up one more rift in a movement that some see as already full of them, at an extremely risky time for the future of abortion access. At Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards’s successor, Leana Wen, was pushed out in July because, Wen has said, she wanted to focus more on health-care delivery than politics; the organization blames her “leadership and management style.” According to an investigation published by The New York Times in December, amid record-breaking fundraising stoked by states’ passage of stringent anti-abortion bills, various factions in the movement are clashing over issues such as how to allocate resources to ensure that poor women get the services they need.
When Parker published his memoir in 2017, it was praised by feminist luminaries from Gloria Steinem to Lena Dunham to bell hooks. Richards, then still at the helm of Planned Parenthood, called it “a beacon of hope” that would “change lives,” writing: “At Planned Parenthood, our motto is ‘Care, no matter what’—words that might as well have been written with Dr. Willie Parker in mind.” In November, when I asked Richards to talk about the fate of the man who for two and a half years was employed as the medical director of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., she declined to comment.
That day in New York Parker told me, “I would prefer to have been accused of murder, because there would have been some effort at due process.” While Russell’s allies argue that Parker emerged from the scandal relatively unscathed—he can still practice medicine, after all—to him the loss of his advocacy role has been crushing. That is what “allowed me to live my core values,” he said, “to be a person of integrity.”
Russell, too, has lost the work she loved. In mid-October, Yellowhammer released a statement that praised her work and dedication but announced that she had resigned “to pursue other interests outside of the reproductive rights and justice” arena. Russell had predicted this outcome when we talked. Because of the controversy around her, Russell believed that Yellowhammer was being shut out of important conversations in the movement. Leaving, she said, “will break my heart, but at some point it’s going to be a choice I have to make.”
The same month Russell resigned, Parker flew to Los Angeles to attend a reproductive-medicine conference he’d been invited to by a fellow physician, a gathering at which he’d spoken several times in the past. He hadn’t preregistered, and when he showed up at the hotel where the event was taking place, he was told to wait—someone would be down shortly to check him in. He waited in the lobby for three and a half hours. Friends, passing through, expressed sympathy, but none took on the task of fighting to get him in. Eventually, he gave up and returned to his hotel room. The next morning, he flew home.
This article appears in the March 2020 print edition with the headline “The Abortion Doctor and His Accuser.”