This week, learning about an allegation of sexual assault against the highly respected late abortion provider Dr. Willie Parker felt deeply personal to me. As a young woman passionate about reproductive justice and eager to support and destigmatize the compassionate work of abortion providers, I had always revered Parker, who is one of very few providers of late-term abortion in the South.
His work and advocacy in a region that is (deservedly) notorious for its extreme political and cultural hostility to abortion rights have always inspired me and reminded me to speak up for what is right, even when doing so is difficult and unpopular. But when a woman named Candice Russell came forward this week alleging she was sexually assaulted by Parker a year ago, I believed and still believe her. In progressive spaces that posture as supportive of gender egalitarianism, we simply can’t allow for “double consciousness,” claiming to support survivors of sexual assault and reject all sexual violence while simultaneously defending accused men and believing them over survivors.
Since #MeToo, which yielded an onslaught of highly public, painful stories of sexual abuse, many progressives and feminists have had to face several male leaders and allies of our movements who were not who we thought they were. Certainly, the rhetoric and policies of conservative leaders and the Republican Party are devastating for many survivors, but sexual violence exists everywhere and knows no party affiliation.
For many cases, I am proud of how Democratic Party and progressive leadership have responded to allegations of sexual violence against their own, from former senator and progressive icon Al Franken to former Rep. John Conyers. I hope abortion rights and reproductive justice activists continue to speak out in Russell’s defense and fight for her justice.
There is no reproductive justice without safety and justice for survivors of sexual violence and without absolute, zero tolerance for sexual violence in any form. Reproductive justice is the fight for determinism, safety and autonomy in one’s own body and equitable access to all the resources this necessitates. It isn’t easy to come to terms with allegations against a man who has certainly done much positive work in supporting the human rights of women and pregnant people. But this record of service and advocacy can’t be used to mitigate or somehow cast doubt on the voice and credibility of a woman who has so courageously stepped forward.
It is always worth repeating that women and survivors have nothing to gain and everything to lose from speaking up about their experiences. The vast majority of assaults are unreported for myriad nuanced and highly personal reasons, not the least of which include a culture of stigma, disrespect and willful refusal to believe survivors. All the while, sexual assault remains highly prevalent, impacting an estimated one in five women at some point in their lives.
No matter the background or circumstances or profile of the man accused or the woman who came forward, when women speak up, we must listen, and we must do absolutely everything we can to foster an environment in which women and survivors are respected and believed. This positive environment for women and survivors must start with each of us, demanding accountability from perpetrators, regardless of our personal biases and preferences.
Kylie Cheung is a junior writing about feminism and women’s rights. Her column, “You Do Uterus,” runs every other Thursday.