Workers Vanguard No. 1138
24 August 2018
The Story of Ed Keemer
Tribute to Black Socialist and Abortion Doctor
by Ruth Ryan
Dr. Edgar Keemer was a courageous black physician who performed thousands of abortions for poor and desperate women under conditions of complete illegality for decades before the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. His story, which has largely been lost to history, is detailed in his autobiography, Confessions of a Pro-Life Abortionist (1980), unfortunately out of print. It is an inspiring account of the fight not only for women’s rights but also for black freedom and the socialist liberation of humanity. Imprisoned for his defiance of anti-abortion laws and hauled into court for refusing to bow to the Jim Crow racism of the military in World War II, Keemer was also, for a time, a member of the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). There he was known for his real flair for bringing revolutionary Marxist politics to black workers who were among the most militant fighters in the struggle for industrial unions.
Keemer was born in Washington, D.C., in 1913, and learned the names and life histories of his slave ancestors as well as the story of his father’s uncle who was lynched in 1875. Against all odds, his father, who came from a poor rural background, studied chemistry and became a pharmacology professor. Inheriting his father’s defiance of racial injustice, when Keemer was confronted with Jim Crow segregation as a school boy in Nashville, he refused to sit in the “colored” seats on the city’s buses. Instead, for seven years, he walked three miles each way to and from school.
Keemer managed to graduate from college and medical school under the crushing conditions of the Great Depression, standing up to the racist taunts of white medical students who called him “boy” and “Sam.” Then, as a practicing physician in Indiana, he was routinely excluded from public accommodations, denied membership in the local medical society and refused hospital admitting privileges. He and his wife, also a physician, lived in poverty as most of their rural patients, both black and white, could not afford to pay.
Early in their practice in Indiana, a 19-year-old woman, daughter of a preacher, asked for an abortion, threatening to kill herself if the Keemers would not help end her pregnancy. Keemer recounted that, to his shame and against his wife’s pleading, he refused. The young woman carried out her deadly promise that same night. Keemer soon came to understand that his patient was the woman, not the embryo. Describing what he means by “pro-life abortionist,” he wrote in his autobiography: “Slowly the realization emerged that by not performing that abortion, I had committed more of a criminal act by far than terminating her early pregnancy would have been. I had taken an oath to save human lives when I became a doctor, not to destroy them.”
Vowing that he would oblige the next time a desperate patient asked for an abortion, Keemer went to the top abortionist on the East Coast, “Dr. G,” for training and supplies. At the time, vacuum aspiration was not available and dilation and curettage required anesthesia. The other method was the application of Leunbach’s Paste which, injected across the cervix into the uterus, precipitated a miscarriage within 24 hours. Keemer enhanced the composition of the paste in collaboration with his father and improved the sterility of the technique. He also added a next-day home visit to the patient to make sure all went as expected.
In the late 1930s, Keemer went to New York City looking for a paying medical practice that would include hospital privileges. He found his colleagues—black doctors—working as railway porters at night to make ends meet. Chicago was no better. It was in Detroit, where tens of thousands of auto workers had been unionized as a result of the great sit-down strikes of 1936-37, that Keemer found he could make a living. Additionally, the county welfare system was paying for doctors’ visits.
Keemer set up a practice in Detroit that included performing abortions. At first, his patients were the relatives of black physicians. But, since he was the only physician performing safe abortions in a clean clinical setting, the referrals multiplied. Considering it his particular duty to assist poor and working-class women, Keemer described his patients: indigent women for whom a third or fifth or seventh child would be a disaster; women who would lose their jobs and homes by continuing a pregnancy; young women unable to finish their education who would raise a child in abject poverty; women who would resort to back-alley abortions or attempt self-abortion that could end in mutilation, infection and death.
In her book When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (1997), Professor Leslie Reagan wrote of Keemer’s practice:
“The fee Keemer charged for his first abortion in the late 1930s was $15; by the 1960s he charged on a sliding scale up to $125. If the procedure failed, Keemer returned the fee. In the unusual case where a dilation and curettage was needed, Keemer sent the woman to the hospital, called in a specialist, and paid all fees as well as any money lost by the patient in missing work. Keemer protected his patients by providing after-care; his sense of financial responsibility protected him from complaints and legal interference.”
Defying the Jim Crow Military
During World War II, Keemer received a notification letter, sent to doctors at the time, instructing them either to enlist in the military as a physician or else be drafted into the Army as a private. Keemer went to enlist as a physician in the Navy but was ridiculed with racial slurs and told that as a black man he could only mop floors or work in the kitchen. When he was later drafted into the Army as a private, Keemer refused induction, stating, “I will not be drafted as a private since I have been turned down as an officer in the navy because of my color. I’ll go to jail first.”
He came under enormous pressure to submit, and not only from FBI interrogation. He was urged to give in from all sides. Keemer recalled a local NAACP leader arguing: “God damn it, Keemer, this system has flaws, but it’s the best in the world and some of us Negroes are doing quite well by it. Don’t spoil it for us.” He received an equally patriotic appeal from a representative of the reformist Communist Party (CP).
After June 1941, under the direction of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, the CP in the U.S. peddled the lie that World War II was a “great democratic war against fascism” and was among the most rabid supporters of American imperialism. Having long abandoned any shred of Marxist class principle, the Stalinist CP championed government strikebreaking, supported the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps and, as they did in Keemer’s case, opposed the fight against Jim Crow segregation in the military. In contrast, as Keemer recounted, only one person “came not to lecture me but to help me win my struggle. He was a member of the Socialist Workers Party.”
Unlike the CP, the Trotskyists of the SWP remained true to the program of revolutionary proletarian internationalism. The SWP recognized that World War II, like World War I, was a conflict between the imperialist powers to redivide the world. Calling for the defeat of all the imperialist combatants, the SWP at the same time steadfastly fought for the defense of the Soviet degenerated workers state despite its Stalinist bureaucratic misleaders. On the home front in the U.S., the Trotskyists championed the cause of working-class struggle, the fight for black rights and the defense of all the oppressed.
The SWP referred Keemer to an ACLU lawyer, who went after the draft board for racial discrimination. Newspapers ran stories about his case and letters came from other black people congratulating him on his stand. As Keemer wrote: “The ones that moved me most came from black soldiers overseas who informed me that racism was being practiced even on the front lines in this so-called ‘war against racist Nazi Germany’.” When Keemer’s case finally went to court, the prosecutor moved to dismiss the charges. The draft board dropped the induction order. But the FBI continued to hound Keemer and pump his friends and associates for information about him. Keemer was characteristically unintimidated.
Inside the Socialist Workers Party
Keemer’s discussions with SWP members convinced him that racial oppression and imperialist war were inherent to the capitalist system. He joined the party in 1943, expressing his commitment to the fight to replace “capitalism with socialism wherein every man and every woman would be guaranteed a satisfying function in society and no person would be allowed to parasitize another.”
Under the pen name Charles Jackson, Keemer wrote weekly articles in the SWP’s newspaper, the Militant, some of which are reprinted in a collection of writings from the SWP press called Fighting Racism in World War II (1980). His writings illustrated the profound contradiction between the American rulers’ false claim of defending “democracy” and the brutal reality of workers being sent to die in the bosses’ war for imperialist plunder and domination. In “The Case of Milton Henry” (6 May 1944) about a black second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps who was court-martialed and discharged, Keemer wrote:
“The segregated, second-class, Jim Crow army ‘for Negroes’ is a dead giveaway to the hypocritical character of the high-sounding phrases such as ‘liberation of oppressed people,’ ‘four freedoms,’ etc., which are being applied to this worldwide slaughter.”
Other articles by Keemer included: “Plight of Japanese-Americans” protesting the mass internment of Japanese Americans; “Hellish Homecoming” on the shameful treatment of black servicemen arriving home after WWII; and “Nigerian Workers Set the Tune” about strikes and revolts against colonial rule in Africa. Keemer’s pamphlet A Practical Program to Kill Jim Crow sold 10,000 copies in three weeks, a record for the SWP. This fact was noted in the FBI records that Keemer acquired decades later under the Freedom of Information Act.
Keemer’s autobiography describes the physical attacks on SWP members doing political work under the hyper-patriotic, repressive conditions of World War II. He recalled chairing a party meeting when a firebomb was thrown up the stairway and attendees narrowly escaped death. Eighteen of his comrades, leaders of the SWP and the Minneapolis Teamsters Local 544, were imprisoned for their opposition to the war. Throughout this time, Keemer continued to work three days a week as a doctor, still performing abortions.
By 1946 Keemer had built a powerful SWP local in Detroit centered on militant black workers. He proposed that the party launch an independent organization committed to the struggle for black equality—a transitional organization to address the felt needs of black people and to recruit them to a fighting Trotskyist program. Keemer’s proposal was referred to the SWP’s Trotsky School meeting where members of the National Committee, the party’s leadership body, were in attendance. It was roundly rejected.
Instead, the party adopted a doomed policy of joining the thoroughly legalistic, petty-bourgeois NAACP—the same NAACP that had urged Keemer to capitulate and be drafted as a private in the Jim Crow Army. Black militants who had broken with the liberal conciliationism of the NAACP in order to become Marxists were reluctant to pursue work in that organization. Not long after his proposal was defeated, Keemer resigned from the SWP, expressing his demoralization “that the party was making little headway.”
One SWP National Committee member who was dissatisfied with the rejection of Keemer’s proposal and the party’s orientation to the NAACP was Richard Fraser. As he wrote, “The basic elements in the NAACP argument, which had been put forward by all the leading people, was that they couldn’t believe or admit to the maturity of the existing consciousness among the hundreds and thousands of blacks, who were militantly pressing toward integration” (“On Transitional Organizations”  printed in “In Memoriam, Richard S. Fraser,” Prometheus Research Series No. 3, August 1990). Fraser’s concerns led him to undertake a serious study of black oppression in the U.S., concluding that the SWP lacked a coherent program which corresponded to the actual living struggle of black people for integration and equality.
Against the liberal integrationists who looked to pressure the racist, bourgeois rulers to grant equality for black people, and also against the despairing program of black nationalism, Fraser argued that the only road to black liberation lies in the revolutionary proletarian struggle to overthrow the capitalist system in which the vicious segregation and oppression of black people are rooted. [For more information, see “In Defense of Revolutionary Integrationism,” Spartacist (English Edition) No. 49-50, Winter 1993-94.] Fraser was a mentor to the Spartacist League on this strategic question, and we carry forward his program of revolutionary integrationism.
After leaving the SWP, Keemer still considered himself a “sympathizer with international socialism.” He redoubled his medical practice, continuing to risk his freedom and his medical license by performing abortions, which had become the mainstay of his practice.
to Vindicated Hero
In 1956, Detroit homicide detectives raided Keemer’s clinic and arrested him for conspiracy to perform abortions. The case came before a fiercely conservative Roman Catholic judge, and Keemer’s patients were threatened with five years in prison unless they testified against him. Only four women agreed, three of whom testified that the abortions were performed to save their lives. The prosecution could not find a single doctor to testify against Keemer. However, one white female patient was relentlessly bullied by the prosecution until she agreed that she was unsure whether it was a speculum or “something” else that had been inserted in her vagina during treatment. The prosecutor’s insinuation of rape was an explosive appeal to white racism. Keemer was convicted and sentenced to up to five years in prison and his medical license revoked.
After a month in the notorious Jackson Prison, he was transferred to the Detroit House of Corrections. Here a “high prison officer” arranged for Keemer to perform an abortion on the officer’s daughter. This was not the first time that a government official, including police, referred family members to Keemer for a safe abortion. In prison, Keemer taught reading classes, worked as a librarian and assisted in group therapy for drug addicts (as well as fermenting “spud juice” moonshine in the attic over the library). After 14 months behind bars, he was paroled but barred from working in the medical field in any capacity.
In the 1960s, Keemer participated in civil rights marches in Atlanta and Birmingham and met with Malcolm X. Recalling his conversations with young civil rights activists, he wrote of being “struck by their militant attitudes,” concluding “that the nonviolent strategy of Martin Luther King would not win support of the militant youth.”
Times were changing. After Keemer repeatedly petitioned to have his Michigan medical license restored, the medical board eventually gave him that victory, determining that he should never have been convicted in the first place. Back in Detroit, Keemer resumed performing abortions and became active in the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. For the first time, Keemer realized the parallels between women’s oppression and black oppression. He aggressively addressed the argument, still heard today, that abortion is genocide against black people. Among others in the civil rights movement, Jesse Jackson and Dick Gregory argued that abortion was a plot to decrease the black population and the black vote.
Keemer also took on the anti-woman chauvinism of the black nationalists. Addressing their meetings, he argued that women, not men, have the right to choose: “If a sister chooses to defer her family until later, she goddamned well has a right to the same safe and legal treatment as a middle-class white woman.” Taking on the retrograde idea that the primary role of women was to breed more black children, Keemer exposed the nationalists for relegating black women to the same role of forced childbearing that had enriched the slaveholders. At the same time, he vigorously opposed forced abortion and forced sterilization. In one 1973 letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Keemer denounced the forced sterilization of eleven teenagers in a federally funded birth control clinic in Alabama.
By 1972, New York and California had legalized abortion, and Michigan was having a referendum to do the same. Ten days before the vote, Keemer’s office was raided and patients, staff, doctors and nurses were arrested. The abortion referendum failed, but there was an outpouring of support for Keemer. His patients filed suit against the Catholic prosecutor and the five cops responsible for the arrests, and they won.
In the context of mass mobilizations for women’s rights and ongoing protests against the Vietnam War, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in the first trimester. Congratulations to Keemer poured in and he basked in the glow of vindication, only regretting that his father, who had supported him throughout his life, had not lived to see it. Nonetheless, Keemer warned: “I can’t believe that the struggle will be over and that they will just lie down and give up. We can expect them to resort to all kinds of means to bypass and to defeat this new-won freedom for women.” No sooner had abortion been legalized than the war against it commenced—from the halls of Congress to state legislatures, and the firebombing of clinics and murder of abortion doctors by anti-abortion fanatics. Today, the limited access to abortion granted in 1973 hangs by a thread.
Dr. Ed Keemer had a profound understanding that the denial of access to safe, legal abortion especially targets poor, minority and working-class women. According to Keemer’s autobiography, he performed some 30,000 abortions under conditions of illegality, defiantly risking his career, his freedom and his life to help these women. It is a fitting juncture to resurrect the story of his life to inform and inspire a new generation with the understanding that any gains for women under capitalism can only be won through mass social struggle. And these gains can be extended and deepened only when the capitalist system in which exploitation, black oppression and the subordination of women are rooted has been overthrown. Only in an egalitarian socialist society will every man and woman, in Keemer’s words, “be guaranteed a satisfying function in society and no person would be allowed to parasitize another.”