Recognizing that abortions had been illegally performed in hospitals under the guise of “therapeutic abortions” but always attached to a large check, Dr. Edgar Bass Keemer, Jr. was the sole Detroit physician who provided abortions to poor black and white women who were welfare recipients or Medicaid card holders. The son of a doctor and expected to attend medical school, Dr. Keemer hadn’t expected to become a trailblazer in abortion rights for underprivileged women and women of color. After turning down a pregnant woman who requested an abortion and committed suicide when she was refused, his wife (a fellow physician) convinced him that he should learn how to perform them. After being mentored for some time on the procedure using Leunbach paste, he began to use that knowledge with his own clients. Dr. Keemer took medical histories, explained the procedure, performed the abortion, send patients home with printed instructions on post-abortion care, and conducted follow-up visits, far different from the stereotypical “back alley abortion” that was prominent in states where abortion was banned. His fees began at $15 but eventually moved to a sliding scale based on patient income, with returned fees if procedures were unsuccessful or if the women had to be admitted to the hospital if further medical intervention was needed. An advocate for racial equality and a feminist before his time, Dr. Keemer went on the record with the Detroit Free Press in the 1970s, stating that women were being punished for natural relations whereas men were not and that while forced abortion should remain illegal, free and voluntary rights to control their own lives should be a right given to black women and white women alike. As an activist, he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. for racial equality, and was even shot in Nashville, Tennessee for marching. Despite the threats and being jailed multiple times, however, he remained a staunch supporter of abortion rights and racial equality, speaking on the radio, in newspapers and on television about reform in these areas.
From 1938, when Keemer first provided, to the end of the 1950s, before being imprisoned for 3 years, he performed over 30,000 abortions (Source) for black and low-income women. Today, the endangerment of the pregnant individual is still the exception to the restrictions that the state imposes on child-bearing individuals who have private insurance, or health plans under the Affordable Care Act. At RHAP, Michigan is one of our newest cluster states, formed in 2017, with aspirations to develop and advance a reproductive health family medicine residency curriculum in Marquette, MI where services are only provided by OB/GYNS and are very antiquated. We admire the work that Dr. Keemer has done for black and low-income women in Detroit and hope to continue fostering the space for our Network in MI and across the country to advocate on the state and local level to ensure access to reproductive health care.
Become a recurring donor of $25 or more today and you will receive a copy of our book, “A Common Thread: Weaving reproductive health, rights and justice” profiling change makers such as Dr. Edgar Keemer!