Responsibility: My Journey from “Pro-Life” to Abortion on Demand, with No Apologies
by Robert Allen on August 21, 2017
It costs a dollar to cross
the narrow toll bridge
over the Big Muddy into Bellevue,
most folk headed to the air show at Offut
the rightists were feeling their oats
the doctor gunned down in church,
watch for rooftop snipers
Blue Angels in the sky,
run to Walgreen’s for earplugs, buy ’em all!
bombers lurk on the ground too
They have their Desert Shield and Operation Rescue,
we have our shields of cardboard and cotton sheets
“Welcome, welcome, the clinic stays open!”
we outwomanned and outmanned
we came from everywhere and out of nowhere
Nikki shone: she knew how to fight.
we used sheets, blocked their cameras.
They mumbled rosaries at us, waving pictures
of bloody fetuses
8 years back, I made a journey from my home in Iowa to Bellevue, Nebraska. I went to Bellevue for a clinic defense action shortly after the murder of Dr. George Tiller, the former medical director of Women’s Health Care Services who was shot dead in his church in Wichita, Kansas on May 31, 2009 by right-wing terrorist Scott Roeder.
It was the most intense direct action event I’ve ever been involved in. On the other side stood members of Operation Rescue, a group that had been complicit in violence in the past, so there was a real risk to my personal safety that I had not felt before, even on the most raucous picket line. Despite this, I stuck it out till the end of the action in Bellevue because I knew it was my responsibility to stand with women’s right to abortion on demand, with no apologies.
But the sense of responsibility that drove me to the clinic defense action in Bellevue after Dr. Tiller’s murder was something I could never have imagined having 15 years beforehand.
I was born into the quintessential suburban home just outside Independence, Missouri. Today the area is densely populated with typical tree-lined streets and miles of ranch-style houses. But decades back my father built what was one of the first houses, if not the first house, in the eastern suburb of Independence, which also happens to be the home of the Reorganized Latter Day Saints (RLDS) church and the place the Mormons—a competing and much larger church—say will be the place of Christ’s return.
So I am a descendant of devout followers of Joseph Smith, a much more pious version of Donald Trump. In fact, shades of Trump can be found in Smith’s own life story. The reason he was “martyred” was because he ordered the burning down of a newspaper office that was bold enough to tell the truth about him—that he intended to build a theocratic community. After that, an angry mob descended upon the Carthage, Illinois jail where he was being held and he was shot dead.
Dad’s side of the family was hardcore RLDS and Mom always placed a high value on “responsibility,” perhaps because our lives were so chaotic, or perhaps because the general anything-goes milieu of the sixties compelled her to do so. I most certainly believed in God, and could not fathom why anyone would swear or sin, what with Hell and its Lake of Fire waiting. Yet people all around me did these things, as if there were no eternal consequences!
Mom’s mother died in childbirth and her father ran off during the Depression, leaving Mom to be raised by foster parents. She had me when she was about 23, but by age 27 she was divorced and Mom and I moved to Bossier City, Louisiana, where she worked as a clerk at Barksdale Air Force Base. General Barksdale was a Confederate who fought at Gettysburg—southern military bases were often named after Confederate officers. My mother was pro-integration, which was really radical for that time and place, so she had to keep quiet about it. I witnessed Jim Crow segregation, but was too young to really process what my mother was telling me about it. I just remember her saying, “This will not last.”
Mom was pretty religious, and she used to take me to a Pentecostal church, where I heard a sermon about the “Lake of Fire” and was scared out of my wits. So Mom stifled her interest in Pentecostalism and took me to an RLDS church with a little less fire and brimstone. Mom then met Jerry, my stepdad, who was a charming guy but had little ambition or education. Soon we found ourselves living in the Ozarks of Missouri in poverty, which was a constant for many years. Jerry held low-paying jobs and made hunting and fishing a priority.
persimmons bend, supple swings,
frogs croak and locusts rub wings.
Dusk settles by firefly light-
Ozark hills are dark at night.
We moved regularly and I attended many different schools. As a result, both my math and social skills were terrible. I was bullied, and I fought a lot. Eventually, we ended up in a migrant worker’s shack in a rural Michigan potato field, which, like our last place the Ozarks, had no running water or indoor toilet. I frequently skipped school, and ran away from home for about a week or so. Upon returning, Mom sent me to live with her foster parents back in Independence. After that, I became much more of a normal teen, but also fell in love with pot and acid, and eventually got kicked out of high school for drugs and fighting.
My girlfriend and I then made the fateful decision to go to Michigan, as she wanted to escape her abusive father and I also felt it was time for a change. When we left the Kansas City area for rural Michigan, we did not account for the fact that free birth control would not be available there.
She became pregnant. I hatched the idea of joining the Army and having them pay for the baby, as abortion was out of the question. Indeed, what could be more irresponsible than abortion? Laura was raised Southern Baptist, I was a nominally baptized RLDS, and this was a few years before the RLDS liberalized and became a proponent of choice, a change I found a little shocking, but chalked up to its rivalry with the mainline Mormon church. I joined the Army.
Viet Nam Syndrome
Momma didn’t want me to join the Army
but Daddy said he’d sign for me cuz I was only 17
and he already had reservations about Momma
making me into a sissy cuz she argued to let me stay home
I didn’t like hunting cuz that 30 ought six
had a kick that hurt my skinny shoulder
and it was boring and cold
compared to fishing and frogging
Daddy was a janitor at the college and it was special
when he brought home treats from the vending machines
food that was expired, you took your chances with salmonella
if you ate a sandwich with meat, but
30 years later I wondered
if Fredy Perlman had bought a sandwich out of one of those machines
if our lives had crossed in some small way
It doesn’t matter if he did or not
I know, my heart knows he did
Red headed stepchild on a Greyhound, heading for Detroit
20 dollars in my pocket, left the woods behind
Four Mile Road was 20 miles outside of Kalamazoo
our biggest fun was throwing dead raccoons and stringers of dead fish
down on passing cars from atop the big hill
and hearing the cars swerve and rumble to a stop, gravel flying
as we ran into the woods laughing
but I was headed for the Army now
skinny legs with holes in the knees of my jeans
going commando, wearing no underwear
I figured I’d buy some when I got to the city
somebody asked me “who’d you kill?”
I said “Nobody, I just knocked up my high school girlfriend
and we were going to do the right thing cuz we didn’t believe in abortion and we
were gonna sneak off and get married
and the army would pay for the kid.”
and he said “well the Army is the place the judge sends you.”
When I got to Detroit, I was the only white
in a sea of Black faces, and all the stores were boarded up
due to the rebellions.
except Walgreens, which sold no underwear.
They put me up for the night in a crummy hotel
and the minutes turned to hours, my humiliation
knowing I faced the Guantlet in the morning
where they strip you down to your shorts- which I didn’t have-
and you get a series of shots with hand held “guns”
Sure enough, morning brought my fears to light
and I went through the Gauntlet stark naked.
Someone asked me if I was an “exhibitionist”
and I said no, I just didn’t have any underwear
after the shots were done we were herded into a room,
me still naked and everyone else still in their skivvies,
and we took the oath to defend the US Constitution from all enemies
foreign and domestic, my right hand held up in solemnity
but all I could think of was my nakedness
Mom had a miscarriage in the summer of 1972. This is a poem I wrote about it:
She lost the baby in that cartoon bathroom,
sitting with her head in her hands
wishing she were a seagull.
My chore was to dig a small grave
as I had done many times to bury deer carcasses
but this time to place a coffee can coffin
in the ground.
I tossed the shovel
into the bed of that white
trash pickup and the country
music radio played a mournful tune.
I had 3 kids, all boys, by the time I was 22. We moved to Iowa in 1982 and I recall going to a pro-life rally in Des Moines. I saw a Black man with a NARAL button, and could not fathom how anyone could be for abortion. Even though none were “planned,” my wife and I loved our children dearly and could not imagine the mindset that could have justified truncating their very existence in the womb.
I went to college on the GI Bill, and in one class a pro-choice speaker visited. I asked her, “If the unborn child is alive one minute and the next it’s dead, how is that unlike murder?” She refused to even acknowledge me, and kept reading from her prepared speech. I concluded from this that I had won the argument and this sustained my pro-life beliefs—which I now refer to as “forced pregnancy advocate”—for another dozen years. I could not be won over by a prepared speech in a college classroom.
In late 1994, my first marriage was over, and I was about to marry a second time, when I met the Marxists on a Firestone picket line. I was immediately taken with Marxism’s class analysis, but still harbored reactionary views on affirmative action and abortion.
After a while, I began to understand that affirmative action was merely a way of clawing back some of the stolen wealth of the workers, upsetting the employers’ holy notion of “supply and demand”—the lie of a labor market with buyers and sellers who are both equal among themselves and with each other. Non-whites are paid less because they aren’t white, women are paid less because they are women, and there is a history of class struggle that produced and continues to reproduce both of these realities. If the terms of that class struggle could be changed by workers collectively wielding their power against the bosses, then these seemingly eternal truths also could be changed. Through my engagement with these Marxists, I realized that class struggle was the only recourse, not just for me as a worker on strike at Firestone, but also to put an end to these inequalities that nip the possibility of working class unity in the bud.
Once I began to think about things politically like this, I skipped right over the petite bourgeois justification for the right to abortion and went straight to the revolutionary socialist position. In other words, I bypassed the argument that the right to abortion is necessary so that women can advance their careers within capitalism; that is to say, so that they can move out of the working class. Instead, I immediately adopted the line grounded in my working class position and newfound politics: it is necessary so working class women can fight politically alongside working class men as equals.
As with affirmative action, so what if I as a white person don’t get to be a boss? Being a boss should never be our goal. With abortion, so what if my conception is that the fetus is “alive”? What is life worth with the boot of patriarchal oppression upon a woman’s neck, forcing her into unwanted pregnancy, thereby denying her the equal footing necessary to fight politically side by side with men? How could there ever be a mass working class movement, let alone revolution, if my fellow women workers had forced pregnancies that would take them out of the struggle?
It was through this process of political struggle that I completely changed my position on abortion. By interacting with revolutionaries who had my back as a worker on the picket line, I became receptive to what they had to say on race and gender “issues” that initially seemed irrelevant to that immediate struggle, but which were actually inextricably linked once I began to see things from a proletarian political angle. I was transformed not in the abstract by that pro-choice speaker in college, but, rather, through the process of political struggle itself.
Indeed, the reason the right wing promotes “family values” is to roll back the social wage fought for by the working class so the ruling class can relieve itself of any responsibility for the precarity that is innate to their dog eat dog system. The real aim of the “pro-life” position is not a religious one, but comes down to the struggle for economic dominance. The right wing wants to place the onus on individual households for the success or failure of individual workers’ families—with or without a job—in an economic system where unemployment is necessary to keep wages down in the first place.
Despite some important exceptions, the Church has historically been capitalism’s handmaiden in the effort of propagating these “family values.” As the rise of capitalist social relations displaced the power of the Church, the latter had no choice but to join the new social system in partnership, lest it sink into irrelevance. The Church helped serve capital through its ideological justification of patriarchal norms that place the responsibility on male heads of married households for the success or failure of the family unit, letting the capitalist exploiters off the hook. In this way, I realized that poor and working class men are also set up for failure by a system that inculcates the patriarchal male “bread winner” ideology into them while simultaneously making it nearly impossible for a man alone to pay the bills for the whole family.
My third wife has a degree in mathematics and computer science, but was forced by her overbearing Catholic husband (his nickname on the job was “the preacher”) to stay on the farm instead of pursuing a teaching career or joining one of the many big companies that had tried to recruit her. She left him after 17 years—the same length as my first marriage—mainly because he railed at her about needing to repent for an abortion she’d had at 17. A wayward boy had knocked her up in the back seat of a car at a drive-in while others looked on and laughed. He committed suicide 3 months later. Thinking of her career, her parents raced her to an abortion clinic. Fast-forward 25 years and she is sitting with these very same parents, but this time they are watching a televangelist tell her she is going to hell for having an abortion. My wife did not stand up and say, “How dare you sit there and listen to that man say these things?” No, she is of the Bible Belt, as I am, where shame rules, where women are to be silent in the face of outrage.
“Religion is concentrated politics” –Stan Goff
At the clinic defense action in Bellevue in 2009, we massively outnumbered the assortment of protesters Operation Rescue could muster—they had about 50 or fewer people; we had six times that. The action was called by the National Organization for Women, and there were also three communist groups there: The Socialist Worker’s Party, World Can’t Wait, and a smaller Maoist organization. One older woman on our side, an SWP comrade from New York, wondered aloud how anybody could possibly be against abortion. I said, “I know how, I used to be against it.” “What made you change?,” she asked. “I became a Marxist, you guys did it!”
At the action, there was a young nurse—just 21 years old—who had flown by herself from New York to participate in the clinic defense action. I marveled at her organizing skills. When I was 21, I was working on a railroad track gang swinging an eight pound hammer from sunup to sundown trying to feed five people. Politics was some distant realm, on TV. Here she was, young, smart and organizing the hell out of things. Her name was Nikki, and she began directing us to “get some sheets.” We used sheets to protect the incoming patients from seeing the signs showing bloody fetuses, and our chants drowned out the other side’s as we walked the patients into the building while shielding them. Like a general in a war zone, Nikki changed tactics as the situation progressed, ordering, politely, some of us to spread out down the street to stop the antis from misdirecting patients to their phony “clinic.”
Nikki admonished me for wearing a red t-shirt, as it would give a sniper something to key in on. “Watch for snipers on top of those buildings,” she calmly intoned. As I learned about who our opposition was, it was apparent that the people who were taking pictures of us to spread around on the internet were quite dangerous. They had been involved with bombings of clinics, and were no doubt in the loop on the murder of Dr. Tiller. It was chilling to say the least.
Operation Rescue had vowed to close the clinic in Bellevue. Not only did they fail, but they were also humiliated by our superior numbers and organizational discipline. Dr. LeRoy Carhart, who had taken over Tiller’s duties, thanked us and gave us T-shirts with the slogans “Trust Women” on the front and “This Clinic Stays Open!” on the back. He had been harassed and had several horses killed by arsonists at his farm, but he refused to be cowed into silence.
It was a truly inspiring, but we know the fight will continue and only intensify under a Republican Party hell-bent on closing down all the clinics and a Democratic Party that explicitly rejects using the right to abortion as a litmus test for its candidates. A future of struggle lies before us, and there are no guarantees of victory, but on that day 8 years ago in Bellevue, it was an honor to fight back and win a battle!
Jesus was a fighter, but he’s not coming back. The best way to pay tribute to his legacy is to carry on his fight for social justice in our own time. It is our time to embrace the struggle and fight for the rights of working class women and all oppressed peoples! This is nothing but our responsibility.