“Broken Justice” : Race, Abortion, and Misogyny

Marcy Bloom

"Broken Justice: A True Story of Race, Sex and Revenge in a Boston Courtroom" -- the autobiography of a brave physician fighting for his freedom, career, and principles -- recounts an important part of reproductive justice history that may change the reader as much as it changed its author.

Broken Justice: A True Story of Race, Sex and Revenge in a Boston Courtroom — the autobiography of a brave physician fighting for his freedom, career, and principles — chronicles an historical event that should never have occurred. This fascinating book recounts the journey of a dedicated African-American doctor whose only goal in life is to bring quality health care to underserved and marginalized women. In 1974, the young and idealistic Dr. Kenneth Edelin is Boston City Hospital's chief resident in obstetrics and gynecology — the first African-American to hold that position — and is poised to complete his residency training. Among his many responsibilities in this busy hospital that primarily serves the poor is the provision of safe abortion care. Dr. Edelin is clearly committed to providing quality medical care and to treating the women he serves with respect. He is an inspiring role model for all of us.

In a twisted and prejudicial interpretation of the foundation of Roe vs. Wade, which had been decided just ten months before, Dr. Edelin becomes embroiled in the racist, anti-choice, conservative Catholic-identified, and misogynist atmosphere of Boston politics. Targeted to teach other progressive doctors a lesson of intimidation and fear, the bigoted grand jury and assistant district attorney indict the doctor on a charge of manslaughter with outlandish, even surreal accusations.

The indictment focuses on a legal, ethical, appropriate, and safely performed second trimester abortion that Dr. Edelin performed on a 17-year-old woman; the male fetus was named as the alleged victim. Dr. Edelin writes of this time:

In Boston, it was the perfect storm. It was the religious climate; it was the racial climate. [Writer's Note: A federal judge had recently ordered mandatory busing to desegregate the city's public schools and existing racial fears and prejudices rapidly exploded.] This city had always been a cauldron when it came to women's rights. It was the right place and the right time for those who wanted to make a statement. It was the wrong place and the wrong time for me." (Emphasis in the original.)

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In the harrowing six week trial that follows, Dr. Edelin is labeled a baby-killer and accused of insensitive and unethical behavior. His take on his attorney's eloquent defense, the bias of the presiding judge, as well as the many prosecutorial lies and distortions, are the bulk of the book's compelling, and often angry, narration. Despite the fact that virtually all of the state's so-called evidence was faulty, biased, and confusing, the good doctor is convicted by an all-white, mostly Catholic jury who allowed their bigotry to perpetrate this injustice. There is a "sort-of" satisfying ending, as this shocking miscarriage of justice is ultimately reversed by the state Supreme Judicial Court in 1976. But the damage is done and, in fact, lingers to this day. Dr. Edelin writes, "The scar on my soul has never gone away…I may not think about it every day, but it has an impact on me everyday. It has changed me, and made me the man I am at 68." We often say that out of deep pain comes strength and wisdom; that is certainly true of this heroic physician.

Broken Justice recounts an important part of our reproductive justice history that may change the reader too — and which must never be forgotten. I remember my own shock about Dr. Edelin's case very well from the 1970s and, sadly, the bias, prejudice, and fear that allowed this case to actually come to trial is still with us. In fact, it was one of the first real tests of Roe vs. Wade, and while Roe stood up to it, the case cast a shadow on the provision of abortion care in the US. And the singling out, and the scapegoat, of a young physician — one who is black and considered by many to be an "outsider" — reminds me of the violence, marginalization, fear, and isolation that all abortion providers still experience, and live with, today.

Dr. Edelin's easy narrative style, the revealing accounts of his childhood that contain heart-breaking scenes of his mother dying from breast cancer when he was only 12, as well as frank discussions of the pregnancy scares and illegal abortion experience in his own life, all create a passionate story that should have a wide appeal to the general public. His searing description of the agonizing death of a teen-age girl from an illegal abortion when he was a medical student in 1966 in Nashville will stay with any reader. It should. After all of these years, we are still fighting for a woman's right to choose a safe, legal, and accessible abortion. These are extraordinarily difficult times for reproductive justice and women's lives in the US and in the world, and we are fortunate to have this blunt account of Dr. Edelin's life and lessons so that he can teach us what he knows.

As he eloquently says in the foreword of Broken Justice: "Abortion is a fact of life…it arouses strong passions and feelings. At the center of this book are the rights of women to control their own bodies, and the rights of doctors to perform legitimate and legal medical procedures. For me, the struggles for reproductive rights for women and Civil Rights for African-Americans are intertwined and at the same time parallel. The denial of these two rights is an attempt by some to control the bodies of others. Both are forms of slavery. We must never let slavery in any form return to America."

Thank you, Dr. Edelin, for all you have given.

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Abortion, Book Review, women's rights

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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