A Conversation With Abortion Rights Pioneer Dr. Ken Edelin

Alexa Stanard

Thirty years ago, Dr. Ken Edelin nearly went to jail for performing a legal abortion. Today, he's speaking out about current threats to abortion rights in the United States.

Dr. Ken Edelin nearly went to jail for performing a legal abortion.

In October 1973, just months after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe
v. Wade, Edelin performed an abortion on a 17-year-old girl who had
come with her mother to request the procedure at the Boston hospital
where Edelin worked as an obstetrician/gynecologist. Both women signed
consent forms.

Two months later, the local prosecutor, a member of the Knights of
Columbus and the leader of its right-to-life committee, subpoenaed the
private medical records of 88 women who had come to Edelin’s hospital
for abortions. Edelin himself was subpoenaed to testify before a grand
jury, which chose to indict him for manslaughter. An African-American,
he was tried before a jury of 16 people – all of them white, 13 of them
men, 11 of them Catholic. They voted to convict him.

Edelin, facing 20 years in prison and the loss of his medical license,
immediately appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The court
overthrew his conviction and entered its own verdict of not guilty, an
unusual move that ensured the prosecutor could not come after him

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Edelin went on to become a national activist and spokesman for
reproductive rights, chairing the board of Planned Parenthood and,
recently, publishing "Broken Justice," a book about his experiences
with the Boston case.

Edelin spoke with Rewire’s Alexa Stanard about the continuing
challenges women face in the battle to preserve their reproductive

Alexa Stanard: What do you see as the greatest threat today to women’s reproductive rights?

Ken Edelin: The upcoming election. I think this is a crucial election as it
relates to reproductive choice. [Both Democratic candidates, Sen.
Hillary Clinton
and Sen. Barack Obama, are pro-choice; Republican
nominee Sen. John McCain has consistently voted against women’s
reproductive rights
.] The Supreme Court has been tilted by the current
administration toward those who are not fully supportive of Roe v.
Wade. I think the federal abortion ban they upheld a year ago [that
outlawed medical procedures often used in late-term abortions] is
evidence of that. I think that over the next four to eight years there
are going to be two and probably three justices who need to be
replaced. Unfortunately, I think they’re the justices who have
consistently supported women’s right to choose on the Supreme Court.

AS: Why has the anti-choice fringe been so successful in promoting its
agenda, with things like spousal notification, waiting periods and bans
on late-term abortions?

KE: Because I think the vast majority of Americans who are pro-choice
have lost focus and have not kept their eye on the ball so that
elections, both on the state level and national level, have been waged
and won on other kinds of issues. In the last two weeks I’ve visited
Michigan, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, and all those states have
legislators that have been trying to pass bills that really do put a
burden on women who are trying to exercise their reproductive rights,
whether it’s bills that require ultrasounds, or bills that require
waiting periods, or in Michigan where there’s an attempt to reproduce
the federal abortion ban on the state level. We, the pro-choice
majority, are not as focused on this issue as those that are
anti-choice. Those that are opposed to women’s right to choose really
become very threatening to legislators to make sure their view is heard
and carries the day. We tend to be much more forgiving, much more
trusting, but they’re very focused. Bush’s appointments of [Supreme
Court Justices John] Roberts and [Samuel] Alito were really a payback
to the conservative wing of the Republican Party, the anti-choice wing.

AS: Where are the greatest opportunities for the pro-choice community to
press its agenda of support for reproductive rights and access to
contraception and sex education?

KE: I think the most immediate opportunity is in the federal elections
coming up in November. If we lose this presidential election, if we
elect an anti-choice president and he is able to make two or three more
appointments to the Supreme Court, then we’re not talking about a
temporary setback, we’re talking about a setback that’s going to last
several generations of women. It’s scary that so much is depending on
this next election, but it is and people need to wake up to that.

AS: What do you make of the situation here in Michigan — a Democratic
leader helping Right to Life to push a bill on late-term abortion?

KE: I think your state points up what the truth of the matter is, which
is that just because someone is a Democrat or Republican doesn’t make
them pro-choice, it doesn’t make them in favor of a woman’s right to
choose. We’ve got to look beyond party affiliation and party labels at
what a candidate believes in. You’re not unique, unfortunately. I was
just in Rhode Island, and as they like to describe themselves, they’re
a solidly blue state. But the Legislature is very anti-choice, even
though the people don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.

AS: You’ve said that the Supreme Court decision a year ago upholding the
federal abortion ban opens the door to bans on all abortion procedures.
Can you explain why?

KE: If you read the decision that they handed down, you’ll see a couple
of things which should be alarming. One of the things they talk about
in both the law and the decision is so-called post-abortion syndrome
women are supposedly suffering from, where they become depressed. There
is nowhere in the medical literature where women are suffering from a
post-abortion syndrome. It just doesn’t exist. But they repeat it as
though it’s fact, as though if they say it often enough it’s going to
become true. But it’s not.

No. 2, if you look at the description of the procedure in the ban, it
could be language used to describe any abortion procedure, at even
eight weeks or 12 weeks. If you’re opposed to a woman’s right to choose
those descriptors apply to any abortion procedure.

AS: You’ve said some have told you your story is passé because it
happened 30 years ago. How can those who work to support reproductive
rights for women best counter apathy about the issue?

KE: That is a great question and it is the area of great frustration for
me. In the pro-choice movement we’re always talking about language, how
we can craft a message, do a better job of getting our message through.
I think our message is good. I think there are large parts of the
public who are pro-choice but not willing to vote on that issue.
They’re willing to give anti-choice folks a pass on it if they agree
with them on other issues like the war in Iraq and the economy, but
they’re not going to hold their feet to fire on the issue of choice. We
could get the war turned around but lose on women’s right to choose,
which I believe is fundamental to a free and open society, and women
being able to enjoy the fruits of this democracy.

Related Post

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.

News Politics

Tim Kaine Changes Position on Federal Funding for Abortion Care

Ally Boguhn

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back the Hyde Amendment's ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate, has promised to stand with nominee Hillary Clinton in opposing the Hyde Amendment, a ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, told CNN’s State of the Union Sunday that Kaine “has said that he will stand with Secretary Clinton to defend a woman’s right to choose, to repeal the Hyde amendment,” according to the network’s transcript.

“Voters can be 100 percent confident that Tim Kaine is going to fight to protect a woman’s right to choose,” Mook said.

The commitment to opposing Hyde was “made privately,” Clinton spokesperson Jesse Ferguson later clarified to CNN’s Edward Mejia Davis.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Kaine’s stated support for ending the federal ban on abortion funding is a reversal on the issue for the Virginia senator. Kaine this month told the Weekly Standard  that he had not “been informed” that this year’s Democratic Party platform included a call for repealing the Hyde Amendment. He said he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment.”

Repealing the Hyde Amendment has been an issue for Democrats on the campaign trail this election cycle. Speaking at a campaign rally in New Hampshire in January, Clinton denounced Hyde, noting that it made it “harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.”

Clinton called the federal ban on abortion funding “hard to justify” when asked about it later that month at the Brown and Black Presidential Forum, adding that “the full range of reproductive health rights that women should have includes access to safe and legal abortion.”

Clinton’s campaign told Rewire during her 2008 run for president that she “does not support the Hyde amendment.”

The Democratic Party on Monday codified its commitment to opposing Hyde, as well as the Helms Amendment’s ban on foreign assistance funds being used for abortion care. 

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back Hyde’s ban on federal funding for abortion care.

When asked about whether the president supported the repeal of Hyde during the White House press briefing Tuesday, Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said he did not “believe we have changed our position on the Hyde Amendment.”

When pushed by a reporter to address if the administration is “not necessarily on board” with the Democratic platform’s call to repeal Hyde, Schultz said that the administration has “a longstanding view on this and I don’t have any changes in our position to announce today.”