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
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
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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.