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Dr. Kenneth C. Edelin, Historic Abortion Rights Physician, Dies at 74

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Dr. Edelin's prosecution for performing a lawful abortion was among the first high-profile abortion rights fights after Roe v. Wade.

Dr. Kenneth Edelin, a Boston gynecologist who was convicted of manslaughter after performing a legal abortion in 1973, died December 30 in Florida. He was 74.

Dr. Edelin’s prosecution and conviction, which was later overturned on appeal, was among the first indications that anti-choice activists would not let the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade end their efforts to criminalize abortion and punish those who seek and provide them. At the time of his prosecution, Dr. Edelin was a prominent young doctor who had become the first African American to serve as chief resident in obstetrics and gynecology at Boston City Hospital.

In October 1973, nine months after Roe v. Wade decriminalized abortion nationwide, Dr. Edelin performed an abortion on a teenage patient who was at most, in Dr. Edelin’s estimation, 22 weeks along in her pregnancy. The procedure began with the routine practice of injecting a saline solution into the uterus, but when that did not work, Dr. Edelin performed a hysterotomy. Prosecutors charged that by performing the hysterotomy, a surgical procedure where a small incision is made in the uterus and the fetus is detached from the placental wall by hand, Dr. Edelin had deprived the fetus of oxygen within the womb at a time when it could have survived outside.

In less than a day of deliberation, an all-white, predominately male and Catholic jury convicted Dr. Edelin of manslaughter.

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Dr. Edelin appealed the verdict, and in 1976 the Massachusetts Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction and formally acquitted him. The decision acquitting Dr. Edelin made crucial distinctions in the developing case law around abortion rights in a newly post-Roe world. According to the court, a doctor could commit manslaughter only by ending the life of a fetus that was clearly and definitively alive outside the pregnant person’s body, rejecting the theory advanced by the prosecutor and anti-choice activists that the fetus might have been born alive in the uterus after being separated from the uterine wall and was therefore a “person” for purposes of the manslaughter statute. The court also clarified that for purposes of the prosecution, “life” meant having something more than “fleeting” respiratory efforts and more than “several” heartbeats. Finally, the court made it clear that doctors could not face criminal liability for failing to take “heroic measures” to save a fetus once outside a pregnant person’s body.

Following his acquittal, Dr. Edelin continued his career in medicine. He became a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University, where he served as chair of the department until 1989. He also was the managing director of the Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center, the largest provider of primary health services for Boston’s Black community. From 1989 to 1992, he served as the chairman of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In 2007, after retiring from teaching and medical practice, he published his memoir, Broken Justice: A True Story of Race, Sex and Revenge in a Boston Courtroom. He was also the author of numerous articles on teen pregnancy and substance abuse during pregnancy.

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