Boston doctor in landmark abortion case dies of cancer in Sarasota

December 30, 2013 

SARASOTA — Dr. Kenneth Edelin, a Boston physician at the center of a landmark abortion case in the 1970s, died Monday morning in Sarasota. He was 74.

Edelin’s wife, Barbara, confirmed he died after suffering from cancer.

She said her husband was a great teacher and mentor, guiding many young doctors over his career.

“He was a great advocate for the rights of women to have choice in their own reproductive freedom,” Barbara Edelin said. “Particularly for women of color and other minorities.”

She said he was affected deeply as a child when his mother died of breast cancer.

“He became a doctor because that’s what he thought he needed to do to help women,” Edelin said.

Her husband made national headlines when he was convicted of manslaughter in 1975 for performing an abortion. That was two years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the procedure with its decision on Roe v. Wade.

According to NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Massachusetts Supreme Court later overturned Edelin’s guilty verdict, in a case that helped legally define what an abortion is and when human life begins.

Edelin went on to become an outspoken activist and spokesman for reproductive rights, the LDF said. He also served as a chairman of the board of Planned Parenthood. Edelin joined the LDF’s senior board in 1986.

“Dr. Edelin was a fearless man of integrity and conviction,” LDF Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill said in a prepared statement. “As an LDF board member, he was a powerful voice and advocate for civil rights.”

Edelin was the first black person to become chief resident of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the history of Boston City Hospital, according to the LDF.

In the book “Broken Justice: A True Story of Race, Sex and Revenge in a Boston Courtroom,” Edelin recounted the experiences of his criminal case.

“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,” Edelin wrote. “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.”

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