Kenneth C. Edelin, a Boston gynecologist who was found guilty of manslaughter after performing a lawful abortion in 1973, a conviction later overturned in a high-profile case that embodied the legal and emotional complexity of an enduring national debate, died Dec. 30 in Sarasota, Fla. He was 74.
He had cancer, his wife, Barbara Edelin, told the Associated Press.
Dr. Edelin rose from a modest background in segregated Washington to a prominent medical career in Massachusetts, where, in 1973, he became the first African American to serve as chief resident in Boston City Hospital’s obstetrics and gynecology department. His mother’s death from breast cancer had helped inspire his commitment to serving the health needs of women.
That service extended to providing abortions, which were effectively legalized in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. On Oct. 3, 1973, less than nine months after the high court handed down its decision, Dr. Edelin performed the abortion that would thrust him into the media spotlight. Vilified by opponents of abortion rights and lionized by supporters, he found himself at the center of an intense debate over when life begins.
The patient in question was 17 or 18 years old, according to news accounts, and was in Dr. Edelin’s estimation at most 22 weeks along in her pregnancy. The age of the aborted fetus, a male, would became a central issue in the manslaughter trial. Roe v. Wade protected a woman’s right to obtain an abortion before “viability” — the unspecified point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb.
Dr. Edelin began the procedure with the standard practice of injecting a saline solution into the uterus. When that method proved ineffective, he performed a hysterotomy, an operation similar to a Caesarean section in which the physician removes the fetus through an abdominal incision.
Six months later, in April 1974, Dr. Edelin was charged.
“I was scared,” he told the Boston Globe years later. “I was very law-abiding, very careful about image. That’s how I was brought up. Then somebody indicts you for manslaughter.”
The prosecution did not dispute the legality of the abortion, but rather charged that in performing the hysterotomy, Dr. Edelin had deprived the fetus of oxygen within the womb at a time when it could have survived outside. The prosecution contended that the fetus was older than Dr. Edelin had estimated.
A doctor who witnessed the operation testified that Dr. Edelin had watched a clock for at least three minutes while holding the fetus inside the womb in order to ensure that the fetus had died before it was removed. Dr. Edelin and two nurses cast doubt on that account by testifying that the operating room’s clocks had been removed for repairs.
He testified that he had previously refused to abort fetuses that could have lived outside the womb and said that if the fetus in question had been born alive, “I would have taken steps to get it to the nursery. That has always been my philosophy.”
On Feb. 15, 1975, after seven hours of deliberation, a jury convicted Dr. Edelin of manslaughter. Newspapers noted at the time that the jury was all-white and predominantly Catholic and that it included nine men. The prosecutor denied that politics or race entered into his handling of the matter, but Dr. Edelin charged otherwise, calling it a “witch hunt.”
“A lot came together for them in my case,” he said after his conviction. “They got a black physician and they got a woman more than 20 weeks pregnant and they got a fetus in the mortuary.”
At the time, The Washington Post published an editorial declaring that the state of Massachusetts had “brought disgrace to itself and to the whole judicial system.” In particular, the editorial decried the fact that Dr. Edelin had never been warned by authorities that “what he and other doctors have been doing for years is now to be considered murder.”
Dr. Edelin was sentenced to a year’s probation. But in December 1976, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously overturned the verdict. Among other findings, the court wrote that “only when a fetus had been born alive outside its mother could it become a ‘person’ within the meaning of the statute.”
Kenneth Carlton Edelin, the son of a postal worker, was born in the District on March 31, 1939. As an adult, he learned that his grandmother had once needed to terminate a pregnancy, and that she had obtained the abortion “somewhere in the woods of Washington, D.C., lying on the ground,” he told The Post.
He received a scholarship to attend the private Stockbridge School in Massachusetts, later receiving a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in 1961 and a medical degree from the historically black Meharry Medical College in Nashville in 1967.
Dr. Edelin served in the Air Force before being hired by Boston City Hospital. After his court case, he continued his medical practice and held high-ranking positions at the Boston University medical school and hospital, according to the Globe. Dr. Edelin also served as board chairman of Planned Parenthood and on the board of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
A complete list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed. His relatives reportedly include Jeh C. Johnson, the secretary of homeland security.
Dr. Edelin published a memoir, “Broken Justice: A True Story of Race, Sex and Revenge in a Boston Courtroom” (2007). He said that the effects of the case never entirely subsided.
“Angry? Sure I’m still angry,” he told the Globe in 1991. “The anger is about the pursuit of an indictment and a trial that was clearly politically motivated . . . politically in the sense it was an attempt to intimidate physicians and health care providers from performing legal abortions.”