Dr. Kenneth Edelin, convicted in 1975 of manslaughter for terminating the pregnancy of a woman who was six months along, died of cancer today in Sarasota, Florida. His case was one of the first public battles over a woman's right to a late term abortion.
Edelin was a surgical resident in obstetrics and gynecology at Boston City Hospital when he performed the abortion in question, on an unwed 17-year-old. Because the procedure occurred nine months after Roe v. Wade, the prosecution couldn't argue that he committed murder by performing the abortion itself. Instead, they contended that he did so by depriving the fetus of oxygen after it was still alive in the womb. A year after a Boston jury found him guilty of manslaughter, an appellate court rejected this argument, overturning the ruling on the following basis:
The appellate court held that a doctor could commit manslaughter only by ending the life of a fetus that was definitely alive outside the woman's body. It rejected the prosecution theory that the fetus might have been alive in the uterus after being separated from the uterine wall, and was thus a "person" for purposes of the manslaughter law.
The ruling also clarified the definition of "life," saying that it meant having heartbeats and respiration — more than "several transient cardiac transactions" and more than "fleeting respiratory efforts or gasps." Besides giving doctors protection by defining when a fetus is a live person, the ruling also protected them from criminal liability for failing to take "heroic measures" to save a fetus once it was outside a woman's body.
The case was also notable for its political theater, including early use of disingenuous tactics designed to restrict choice. Jurors later said that they found the doctor guilty after prosecutors showed a picture of the fetus whose face was "distorted as if in pain." In addition, the prosecutor, Newman A. Flanagan, had designs on the Suffolk County District Attorney seat, and won praise for taking on a case that could severely limit abortion. As if that weren't enough, Edelin, who happened to be African American, was convicted by an all-white jury, 9 out of 12 of whom were men, and 10 of whom identified as Catholic.
Edelin went on to be a tireless advocate for abortion rights, serving on the board of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1989 to 1992. For some of his wise words on Roe v. Wade, please check out the video above.