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He stood up for women’s right to choose

Published Apr 6, 2008 11:08 PM

‘Broken Justice,’ by Dr. Kenneth Edelin.

Dr. Kenneth C. Edelin, a young African-American resident in obstetrics and gynecology at Boston City Hospital (BCH), was indicted for manslaughter in April of 1974 by a secret grand jury. His crime? Performing a legal abortion. In his recently published book, “Broken Justice: a true story of race, sex and revenge in a Boston courtroom,” Dr. Edelin tells the story of his indictment, trial and conviction by right-wing, racist, anti-abortion forces whose aim was to deny women the right to choose.

Edelin was the first African American to become chief resident of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the history of BCH. “OB/GYN at BCH was where I wanted to be, providing care to poor black women,” he writes. Edelin recalls always wanting to be a doctor. His desire hardened to resolve when, as a young boy of 12, he watched his beloved mother suffer and slowly die from breast cancer at age 46.

This and another vivid memory—witnessing the death of a young Black woman from an illegal abortion when he was a third-year medical student—set him on a more than 30-year career of providing quality health care to poor women and women of color. This put Edelin on the front line of defending their right to choose.

Edelin was tried and convicted in 1975. Boston during this period was a city seething with racist, right-wing forces, many of whom held positions of political power. After a court ordered busing to desegregate the public schools, racist white mobs stoned busloads of Black school children on a daily basis.

Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR), a neo-fascist, Klan-type organization, was the main anti-busing group and its headquarters was in Boston City Hall. Its leaders included City Councilor Dapper O’Neil and State Rep. Ray Flynn, who later became mayor. The Boston City Council was dominated by racists and right-wing Catholics who were not only incensed by the Black community exercising its right to equal, quality education but were also incensed by women exercising their right to abortion and reproductive choice after Roe v. Wade in January 1973.

Flynn wrote a letter to the City Council complaining of abortion services at BCH. O’Neil convened a special hearing to investigate them—a hearing packed with testimony from anti-abortion fanatics that subsequently led to the indictment of Dr. Edelin. The racist, anti-busing forces and the right-wing anti-abortion forces—often the same people—had joined hands to lynch this young Black doctor. The goal was to stop abortions and turn back Roe v. Wade by intimidating doctors nationwide.

In the foreword to his book, Dr. Edelin writes, “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.

“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.”

Edelin’s six-week trial for manslaughter was clearly a racist frameup. The judge and Assistant District Attorney Newman Flanagan were both anti-abortion. Flanagan later became infamous for putting many people of color in prison for excessive terms of confinement.

Flanagan’s opening witness was Dr. Mildred Jefferson, a founding member of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. The judge allowed the prosecution to use non-medical language to refer to embryos and fetuses as babies. The jury was shown a photo of a dead fetus. The jury consisted of nine men and three women—all white and ten of them Catholic. One juror later revealed that another used the “n” word to describe Edelin. They found Edelin guilty, but one year later the decision was overturned by the state Supreme Judicial Court.

Edelin’s case received national and international attention. Support poured in from people all over the country determined to fight tooth and nail for women’s right to choose. Doctors and lawyers called offering advice, expertise and services.

The Kenneth Edelin Defense Fund was set up. Edelin recalls, “Hundreds of letters came pouring in from across the country ... most were small $5 and $10 donations.... In their letters, women described the horrors they had gone through to obtain illegal abortions. Other donations were sent in memory of friends, daughters, aunts, sisters, cousins and even mothers who had died as a result of illegal abortions.”

Women and their supporters demonstrated every day outside the courtroom. The Boston Branch of Workers World Party helped organize an Edelin Defense Committee that held many demonstrations, meetings, press conferences and fundraisers.

Women were defending the clinics with their bodies. They also protested against sterilization abuse of Black and Latina women and involuntary research experimentation on poor women and women of color.

Workers World Party had brought together a coalition that organized a march against racism in Boston in December 1974. The 25,000 people who came out turned the tide of the racist onslaught. Multinational squads physically defended Black families’ homes that had been firebombed and stoned in East Boston and Hyde Park by racist forces. Bus drivers from United Steel Workers Union Local 8751 drove Black children to school despite a hail of rocks and epithets.

Dr. Kenneth Edelin’s story is both African-American history and women’s history. It is a story that needs to be told and a book that needs to be read far and wide. He is a hero who unwaveringly stood on the front lines in defense of women’s right to choose. His love, compassion and respect for women shines through in every page of this book, whether he’s talking about delivering a baby, offering services and counseling to pregnant teenagers, or setting up an alcohol abuse counseling service. He calls the Family Planning Clinic at BCH “a place of liberation.”

Edelin says that over the 30 years he practiced medicine, the reasons women needed an abortion were always different and very personal and the decision was always made with a lot of thought.