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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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