Obituary: Kenneth Edelin / Doctor at center of landmark abortion case

March 31, 1939 - Dec. 30, 2013

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Kenneth C. Edelin, a Boston physician whose 1975 manslaughter conviction for performing a legal abortion was overturned on appeal in a landmark test of medical, legal, religious and political questions surrounding abortion in the United States, died Monday in Sarasota, Fla. He was 74.

The cause was cancer, his family said.

Two years after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in 1973, Dr. Edelin, a 35-year-old resident in obstetrics and gynecology at Boston City Hospital, became the focus of a roiling national debate over crucial issues that had been left unresolved by the justices: When does life begin? Does an aborted fetus have rights? And what are a doctor's often contradictory duties to the fetus and its mother?

Dr. Edelin was charged with causing the death of the fetus of an unwed 17-year-old during an elective abortion in her sixth month of pregnancy. In a six-week trial in Boston that explored uncharted legal ground and made headlines across the country, Dr. Edelin, who was black, was vilified as a baby-killer and defended as a victim of racial and religious prejudice being tried for an action that had never been defined as a crime: killing a fetus that may or may not have been a "person," and whose rights had never been specified by law.

The abortion, which took place in 1973, began as a routine procedure: the injection of a saline solution that usually causes uterine contractions and the expulsion of the fetus. But several tries were unsuccessful, and Dr. Edelin completed the abortion by a surgical procedure known as a hysterotomy -- making a small incision in the uterus, like a cesarean section, and detaching the fetus from the placental wall by hand.

Prosecutors did not contest the legality of the abortion -- Roe v. Wade had struck down anti-abortion laws in most states, including Massachusetts -- but argued that Dr. Edelin, after ending the pregnancy, had deprived "a baby boy" of life-sustaining oxygen while it was still in the womb "being born." A photo of the dead fetus preserved in formaldehyde was shown to the jurors, and some said they were "shaken" by it.

The defense called the photo inflammatory and objected repeatedly to the prosecution's use of "fetus" and "baby" as interchangeable terms in a case that it said was being politicized. Medical experts testified for the defense that the fetus, estimated to be 24 weeks old, was not viable enough to have survived outside the womb. Dr. Edelin's lawyers contended that no "person" had even existed, let alone died.

But the all-white 12-member jury, which included nine men and 10 Roman Catholics, convicted Dr. Edelin of manslaughter.

The presiding judge, who had instructed the jury that it could convict only if it believed that the fetus was a viable person and that the doctor had acted recklessly, sentenced Dr. Edelin to one year of probation, although he could have imposed a maximum of 20 years in prison. Dr. Edelin kept his medical license and continued to practice at Boston City Hospital.

He appealed the verdict, and in 1976 the state's highest judicial body, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, unanimously overturned the conviction and formally acquitted him.

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.

Kenneth Carlton Edelin was born in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1939, one of four children of Benedict Edelin, a postal worker, and the former Ruby Goodwin.

After receiving a bachelor's degree from Columbia College in 1961, he taught math and science for two years at the Stockbridge School and then attended Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., where he earned his medical degree in 1967.

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