Edelin in 1974

Edelin in 1974

I was sorry to learn today of the death of Kenneth Edelin. A longtime professor of obstetrics at Boston University, Edelin was a fighter for civil rights and, notably, women’s reproductive rights. Six years ago, I had the honor of sitting on a panel with Ken in a discussion occasioned by the publication of Abortion: The A-Word, written by a fellow Rhode Islander and pro-choice advocate, Mary Ann Sorrentino.

Edelin was a modest man who played a large role in the medical side of the abortion movement. In the immediate aftermath of Roe v. Wade, Ken served as defendant in a case, brought in 1973, that helped clarify the limits of obstetricians’ liability in legally performed abortions.

I am not sure how I qualified to sit alongside these pioneers, but I was able to discuss an earlier breakthrough case, Eisenstadt v. Baird, aspects of which I had covered as a student journalist. Brought in 1967, the Baird case concerned both free speech and sexual privacy rights, in particular the right to discuss contraception and to distribute contraceptives, even with and to the unmarried.

After his conviction and subsequent (on appeal) aquittal, Ken went on to serve as chair of Planned Parenthood at the national level. He had entered the public arena involuntarily, but once there, he became a constant, calm, figure in a contentious debate. One of the difficulties of the pro-choice movement is short memories; Ken brought to the table a perspective on the state of women's health in the era when abortion was illegal and unsafe.

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