02 January 2014

Doctor in landmark abortion case dies of cancer

Doctor in landmark criminal abortion case dies of cancer in southwest Florida

Dr Kenneth Edelin, a Boston physician at the centre of a landmark abortion case in the 1970s, died December 30, 2013 in Sarasota, Florida. He was 74.

Edelin's wife, Barbara, confirmed that he died after suffering from cancer.

She said that her husband was a great teacher and mentor, guiding many young doctors over his career.

"He was a great advocate for the rights of women to have choice in their own reproductive freedom," Barbara Edelin said. "Particularly for women of colour and other minorities."

She said he was affected deeply as a child when his mother died of breast cancer.

"He became a doctor because that's what he thought he needed to do to help women," Barbara Edelin said.

ReadCoping with cancer

What made Edelin well known?

Edelin made national headlines when he was convicted of manslaughter in 1975 for performing an abortion. That was two years after the US Supreme Court legalised the procedure with its decision on Roe v. Wade.

According to the NAACP Legal Defence Fund, the Massachusetts Supreme Court later overturned Edelin's guilty verdict, in a case that helped legally define what an abortion is and when human life begins.

Edelin went on to become an outspoken activist and spokesman for reproductive rights, the LDF said. He also served as a chairman of the board of Planned Parenthood. Edelin joined the LDF's senior board in 1986.

Read: More aid for reproductive health

"Dr. Edelin was a fearless man of integrity and conviction," LDF Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill said in a prepared statement. "As an LDF board member, he was a powerful voice and advocate for civil rights."

Edelin was the first black person to become chief resident of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the history of Boston City Hospital, according to the LDF.

Edelin fought for women's rights

In the book Broken Justice: A True Story of Race, Sex and Revenge in a Boston Courtroom, Edelin recounted the experiences of his criminal case.

"At the centre 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," Edelin wrote.

Read: Abortion rates higher in illegal countries

"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."



Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Ask the Expert

Cancer expert

CANSA’s purpose is to lead the fight against cancer in South Africa. Its mission is to be the preferred non-profit organisation that enables research, educates the public and provides support to all people affected by cancer. Questions are answered by CANSA’s Head of Health Professor Michael Herbst and Head of Advocacy Magdalene Seguin. For more information, visit

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules