Kenneth Edelin, doctor prosecuted for abortion, dies at 74


Kenneth Edelin, a Boston gynecologist who was found guilty of manslaughter after performing a lawful abortion in 1973, a conviction later overturned in a high-profile case that embodied the legal and emotional complexity of an enduring national debate, died Dec. 30 in Sarasota, Fla. He was 74.

He had cancer, his wife, Barbara Edelin, told The Associated Press.

Kenneth Edelin rose from a modest background in segregated Washington to a prominent medical career in Massachusetts, where, in 1973, he became the first African American to serve as chief resident in Boston City Hospital’s obstetrics and gynecology department. His mother’s death from breast cancer had helped inspire his commitment to serving the health needs of women.

That service extended to providing abortions, which were effectively legalized in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. On Oct. 3, 1973, less than nine months after the high court handed down its decision, Edelin performed the abortion that would thrust him into the media spotlight. Denounced by opponents of abortion rights and lionized by supporters, he found himself at the center of an intense debate over when life begins.

The patient in question was 17 or 18 years old, according to news accounts, and was in Edelin’s estimation at most 22 weeks along in her pregnancy. The age of the aborted fetus, a male, would became a central issue in the manslaughter trial. Roe v. Wade protected a woman’s right to obtain an abortion before “viability” — the unspecified point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb.

Edelin began the procedure with the standard practice of injecting a saline solution into the uterus. When that method proved ineffective, he performed a hysterotomy.

Six months later, in April 1974, Edelin was charged.

“I was scared,” he told The Boston Globe years later. “I was very law-abiding, very careful about image. That’s how I was brought up. Then somebody indicts you for manslaughter.”

The prosecution did not dispute the legality of the abortion, but rather charged that in performing the hysterotomy, Edelin had deprived the fetus of oxygen within the womb at a time when it could have survived outside. The prosecution contended that the fetus was older than Edelin had estimated.

A doctor who witnessed the operation testified that Edelin had watched a clock for at least three minutes while holding the fetus inside the womb in order to ensure that the fetus had died before it was removed. Edelin and two nurses cast doubt on that account by testifying that the operating room’s clocks had been removed for repairs.

He testified that he had previously refused to abort fetuses that could have lived outside the womb and said that if the fetus in question had been born alive, “I would have taken steps to get it to the nursery. That has always been my philosophy.”

On Feb. 15, 1975, after seven hours of deliberation, a jury convicted Edelin of manslaughter. Newspapers noted at the time that the jury was all-white and predominantly Catholic and that it included nine men. The prosecutor denied that politics or race entered into his handling of the matter, but Edelin charged otherwise, calling it a “witch hunt.”

James Avery of ‘Fresh Prince’ fame dead at 68

NEW YORK — James Avery, the bulky character actor who laid down the law at home and on the job as the Honorable Philip Banks in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” has died.

Avery’s publicist, Cynthia Snyder, told The Associated Press that Avery died Tuesday in Glendale, Calif., following complications from open heart surgery. He was 68, Snyder said.

Avery, who stood more than 6 feet tall, played the family patriarch and a wealthy attorney and judge on the popular TV comedy that launched the acting career of Will Smith as Banks’ troublemaking nephew.

The sitcom, which aired on NBC from 1990 to 1996, was set in the Banks’ mansion, where Smith’s character was sent from Philadelphia when things got tough in his own neighborhood. Fans came to know the imposing Banks as “Uncle Phil.”

Avery liked to say that the way to be an actor was to act, and he had a busy and diverse career before, during and after “Fresh Prince.” His TV credits included “Grey’s Anatomy,” ‘’NYPD Blue” and “Dallas,” and among his many films were “Fletch,” ‘’Nightflyers” and “8 Million Ways to Die.” His voice alone brought him many jobs, notably as Shredder in the animated TV series “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

According to Snyder, he will be seen in the film “Wish I Was Here,” directed by Zach Braff and scheduled to premiere later this month at the Sundance festival.

Avery grew up in Atlantic City, N.J., and served in the Navy in Vietnam in the late 1960s. After returning to the states, he settled in California and studied drama and literature at the University of California at San Diego.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and stepson Kevin Waters.


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