Dr. Kenneth C. Edelin, a champion for both the civil rights movement and women’s rights, has died of cancer in Sarasota, Fla. where he lived in retirement, the Boston Globe reports.
Dr. Edelin became a nationwide figure after he was convicted of manslaughter in Boston in 1975 after he performed an abortion. He would later be exonerated by the Supreme Judicial Court. He inspired continued debates about Roe v. Wade and race.
He would attribute seeing his mother’s death from breast cancer when he was just a boy and later having witnessed a teen’s injury after an illegal abortion when he was a medical student with his commitment to his community. As an African American, he would focus primarily on ensuring that poor women of color could get proper health care and have better access to doctors.
“He was a powerful voice and advocate for civil rights,” Sherrilyn Ifill, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said in a statement on the organization’s website.
But being a champion for equal rights for poor women of color wasn’t received well in the heavily segregated area of Boston in the ’70s. In 1975, Edelin would be charged with manslaughter, a charge that claimed the doctor caused the death of a baby, after it was born alive. An all-white jury convicted Dr. Edelin, who claimed that the fetus died in the womb of his 17-year-old patient.
“A lot came together for them in my case,” Edelin told the Globe in February 1975, a day after his conviction. “They got a black physician, they got a woman more than 20 weeks pregnant and they got a fetus in a mortuary.”
According to the Globe, a year after Dr. Edelin was convicted and sentenced, the Supreme Judicial Court would overturn the verdict, finding that he “committed no wanton or reckless acts in carrying out the medical procedures.”
Dr. Edelin would later serve as chairman of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and in 2008 they presented him with the Margaret Sanger Award, its highest honor. The organization called him “one of the heroes of the reproductive rights movement,’” the Globe reports.