Dr. Kenneth C. Edelin, whose historic 1975 manslaughter conviction in Boston for performing an abortion and whose subsequent exoneration by the Supreme Judicial Court set off clamorous debates about Roe v. Wade and race, died of cancer Monday in Sarasota, Fla., where he lived in retirement. Dr. Edelin, who spent part of each year in Oak Bluffs, was 74.
Prompted in part by his mother’s death from breast cancer when he was a boy and by witnessing the death of a teenager injured during a botched illegal abortion when he was a medical school student, Dr. Edelin spent his career advocating for women’s health care. As an African-American, he focused particularly on ensuring that poor women of color would have better access to doctors.
Sherrilyn Ifill, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said in a statement on the organization’s website that Dr. Edelin “was a fearless man of integrity and conviction.”
“He was a powerful voice and advocate for civil rights,” she said.
Such advocacy, Dr. Edelin recalled in 2007, made him a target. He was indicted on a manslaughter charge that he had caused the death of a fetus after it was born alive and was convicted by an all-white jury in Suffolk Superior Court. Dr. Edelin said the fetus had died in the womb of his patient, a 17-year-old from Roxbury.
“A lot came together for them in my case,” Dr. Edelin told the Globe in February 1975, a day after his conviction, as he spoke about the prosecution. “They got a black physician, they got a woman more than 20 weeks pregnant, and they got a fetus in a mortuary.”
In the early 1970s, with Boston under a federal court order to use mandatory busing to desegregate schools, race was a lens through which nearly every event was viewed. At the same time, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, which legalized abortion, reverberated in the heavily Irish-Catholic city.
“In Boston, it was the perfect storm,” Dr. Edelin said in 2007. “It was the religious climate; it was the racial climate.”
The city, he added, “had always been a cauldron when it came to women’s rights. It was the right place and the right time for those who wanted to make a statement. It was the wrong place and the wrong time for me.”
Meanwhile, the prosecutor in the case was Newman A. Flanagan, an assistant Suffolk district attorney who planned to run for district attorney.
A year after Dr. Edelin was convicted and sentenced, the Supreme Judicial Court overturned the verdict, ruling that he had “committed no wanton or reckless acts in carrying out the medical procedures.”
Dr. Edelin later served as chairman of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which in 2008 presented him with the Margaret Sanger Award, its highest honor. The organization called him “one of the heroes of the reproductive rights movement.’’
Dr. Edelin’s wife, Barbara, said she sent an e-mail to friends as his health was failing and noted that although he was best known “for his prochoice activities, Ken was so much more of a fighter for the poor and for African-American women and for the disadvantaged.”
She added that her husband led a more complex and nuanced life than a quick glance at his place in history revealed.
“He was funny, he was creative, he wrote poetry, he was a great friend,” she said. “And he was a teacher and mentor for many medical students, particularly for students at historically black colleges. I think his legacy is much more than what people know about from the trial.”
Prior to the trial and afterward, Dr. Edelin held roles that were groundbreaking, prominent, or both. He was the first African-American to be named chief resident of Boston City Hospital’s obstetrics and gynecology department.
In subsequent years, Dr. Edelin chaired the obstetrics and gynecology department at the Boston University School of Medicine and was director of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston City Hospital and gynecologist in chief at Boston University Hospital. He also was associate dean for student and minority affairs at BU’s School of Medicine, working to bring minority students into the school.
Dr. Edelin grew up in Washington, D.C., one of four children born to Benedict Edelin, a postal worker, and the former Ruby Goodwin.
Still a boy when his mother died of breast cancer, “he decided then that he had to do something to make the world better for women.”
“It was definitely personal, his career path,” his wife said.
“She was it,” Dr. Edelin told the Globe in 2007, recalling his mother’s death. “She was the center.”
He said she showed him a mastectomy scar after surgery, and in later years he wondered: “Why would she show an 11-year-old her scar? I think she wanted me to understand.”
Dr. Edelin went to a segregated elementary school in Washington before attending the private Stockbridge School in Massachusetts on a scholarship. After graduating from Columbia University in New York City in 1961, he returned to teach at Stockbridge School before attending Meharry Medical College in Nashville, from which he graduated in 1967.
Dr. Edelin’s marriage to Ramona Hoage, with whom he had two children, ended in divorce.
He met Barbara Evans on a blind date at a Super Bowl party during his manslaughter trial, “so he was a little busy,” she recalled with a chuckle. He had to leave early to meet with his lawyer to discuss strategy for the next day, and they did not see each other again for a long time. They married in 1978.
A service will be announced for Dr. Edelin, who in addition to his wife leaves two sons, Kenneth Jr. of Middleton, Del., and Joseph of Atlanta; two daughters, Kimberley Edelin Freeman of Washington, D.C., and Corinne of Atlanta; a brother, Milton of Piedmont, Calif.; a sister, Norma Johnson of Wappingers Falls, N.Y.; and, eight grandchildren.
Among Dr. Edelin’s extended family is Jeh C. Johnson, the secretary of homeland security.
Remaining a prominent voice in the abortion debate, Dr. Edelin wrote in a Globe opinion piece in 2007 that “banning legal abortions would force desperate women to seek illegal abortions, to submit to dangerous procedures, often at great expense, and result in the deaths of many of them. This burden would fall disproportionately, as it did before Roe, on the poor women of our country.”
Regarding his own case, the sting never lessened with time.
In 1988, he told the Globe that “the prosecution was vicious and unnecessary and personal. I’m still very angry at people who instigated it, who prolonged it, who profited from it. And I will be for a very long time.”