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Governor, Colleagues Pay Tribute to Kenneth Edelin

MED prof a healer, mentor, “warrior for justice”

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Doctor Kenneth Edelin, abortion, reproductive rights, Boston University School of Medicine

Kenneth Edelin, who died on December 30, was chair of MED’s OB/GYN department and a champion of women’s reproductive rights. Photo courtesy of Boston University School of Medicine

Kenneth Edelin’s former students, fellow medical faculty, and many who had joined him on the front lines of the ongoing battle for women’s reproductive freedoms and civil rights filled Marsh Chapel January 25 for a memorial service—complete with a jazz trio playing Marvin Gaye. The service was orchestrated by the School of Medicine professor in the weeks before his death, at 74, from cancer on December 30, 2013.

Edelin’s was a life “uniquely, powerfully lived,” said the Reverend Liz Walker, a former WBZ-TV news anchor, who officiated along with Marsh Chapel Dean Robert Allan Hill. Chairman of the MED department of obstetrics and gynecology from 1978 to 1989, Edelin went on to become MED associate dean for student and minority affairs. He had served as chairman of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and was a 30-year board member of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“He was a man of justice. His compassion for people was vivid, tangible, and personal,” Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick told mourners, describing Edelin as “a crusader against health disparities and a mentor to a generation of doctors.” Among the hundreds gathered to pay their respects was a group of young MED graduates who wore their red ties and white jackets as a show of respect for the man who “opened his home to all of us” and was “the epitome of a mentor, student advocate, and friend,” said one of them, Robert Rusher (MED’04), now a pulmonary specialist at Kaiser Permanente. “We wear this white coat, and for most of us he was the sole reason.”

Edelin became the first African American chief OB/GYN resident at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center) in 1973, the year of the US Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v Wade decision upholding a woman’s right to choose abortion. He was thrust into the national spotlight 15 months later during a high-profile Boston manslaughter trial in the death of a fetus during a legal abortion. He was convicted and sentenced to a year’s probation, but kept his medical license and was later exonerated. The battle fortified his lifelong dedication to the fight for social and health care justice, a fight poignantly recounted in his 2008 memoir Broken Justice: A True Story of Race, Sex, and Revenge in a Boston Courtroom.

During Edelin’s years at MED, he was also managing director of the Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center. He “wasn’t just a doctor, he was a crusader, who devoted his entire life to women’s health,” said Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood Federation president. Richards shared a written tribute from Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. Magazine, which covered Edelin’s Boston trial. “I had never met a better person or a worse injustice,” Steinem wrote. She recalled that Edelin, recipient of Planned Parenthood’s 2007 Margaret Sanger Award, whose 1966 honoree was Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), always said “reproductive rights and civil rights are intertwined.”

His decision to become “a women’s doctor,” Edelin recounted in his memoir, was born out of the painful experience at age 12 of watching his 46-year-old mother succumb slowly to breast cancer. Saved “from the dangers of the streets of segregated Washington, D.C.,” when he received a full scholarship to the progressive Stockbridge School in the Berkshires, he went on to college at Columbia and earned a medical degree in 1967 at Meharry Medical College.

“His deep love for his mother gave birth to his generous spirit,” said close family friend Deborah C. Jackson, president of Cambridge College, who met Edelin at Boston City Hospital when he delivered her first child. “We marveled at how he stood so strong in the face of such a devastating challenge,” Jackson said, referring to Edelin’s legal ordeal. He “inspired us to live a life of purpose and commitment.”

Edelin’s legal battle strengthened his commitment to a woman’s right to access to legal abortion and made him “a folk hero” in clinics across the nation, said Sherrilyn Ifill, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president and director-counsel.

David Acker, a Harvard Medical School associate professor of OB/GYN, first met Edelin in 1979 when he did a fellowship at Boston City Hospital, where Edelin was director of obstetrics and gynecology. “He was a chairman who actually cared about the patients,” said Acker, recalling that while Edelin forgave lapses on the more arcane points in his charges’ medical knowledge, “it was never okay to treat patients disrespectfully.” He “taught us not to ignore the little things,” and to be aware of the social and economic hardships that played a role in a patient’s condition. Acker shared a memory of standing with Edelin by his office window, when Edelin noticed a group of residents removing their ties as they walked from the neighboring private hospital to Boston City Hospital. “You tell them,” he instructed Acker, “that if they wear a tie at the university hospital, they’ll wear a tie at BCH.”

Edelin leaves four children, eight grandchildren, and his wife of 35 years, Barbara Evans Edelin. Retired from teaching since 2006, he lived in Sarasota, Fla., and Oak Bluffs, Mass.

Edelin was also a poet, whose zest for living and devotion to service resound through his verse. In his final poem, “The Labyrinth of Life,” written shortly before his death, he implores the reader not to “give in to loser’s talk” and not to be “paralyzed by fright.” He concludes: “The journey’s course will set you free / This journey is your life, you see.”

The School of Medicine Office of Development has established the Kenneth C. Edelin Scholarship Fund in Edelin’s honor. Donations can be made here.

3 Comments
Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

3 Comments on Governor, Colleagues Pay Tribute to Kenneth Edelin

  • Peter on 01.28.2014 at 10:32 am

    Who will write the eulogy for those innocent unborn victims? Over 54 million since Roe vs Wade. What kind of country destroys it’s future generation, and praises the perpetrator?

    • Smarter Child on 01.28.2014 at 1:03 pm

      Peter, Please have a little respect.

    • Alex on 04.19.2014 at 3:12 pm

      You seem to fail to realize how many more lives would have been destroyed if that ‘future generation’ had been born. Why do you think women get abortions? Put yourself in their shoes for a minute.

      Women don’t just get abortions for the hell of it, and I don’t know a single woman who would get an abortion if she didn’t feel she had to. They do it for their health, both mental and physical, and even for that potential child. They do it because of the circumstances they are in at the time. There are so many factors that are involved, and what this hero did was fight for the right for women to be able to live their life and have a voice when it came to their health and body. Those are very basic rights. If men could have children, abortion would have been legal from the start and this never would have been an issue.

      Do you know the truth of what would happen to most of those ‘innocent unborn victims’ if they were born? Everyone who professed to care about them when they were a fetus would cease to care about them as soon as they were born. In fact, the very same people would eventually call that ‘future generation’ takers and moochers of the system.

      Everyone is anti-abortion until it’s about them and their life and needs. Then, all of a sudden they are okay with it.

      Please do not blemish this man’s heroic life and eulogy with the kind of thinking he fought against his whole life.

      I find your comment placement eerily similar to the Westboro Babtist Church holding protests at military funerals.

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