Dr. Edelin, Dr. Gosnell: what a difference 39 years makes

Do any of my readers remember the name Dr. Kenneth Edelin? Before this morning, I hadn’t thought of him in years. Now, I can’t shake him. Edelin, whose treatment of a child who survived an abortion attempt earned the doctor a manslaughter trial in 1974, was and remains a hero to the pro-Roe crowd. Dr. Kermit Gosnell, now on trial for eight murders including the deaths of seven live-born children, has elicited no such acclaim. Edelin became chairman of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America; Cecile Richards, current PPFA leader, has been uncharacteristically MIA so far regarding Gosnell.

Edelin’s day in the spotlight came when abortion was only a peripheral matter to me. I was in high school, far from being a pro-life activist. Edelin’s name was on the news all the time. All I knew was that he was accused of something to do with abortion and that he was something of a cause celebre to the “reproductive rights” crowd. I later learned that he had been tried for manslaughter after causing the death of a fetus (said the defense) or baby (said the prosecution) which had survived an attempted saline abortion in late 1973. He was convicted and then his conviction was overturned. He went on to a long career in academic medicine at Boston University, and to honors from abortion advocacy groups. He died not too many years ago, after publishing his own account of his trial and subsequent work in “Broken Justice” (2007).

I did a quick Internet search on Edelin this morning. (Interestingly, Wikipedia has no entry for him, at least not at this writing.) Bare facts of his case: in October 1973 at Boston City Hospital, a woman brought her 17-year-old daughter to Edelin for an abortion. The pregnancy was estimated to be about 21 weeks’ gestation. Three attempts at saline abortion failed. (This technique, no longer common as far as I know, involved injecting saline into the uterus, burning and killing the fetus before its “expulsion” by the mother.) Edelin then did a hysterotomy – essentially a mini-Caesarian – to expose the fetus. Edelin peeled the placenta from the uterine wall. He waited three minutes, according to one eyewitness, and then lifted the now-dead body from the mother’s uterus. Mother reportedly recovered uneventfully. Dead baby was sent to the hospital mortuary, where the remains were discovered two months later, resulting in Edelin’s manslaughter trial. During the trial, Edelin’s defense fund attracted donations from all over the country, including offers of legal assistance. He was ultimately vindicated by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Edelin: “I have never performed an abortion on a woman who was carrying a fetus I considered to be viable.” This kept him on the right side of Roe, which only a few months earlier had made much of “viability” as the point at which a state could regulate abortion. Edelin’s defense attorney at his trial: “This fetus never drew a single breath outside the body of the mother.” Umm, no, since Edelin did not lift the “fetus” from the uterus until three minutes after cutting off the oxygen supply to the placenta and hence to the fetus. That rendered viability a moot point.

I’m trying really hard to use objective terms here, but they just won’t work. That fetus was a child.

Edelin kept things hygienic. Gosnell should have taken some notes: No dead mother (thank God). No jars with babies’ body parts lining the hallway of the hospital. No joking with his staff about dead children. No teenage assistants.

But now as then, there’s the sticky problem of what to do when a late-term pregnancy resists attempts at termination. What do you do with a child who just won’t die? There’s that pesky question again: does seeking abortion entitle a woman to a terminated pregnancy or a dead baby? Edelin resorted to suffocation, according to the prosecution.  Gosnell preferred snipping the spinal cords. Edelin was lionized and honored as a hero of women’s health. Gosnell has been ignored in most news outlets, although that is changing day to day. (About time, since his facility’s horrors were uncovered several years ago.) Both men operated legally.

What a difference 39 years makes. At least Gosnell is making people uneasy.

One thought on “Dr. Edelin, Dr. Gosnell: what a difference 39 years makes

  1. I remember the Edelin case. However, I’d forgotten that his conviction was overturned. Shame!

    I can’t help Barack Obama’s cold words coming to mind, when talking about these babies who, as you say, “just won’t die.” Obama, an Illinois state senator who, on four occasions, opposed giving born-alive survivors of abortion any medical care, complained about them “not just coming out limp and dead.”

    You put it so eloquently: “There’s that pesky question again: does seeking abortion entitle a woman to a terminated pregnancy or a dead baby?” Barack Obama, the sole member of the Illinois Senate to actually stand on the Senate floor and vocally defend infanticide, has answered that question: dead baby.

    The most powerful 5-minute video I’ve ever seen is on this topic:

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