Live birth abortion trial: the story of Dr. Kenneth Edelin

The Kermit Gosnell trial has shocked many in the pro-life movement and in the general public. But as shocking as the Gosnell situation is, this is not the first time a doctor has been brought up on charges after killing a baby born alive after an abortion. In fact, it is happened twice before – and in both instances, the doctor was never punished.

Dr. Kenneth Edelin was a member of the National Abortion Federation. The National Abortion Federation, or NAF, is an organization of abortion providers. Facilities endorsed by the NAF are supposed to be the best facilities – cleaner, more professional, and with higher medical quality standards. In many cases, however, NAF facilities have had serious problems despite their endorsement.

In 1973, Edelin was an abortionist at Boston City Hospital. A 17-year-old girl came in for a routine abortion. She claimed she was 17 weeks pregnant. One doctor examined her and said that she was closer 20 weeks. Later she was estimated to be 24 weeks along. Yet another doctor estimated her pregnancy as 22 weeks. Despite the confusion, Dr. Edelin and Dr. Penza (the abortionists on staff) chose to perform a saline abortion on her. A saline abortion is performed by injecting caustic saline solution into the woman’s uterus. The solution burns and poisons the baby over a period of several hours, and then labor is induced, with the woman “giving birth” to her dead child. This abortion procedure is seldom used today because of its risks to the mother and the large number of live births that were attributed to it.

The abortion went wrong from the beginning. Dr. Penza was to perform the saline abortion. After two attempts to inject the saline solution Dr. Penza gave up. Edelin took over and decided to perform hysterotomy. A hysterotomy is a little used abortion procedure which is performed like a cesarean section – the womb is cut open, and the baby is removed. What happened next is still in dispute.

Edelin’s legal team made the case that the baby was killed while still inside the uterus. According to pro-choice author Marion Faux:

“He [Dr. Edelin] “had run his finger around the uterine wall to separate the fetus from the placenta and then stood looking at a wall clock for three minutes before removing the fetus from the uterus.”(1)

In this way, Faux said he suffocated the infant. Other witnesses, however, claimed that the baby was born alive and then suffocated. After an autopsy of the baby, a medical examiner and pathologist testified that the baby could have been born alive after examining the baby’s lungs to determine whether or not he had taken a breath outside the womb. Edelin’s defense produced experts to contest their estimation. One claimed that the condition of the lungs was caused by the saline solution that was unsuccessfully injected before the hysterotomy attempt. However, since witnesses claim that the saline solution never penetrated the amniotic sac, such a claim is unlikely. Edelin himself was quoted saying that he’d had no intention of delivering a live baby “”It would have been contrary to the wishes of the mother.”

In the end, Edelin was convicted of manslaughter. Many jurors claimed that the picture of the aborted baby was pivotal in their decision. According to one report, a jury member said:

“The picture helped people draw their own conclusions. Everybody in the room made up their minds that the fetus was a person.”

Edelin was found guilty of manslaughter. The verdict was delivered amid accusations of racism – an all-white jury had convicted in African-American doctor. One alternate juror claimed to have heard a jury member making racist remarks.

A year later, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts overturned the verdict and exonerated Edelin. It seems that the crux of the argument against his conviction was the conflicting testimony and the fact that experts claimed that the baby was not “viable.” They claimed that the baby could not survive outside the woman’s womb, and, therefore, any steps taken to kill the child should not be prosecuted.
Edelin’s career was not damaged by the trial. Only three years later, he became the Chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Boston University medical school. Many years later, in 1990, he became chairman of the board at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

1. Marian Faux Crusaders: Voices from the Abortion Front (New York: Carol Publishing Group) 1990 p 4

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