SAN DIEGO — Dr. Kenneth C. Edelin, formally named Sunday as the new national chairman of the Planned Parenthood Federation, says he is prepared to do political battle with what he views as an escalating effort by anti-abortion rights "terrorists" intent on limiting women's reproductive rights.
"I've seen this before," Edelin, a Boston physician, said after the national organization's board ratified his appointment at its annual meeting. "They took their shots at me, and they lost."
In 1975, Edelin was convicted of manslaughter in Massachusetts for performing an abortion on a 17-year-old in a nationally publicized case. The Massachusetts Supreme Court later threw out the verdict.
Edelin, 50, has maintained all along that he was targeted in an effort by anti-abortion activists--among them Boston politicians--seeking to limit women's rights in the wake of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision allowing legal abortions.
"They were looking for a test case at the time, and I was it," Edelin said.
He was affiliated with Boston City Hospital for almost two decades before stepping down June 30 as chairman of obstetrics and gynecology.
"He combines both a practical knowledge of the issues from his time in a city hospital and a broad knowledge of policy," said Lydia Neumann, a Planned Parenthood vice president. "That's an unusual combination."
Edelin said he knows anti-abortion activists' tactics.
"They didn't frighten me back in '73 and '74," he said. "These folks try to intimidate patients, they try to intimidate doctors, they try to intimidate clinic personnel. I've seen these tactics in a very personal way."
Since last July's U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a Missouri law restricting abortions in that state's public hospitals, several states have seen the development of movements seeking greater restrictions on abortion, Edelin and other Planned Parenthood officials noted.
In particular, Edelin cited Louisiana where there is an effort underway to make it illegal for physicians to perform abortions. The Louisiana effort--now being challenged in the courts--echoes back to his own legal troubles, Edelin noted.
"This is a very critical time," Edelin said, adding that the Supreme Court's increasingly restrictive rulings on abortion means that the battle for abortion rights is shifting from the legal arena to the field of politics. "The pro-choice movement has an opportunity to be a potent political force."
Consequently, he said, he envisions Planned Parenthood becoming more active politically. The organization has applied to the Internal Revenue Service to create a separate entity, known as the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, that could serve to funnel support to favored political candidates, Edelin said. Without the separate entity, Planned Parenthood would risk losing its tax-exempt status if it undertook such activity.
The appointment of Edelin, who is black, gives Planned Parenthood a black chairman and a black president, Faye Wattleton. Edelin said that combination was a first for the 73-year-old organization, which he said has long been dedicated to making safe and effective family planning services widely available.
Blacks in top-level posts, Edelin said, "shows what a progressive organization Planned Parenthood is." Citing what he characterized as a frontal assault on reproductive rights, Edelin said that "African-American women will be the first to suffer, as they always have."
Edelin, the son of a postal worker, was born in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., one of two historically black medical schools along with Howard University's in Washington.
He was a U.S. Air Force captain before joining the staff of Boston City Hospital in 1971. He has a private practice in Boston and also serves as associate dean for student and minority affairs at Boston University.
Planned Parenthood's 30-member board elected Edelin to the non-paying post of chairman on Sunday, but the choice had been known since the spring when Edelin said the board first contacted him. He will serve a three-year term.
He lives in Brookline, a Boston suburb, with his wife Barbara. The couple have four children.
As Planned Parenthood met in San Diego, more than 200 anti-abortion activists affiliated with the national group Operation Rescue were arrested Saturday when they attempted to shut down a family planning clinic in the suburb of La Mesa.