It's been 34 years since the landmark court case that stamped out most state and federal laws banning or restricting abortion.

But a few of New England's highly regarded women's rights activists, who gathered in the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown for a panel discussion on Wednesday night, told the audience that Roe v. Wade may not live to see 34 more years.

"We are about to lose this right. Let me predict for you, Roe will not live to see the 50th anniversary," said medical doctor Kenneth C. Edelin, who in 1974 was indicted on a charge of manslaughter by a secret grand jury for performing a legal abortion. The alleged victim was the aborted fetus.


The six-week trial in Boston of the young African American doctor - three months away from finishing his residency training in obstetrics and gynecology - received national attention and resulted in a conviction that was later overturned by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

"What stopped women from dying and what stopped physicians from going to jail was activists marching and signing petitions. They got Roe v. Wade," said Mr. Edelin, who is a former board chairman of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and a retired dean of Boston University School of Medicine. "It is up to you in the next 16 years to fight for 50, so those that come behind you will have the protection of Roe v. Wade," he added.

The panel discussion, entitled Reproductive Rights: The Keystone to Women's Freedom, was hosted by the Martha's Vineyard chapter of the National Organization for Women and Friends of Family Planning of Martha's Vineyard. Moderated by Naomi Arenberg, local host of National Public Radio's All Things Considered, the panel included a psychiatrist, a professor, a Methodist minister and the author of the 2006 book, The A Word: Real Women, Tough Choices, Personal Freedom.

"What should be a fundamental human right is being touted as the root of all evil," said Mary Ann Sorrentino, newspaper columnist, radio talk show host and author of The A Word. "No one could ever be free until they can control their own fertility. That is the one control that a woman needs to have to live her life to the fullest - as she sees fit," she added.

That is not always the viewpoint in the impersonal hearing rooms and courtrooms of government buildings, where lawmakers - mostly men - decide the legality of a decision that, in Mr. Edelin's words, "women have been making for almost as long as women have been on this earth."


"We have lost ground since 1973. Read [Planned Parenthood v.] Casey [1992]. Casey overturned part of Roe [v. Wade] - and it's not getting better," Ms. Sorrentino said. "Make this a real issue for you in this election year going forward," she added.

Ms. Sorrentino was director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island from 1977 to 1987 and oversaw the first outpatient abortion clinic in the state - which she points out is the most Roman Catholic state in the country. In 1985, the diocese of Providence tried to block Ms. Sorrentino's daughter from being confirmed and publicly excommunicated Ms. Sorrentino from the church. But in 1987, she was vindicated by the Canon Law Society of America - making her case a benchmark in Canon law.

"Although I left Planned Parenthood in 1987, it is the core of my life," she told the audience, assembled in cushioned pews under the cathedral ceiling. "I don't feel about anything else like I feel about this issue."

Rev. Vicky Hanjian of Oak Bluffs - the only Island resident on the panel - said that although she worked as a clinical staff nurse for Planned Parenthood in the 1980s in New Jersey, her consciousness of women's rights had dulled since being ordained in the United Methodist Church.

"I was not even aware of the ramifications of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and I want to admit that because I don't believe I'm alone," said Mrs. Hanjian, who is a volunteer bereavement counsellor for Hospice of Martha's Vineyard. Reading Ms. Sorrentino's book put her back in touch with the issue.

Mrs. Hanjian's talk centered on conservatives' use of scripture to condemn abortion.

"As I listen to the religious rhetoric around reproductive rights, I find myself wondering, is there another Bible I don't know about?" she said.

People are often seduced by what appears to be the obvious meaning of words on the page, she said, but liberals less versed in scripture could take confidence in the justice and personal responsibility that rest in Jewish and Christian tradition.


The other panelists included Jill McLean Taylor, a New Zealand-born author and associate professor of women's studies and education, and author and professor Peter Kramer, who the New York Times called "possibly the best-known psychiatrist in America" following the success of his book Listening to Prozac.

Ms. Sorrentino dedicated her participation on the panel to the late Alfred F. Moran of Oak Bluffs, who was executive director of Planned Parenthood of New York city from its inception in 1966 until his retirement in 1989. He died in 1994 on the Island, survived by his wife Corinne, who was in attendance on Wednesday night.

It was the first time Ms. Sorrentino had met Mrs. Moran in person. Mr. Moran features prominently in The A Word as a strong, vocal leader with "a large streak of sensitivity."

"[Mr. Moran] was the one man who understood women's reproductive freedom better than most women," Ms. Sorrentino said. "There are very few men that stuck with us like Ken [Edelin] and Al did," she added later.

Before the book was published last year, its working title was, Someone's Mother, Someone's Daughter, Someone's Lover: Putting a Face on Abortion While We Still Have a Choice. The book humanizes the women who choose to have abortions in a similar way that activists against abortion have promoted sympathy for the life of the fetus.

"I want you to understand how personal this is," she said, asking everyone in the audience to picture someone they knew who had had an abortion or had been affected by an unwanted pregnancy. "When you go to vote, I want you to bring that picture into the booth with you," she added.

In The A Word, she writes: "Al Moran knew, and wanted all of us to know as well, that providing abortion services was not only about ending a potential human life, but in just as many ways about saving human lives as well. He knew that the focus had been shifted by the opposition so that the nation looking at abortion was being forced to talk exclusively about the ‘unborn' while the already living were ignored."


During her talk, Ms. Sorrentino also recalled the hypocrisy she saw in some conservative politicians who wanted to outlaw abortion.

"They were walking in the back door of my clinic with their daughters, their girlfriends, their wives and girlfriends on different days of the week," she said. When she was lobbying, she said she would tell them, "You should feel lucky that the law prevents me from reading the names on this list."

Ms. Sorrentino said one of the greatest mistakes of the pro-choice movement has been its emphasis on extreme cases for abortion.

"In this delusional need to justify this right, we have fallen back on rape and incest cases, which represent an infinitesimally small amount of cases," she said. Ms. Sorrentino writes about the problem in her book:

"But the issue of having choices extends beyond abortion. It means women must be free, however they decide to go forward once they know they are pregnant, to make a very personal decision in a very private way. Their pregnancy options should not be cause for political rallies or fanatical circuses. Neither should their ultimate choice require justification. Put simply, women should be free to choose their fate however they become pregnant, regardless of whether rape or incest was a factor."