Janet Benshoof: Human rights lawyer who campaigned for abortion rights in the US and across the world

She proved a formidable foe to anti-abortion activists, never cowing to threats of violence, and her vision for empowering girls and women was steadfastly internationalist in scope

Harrison Smith
Thursday 04 January 2018 15:10 GMT
Benshoof’s legacies are the Centre for Reproductive Rights and the Global Justice Centre, both in New York
Benshoof’s legacies are the Centre for Reproductive Rights and the Global Justice Centre, both in New York (Global Justice Centre)

Janet Benshoof was an American human rights lawyer who campaigned to expand access to contraceptives and abortions across the world. She led organisations that advocated on behalf of women from the US to Burma and Iraq.

In the American territory of Guam, she was once arrested for protesting against her country’s most restrictive abortion law.

Benshoof, who has died aged 70 in Manhattan, began her legal career just before the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v Wade established a woman’s right to an abortion in America.

She spent the next four decades fighting to uphold the case’s legacy in US courts and to expand women’s reproductive freedom around the world. She founded the New York-based Centre for Reproductive Rights in 1992 to defend clients – such as abortion providers facing bomb threats.

In 2005 she set up the Global Justice Centre which tackled issues such as rape as a weapon of war.

Proclaiming the motto “Power, not pity”, she acquired a reputation as a fierce presence in the courtroom – as a litigator for the American Civil Liberties Union, she argued sex education and abortion cases before the Supreme Court. She was a frank and witty guest on television shows.

“I feel like I’m married to the mob,” she told the New York Times in 1998, only half-joking after anti-abortion activists murdered obstetrician Barnett Slepian.

Benshoof, who professed to being more worried about turbulent plane rides than militant abortion foes, played a supporting role in many of the legal and cultural flash points that followed Roe v Wade. At the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) she made abortion one of the group’s top priorities, expanding the project’s annual funding exponentially.

She made national headlines in 1990, when she flew to Guam to lobby against what was then considered the country’s most severe abortion legislation: a law that banned the advocacy of abortion and outlawed the procedure except when the life of the woman was threatened.

Benshoof arrived after the bill was signed into law, but at a news conference she stood up and announced that “women who are pregnant, seeking an abortion, should leave the island” and head to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Hawaii.

One day later, she was arrested for “soliciting” women to have abortions – a violation of the new law – and faced a $1,000 (£740) fine, a year in prison and the wrath of the island’s governor, Joseph Ada.

“It’s her right to question it, but she’s making a mockery of our abortion law,” he told People magazine. “That’s not nice.”

Legal niceties prevailed, however. The charges against Benshoof were dropped after the island faced an ACLU-backed lawsuit over its abortion law, which appeared to challenge the outcome of Roe. Five months after it was passed, the legislation was struck down by a federal district judge who ruled that Guam, like the rest of the United States, was bound by the Roe ruling.

Janet Lee Benshoof was born in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, on 10 May 1947. Her father was a county prosecutor, and her mother was a teacher-turned-homemaker.

She received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Minnesota in 1969. Three years later she graduated from Harvard Law School, paying her tuition using money from a summer job promoting a root beer brand.

Benshoof said she encountered a female lawyer for the first time while at Harvard, where she developed a friendship with future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, co-founded the Harvard Women’s Law Association and met her husband, Richard Klein, who became a law professor. They later divorced.

Survivors include her husband of six years, Alfred Meyer of Manhattan (Ginsburg officiated their wedding); two sons from her first marriage – David Benshoof Klein and Eli Klein – and a sister.

Benshoof worked for South Brooklyn Legal Services, filing class-action lawsuits – where one or two people sue on behalf of a much larger group – in New York, before joining the ACLU in 1977.

She left the organisation 15 years later, taking her entire staff with her, in what ACLU executive director Ira Glasser described as a “dead of night” departure.

Weeks later, she received a £150,000 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, providing what she described as a bit of much-needed financial stability as she established what was then known as the Centre for Reproductive Law and Policy. (She said she also donated some of the money to a women’s health clinic in Minnesota.)

In one of Benshoof’s most enduring achievements, the Centre of Reproductive Law effectively launched the use of the morning after pill as an emergency contraceptive, filing a petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1994 that asked for companies to label birth control pills as post-coital contraceptives.

Two years later, the FDA published a notice affirming the safe and effective use of the pills after sex, following a contentious hearing in which Benshoof testified that the pills could prevent up to 1.2 million unwanted pregnancies and as many as a million abortions each year. Opponents likened the emergency birth control method to murder.

“You would think that finding ways to stop unwanted pregnancies would be common ground,” Benshoof said at the time. “The fact that it isn’t shows just how anti-woman the anti-abortion movement really is.”

Janet Lee Benshoof, born 10 May 1947, died 18 December 2017

© The Washington Post

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