Janet Benshoof, a lawyer who spent much of her career defending a woman’s right to an abortion, then expanded her work to champion causes for women around the world, including those raped in war zones, died of cancer Dec. 17 in New York City. She was 70.
“For there to be justice, peace, and security in the world, there has to be equality of women in fact,” Ms. Benshoof said at a Google talk in 2008. “If women are always out of the boardrooms and the decision makers and the military, then you do not have the sustainable justice, peace, and security that is our ultimate aim.”
Over 40 years, she pursued her advocacy at three organizations in New York City: as director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s reproductive freedom project, as founder and president of the Center for Reproductive Rights and, most recently, while with the Global Justice Center.
Ms. Benshoof helped plot the legal strategy for abortion and sex education cases in state courts and the US Supreme Court, and trained judges in Iraq to prosecute rape and sexual violence cases under international law.
“No single person has done more to promote reproductive rights than Janet in the United States and globally,” Sylvia Law, a professor of law, medicine and psychiatry at New York University, said in a telephone interview.
In 1989, while at the ACLU, Ms. Benshoof argued Hodgson v. Minnesota, a Supreme Court case that challenged a state law requiring a minor to notify both birth parents before having an abortion.
She told the court that the two-parent requirement was “out of step with the reality of family life,” and that it had been imposed “regardless of whether the minor lives in a no-parent, one-parent or two-parent household, regardless of whether she is mature, or whether it would be in the best interest to have a private abortion, regardless of whether she has ever met the absentee parent.”
The court ruled, 5-4, that the Minnesota law was constitutional because the state gave minors an alternative to the two-parent requirement by allowing them to seek authorization for an abortion in a judicial hearing.
The continuing fight to preserve abortion rights took Ms. Benshoof far afield. In 1990 she learned that the legislature in Guam, a US territory in the Pacific, had passed a law banning abortion, except if the mother’s life or health was believed to be in imminent danger. She promptly bought a Fodor’s travel book and headed for the airport.
Once in Guam, she told reporters that pregnant women there who were seeking an abortion should fly to Honolulu. She was arrested and arraigned for soliciting women to have abortions, a crime in Guam punishable by a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
“Never have I seen a statute anywhere in the world,” she told People magazine, “where to talk about abortion to pregnant women is a crime.”
Joseph Ada, the governor of Guam, was displeased by Ms. Benshoof’s flouting of the law.
“It’s her right to question it,” he said, “but she’s making a mockery of our abortion law. That’s not nice.”
The charges was eventually dropped, and the law was struck down by a federal district judge, who ruled that Roe v. Wade, which made abortion a constitutional right, “applied with equal force and effect to Guam.”
At the time, the ACLU was already representing Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania against Gov. Robert P. Casey, a Democrat, in a case that challenged the state’s abortion law as an unconstitutional infringement of women’s rights to privacy and equality.
Kathryn Kolbert, the ACLU’s co-counsel on the case, said in an interview that as it headed for an appeal to the Supreme Court, Ms. Benshoof provided critical advice about framing its petition for review.
“Janet would have flashes of brilliance that few lawyers I knew had,” said Kolbert, who is director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College. “Once in a while, she’d come up with a way of approaching a case that the rest of us wouldn’t have.”
Ms. Benshoof suggested that instead of having the introduction to the ACLU petition address each provision of the law separately, as was commonly done, it should raise only a single all-or-nothing question.
The question posed by Kolbert and her co-counsel, Linda Wharton, reflected their belief that the court’s rulings since 1973 had eroded Roe and their fear that Clarence Thomas’s confirmation as a justice in 1991 gave the court five votes to overturn the decision
“Has the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade?” the lawyers asked.
In 1992, the court affirmed Roe, 5-4, but still upheld most of the state’s restrictions.
But having anticipated that Roe would be overturned, Ms. Benshoof and the rest of the abortion-rights staff had left the ACLU before the court’s ruling to form what was then called the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.
“We’re facing a scary new world without Roe,” she told The New York Times,” and we’re going to face it in the strongest way possible, by taking all of our combined expertise and experience and restructuring and expanding.”
One of her signature achievements at the center resulted in the Food and Drug Administration’s approval in 1996 of the use of the morning-after pill as an emergency contraceptive to prevent unwanted pregnancies. The center had filed a citizen’s petition with the agency two years earlier, asking companies to label the pill as a post-intercourse contraceptive.
“The FDA has stood idly by as drug manufacturers routinely suppress required information about safe and effective emergency contraception,” Ms. Benshoof told the Washington Post in 1994 at the time that she filed the petition with the FDA. “Millions of women are being hurt.”
Ms. Benshoof graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Minnesota and later from Harvard Law School, where she met her first husband, Richard Klein.
After Harvard Law, she spent five years at South Brooklyn Legal Services, where she supervised class-action litigation for low-income people. She then joined the ACLU, where her clients included abortion doctors.
As her concerns about women’s rights turned to the world stage, the Global Justice Center became her most prominent platform to address repression by authoritarian regimes.
In addition to training judges of the Iraqi High Tribunal in dealing with cases of sexual violence during Saddam Hussein’s rule, she and her organization lobbied to see Myanmar’s military government face prosecution for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague and filed amicus briefs with that court seeking justice for the Yazidis, the often-prosecuted Iraqi minority who have been victims of genocide by the Islamic State, according to UN investigators.
Ms. Benshoof’s marriage to Alfred Meyer, her second husband, was officiated by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a longtime friend.
A few days before Ms. Benshoof died, Ginsburg sent her a letter that read, in part: “Martin Luther King said the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. To make that so, it takes people of your commitment, will, and grit.”
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