Janet Benshoof, Reproductive Justice Leader, Dies at 70

A memorial service was held on Sunday for Janet Benshoof, a renowned human rights lawyer who spent much of her career defending the right to access abortion and contraceptives in the United States and around the world.

Benshoof died December18 at her home in New York at age 70. According to her son, Benshoof had been battling a rare and aggressive form of endometrial cancer since November.

Benshoof began her career at a pivotal time of the women’s movement, just before the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade that established a woman’s right to an abortion. For the next four decades, Benshoof dedicated herself to upholding the constitutional right, as well as advocating for reproductive freedom across the globe.

Benshoof began serving as the director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project in 1977. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero stated that Benshoof “was known for her brilliant legal mind, her sharp sense of humor, and for her courage in the face of injustice.” Romero recalls the time when Benshoof made national headlines in 1990 when she flew to the U.S. territory of Guam to lobby against a new law making even the discussion of abortion illegal.

Benshoof proceeded to hold a news conference where she advised women needing an abortion to leave the island and head to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Hawaii. Just a day later, she was arrested for “soliciting” women to have abortions and was sentenced to a year in prison. The charges against Benshoof were dropped after a judge ruled that Guam’s ban on discussing abortions did not comply with the decision in Roe.

In 1992, Benshoof left the ACLU and founded the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), an international human rights organization focusing on reproductive rights and equality, which was the first of its kind at the time. For 25 years now, the Center has used the law to advance reproductive freedom as a fundamental human right that all governments are legally obligated to protect, respect, and fulfill. According to the CRR, the Center envisions a world where every woman participates with full dignity as an equal member of society.

One of Benshoof’s most significant achievements at the Center came in 1996, after the Center successfully pushed the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) to approve the morning after pill as an emergency contraceptive to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

In 2005, Benshoof founded the Global Justice Center (GJC), which works to implement and enforce human rights laws. One of GJC’s  projects, “Rape As a Weapon of War” advocates for rape to be prosecuted as an illegal weapon under international law, thus increasing victim’s avenues for medical treatment, reparations, and justice. Benshoof served as the president at GJC until her passing.

Benshoof was selected by the National Law Journal as one of the “100 Most Influential Lawyers in America” and received numerous awards for her great work, including the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Award,” the Gloria Steinem Women of Vision Award and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s Margaret Sanger Award.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, described Benshoof as a “new spirit” in the feminist movement and that she was the definition of “complete dedication as she was an absolute joy to work with.”

“Her chosen path was not easy, but Ms. Benshoof was fearless,” Romero stated. “To say she made the world a better place would be an understatement and she will be dearly missed.”


Media Resources: Washington Post 12/19/17, 3/27/90; New York Times 12/21/17, 8/24/90; ACLU 12/19/17


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