The board of directors and staff of the American Civil Liberties Union mourn the passing of Janet Benshoof, a tireless champion of reproductive freedom and of human rights everywhere.
Janet, who became director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project in 1977, was known for her brilliant legal mind, her sharp sense of humor, and for her courage in the face of injustice. In 1990, when the governor of Guam signed a law making even the discussion of abortion illegal, Janet flew there herself to hold a news conference, buying a Fodor’s travel guide on the way to the airport. During the conference, she advised women needing an abortion to leave the island—and announced the address of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Hawaii. She was arrested then and there. After her release, she took Guam’s governor to court, and won.
Janet led the Reproductive Freedom Project for 15 years, during which time the ACLU became involved in every significant abortion case to reach the Supreme Court. There were many, including Harris v. McRae in 1980, a challenge to the exclusion of abortion from the Medicaid program, and Hodgson v. Minnesota in 1990, which challenged a Minnesota law requiring teens to notify both parents before receiving an abortion. Most notably, under her guidance, the ACLU went to the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, where the fate of Roe hung by a thread, and abortion rights were upheld by a vote of 5-4. Under Janet’s leadership, the ACLU became a major force in the fight to defend the rights guaranteed under Roe. Janet herself argued two of the cases that reached the high court during her tenure at the ACLU.
In 1992, Janet left the ACLU to found the Center for Reproductive Rights, an international human rights organization focusing on reproductive rights and equality — the first of its kind. In 2005, she founded the Global Justice Center, which works to implement and enforce human rights laws. She was president of the center until her passing yesterday.
Janet was selected by the National Law Journal as one of the “100 Most Influential Lawyers in America” and was the recipient of numerous awards, including the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Award,” the Gloria Steinem Women of Vision Award, the Edith Spivack Award for Outstanding New York Women Lawyers, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s Margaret Sanger Award.
Her chosen path was not easy, but Janet was fearless. To say she made the world a better place would be an understatement. She will be dearly missed.