Janet Benshoof, a human rights lawyer who campaigned to expand access to contraceptives and abortion, leading organizations that advocated on behalf of women from the mainland United States to Burma, Iraq and Guam, where she was once arrested for protesting the most restrictive abortion law in America, died Dec. 18 at her home in Manhattan. She was 70.
She was diagnosed in November with uterine serous carcinoma, an endometrial cancer, said her son David Benshoof Klein.
Ms. Benshoof (pronounced ben-shawf) began her legal career just before the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade established a woman’s right to an abortion. She spent the next four decades fighting to uphold the case’s legacy in the United States and to expand women’s reproductive freedom around the world, founding the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights and Global Justice Center to defend clients that included abortion providers facing bomb threats as well as rape victims in war zones.
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 — and as a frank, even funny guest on news programs such as “Good Morning America” and “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.”
“I feel like I’m married to the mob,” she told the New York Times in 1998, half-joking after Buffalo obstetrician Barnett Slepian was murdered by an antiabortion activist. “Saturday night, after the doctor was shot, another client called and talked for an hour. He was also in Upstate New York. He said, ‘Do you think I could just get police protection until the leaves fall off?’ He thought once the trees were bare and there was snow on the ground he’d be okay. It would be harder to find cover and not to leave tracks.”
Ms. 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. At the ACLU, where she led the Reproductive Freedom Project before founding her own organization in 1992, she made abortion one of the group’s top priorities, expanding the project’s annual funding from $70,000 to $2.2 million.
She made national headlines in 1990, when she flew to the U.S. territory of 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.
Ms. 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 fine, a year in prison and the wrath of the island’s governor, Joseph F. 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 Ms. 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, Minn., on May 10, 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, graduating summa cum laude in 1969, and graduated from Harvard Law School three years later, paying her tuition using money from a summer job at an A&W Root Beer stand.
Ms. 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. Their marriage ended in divorce.
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, also of Manhattan; and a sister.
Ms. Benshoof worked for South Brooklyn Legal Services, filing class-action lawsuits on behalf of low-income clients in New York, before joining the ACLU in 1977. She left the organization 15 years later, during the “year of the woman,” 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 $280,000 “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 Center 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 Ms. Benshoof’s most enduring achievements, the center effectively launched the use of the “morning after” pill as an emergency contraceptive, filing a petition to the Food and Drug Administration in 1994 that asked for companies to label birth control pills as postcoital 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 Ms. Benshoof testified that the pills could prevent up to 1.2 million unwanted pregnancies and as many as 1 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,” Ms. Benshoof said at the time. “The fact that it isn’t shows just how anti-woman the antiabortion movement really is.”