Janet Benshoof, a lawyer who campaigned to expand access to contraceptives and abortion, leading organizations that advocated on behalf of women from the mainland U.S. to Myanmar, Iraq and Guam, where she was once arrested for protesting the most restrictive abortion law in America, died Monday 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.

Benshoof 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 anti-abortion 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 OK. It would be harder to find cover and not to leave tracks.”

Benshoof 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.

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.

A 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 Gov. 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.”

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

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