Rhonda Copelon, 1944-2010

by on May 7, 2010  •  In Reproductive rights

I'm writing from the Grand Canyon,  Images surrounded by the kind of visual majesty that offers perhaps the best antidote to sorrow. That's lucky for me, because I learned yesterday that Rhonda Copelon lost her fight against ovarian cancer, and felt like I had been kicked in the gut. Rhonda was a shero for who knows how many people, me among them.

I first met Rhonda when I was a baby lawyer and she was a star in the reproductive rights movement. She was a genuine trailblazer, winning employment cases for pregnant unmarried women and then concentrating on the rights of poor women to have access to abortion on the same terms and with the same dignity as other women. Rhonda was lead counsel in Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297 (1980), winning in the lower courts but losing a 5-4 decision in the Supreme Court. That was a pivotal moment for women's rights, one that haunts us still, with the Hyde Amendment now accepted as the national consensus compromise on how the nation deals with the irresolvable conflict over abortion. Coming so close and falling short, caught in the rising right-wing backlash driving the Supreme Court in 1980, broke Rhonda's heart.

But she was nothing if not a fighter, and she fought and won many other battles. She turned much of her energy to international women's rights, especially after winning Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, 630 F.2d 836, in the Second Circuit, ironically on the same day that Harris v. McRae was decided.  Filartiga opened the federal courts to international human rights cases.  In 1983, she left the Center for Constitutional Rights and became a founding faculty member at CUNY Law School, where she later started the International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic. She became a leader in the campaign to have military rape of civilian women understood as a war crime. She was also a wise adviser to those of us working in lgbt rights.  Rhonda herself came out in the early 1980s. CCR recently announced the establishment of the Copelon Fund for Gender Justice.

One of the last times I saw Rhonda was an impromptu dinner we had after running into each other at BAM. She was as I will always remember her – smart, funny, engaged, probing, and full of life.


3 Responses to Rhonda Copelon, 1944-2010

  1. Evan Wolfson May 7, 2010 at 11:47 AM

    This is very sad news, but thank you, Nan, for such a great recap of Rhonda’s contributions and commitment to so many of our causes.

    She will be remembered and missed as we continue the work…


  2. Darren Hutchinson May 7, 2010 at 7:11 PM

    What a great loss – and a great tribute.

  3. Art Leonard May 9, 2010 at 2:02 PM

    Thanks for this tribute, Nan. I was shocked when I read the Times obit this morning – and a bit surprised that it was another in a long line of “closeted” obits in the Times for prominent LGBT people. Rhonda was such an important voice in the movement for equal rights, and will be missed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *