Remembering Rhonda Copelon, Champion for Human Rights

Rachel Roth

Rhonda Copelon, feminist scholar, human rights advocate, legal innovator

I was sad to read in today’s paper that feminist attorney, activist, and legal scholar Rhonda Copelon had died at age 65.


Copelon worked at the Center for Constitutional Rights and taught at CUNY Law School. She was a champion for human rights. One of her most important cases was Harris v. McRae, in which she argued that the Hyde Amendment violated women’s constitutional rights by denying Medicaid funding for abortion.

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As most people reading Rewire know, she lost that case, but it was as close as can be, 5-4, and the passionate and incisive dissenting opinions no doubt owe something to her own passionate and incisive arguments. (Soon-to-retire Justice Stevens was among those voting to uphold women’s rights.)


In an essay called “From Privacy to Autonomy: The Conditions for Sexual and Reproductive Freedom,” Copelon wrote:


“My hope for this next phase of the movement for procreative and sexual rights is that we will not limit ourselves simply to winning back what we have lost, but rather set our sights to win what we need: recognition of an affirmative right of self-determination, one rooted in equality and societal responsibility. This requires not simply the protection of choice but the provision of the material and social conditions that render choice a meaningful right rather than a mere privilege. It is essential that we recognize the inextricable interrelationship between reproductive and sexual decision making and the broader demand for equality. In a world riddled by racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, and exploitation, choice cannot be fully free” (From Abortion to Reproductive Freedom: Transforming A Movement, edited by Marlene Gerber Fried, p. 28).


Copelon wrote those words 20 years ago. Her analysis reminds us how far we still have to go; her legacy inspires us to keep fighting.


You can read more about Rhonda Copelon here, here, and here.


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