Remembering Rhonda Copelon: Sept. 15, 1944—May 6, 2010
Posted on Meredith Tax's Blog
I met Rhonda Copelon in 1977, when Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, making it impossible for poor women to get abortions on Medicaid. A group of New York feminists came together to figure out how to fight this ban. Many of us did not want to treat abortion as an isolated issue as previous feminists had done; we also wanted a broader platform than the radical feminist slogan of “abortion on demand” or the evasive language of “choice.” We wanted to defend a woman’s right to resist forced pregnancy, but we also wanted to defend her right to have children, which was threatened by sterilization abuse, particularly in poor minority communities, and undermined by the absence of a strong economic and social safety net. We formed CARASA, the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, and by the nineties our multi-issue approach—which turned out to be similar to that of many women in other parts of the world—had become “reproductive rights, ” an essential part of the program of the global women’s movement.
Rhonda was one of the most remarkable of the extraordinary group of women who made up the founding cadre of CARASA. She had the tenacity of a bulldog—once she set her mind to a question, she did not stop chewing on it until she had extracted every ramification and strategic implication. Then she would start talking, in her sweet soft relentless little voice, until she had convinced everyone of the way to go. She combined enormous intellectual sweep and persuasive power with tireless energy and an incredible memory for detail. In fact, Rhonda made everything seem so clear and reasonable I couldn’t imagine how any court could resist her arguments.
She was already a wellknown attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights by the time I met her; now, in response to the Hyde Amendment, the CCR, together with the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, filed a class action suit seeking an injunction against the new Medicaid rules. The Harris vs. McRae case argued that the Hyde Amendment denied poor women equal protection under the law and that it eroded the separation of church and state because the Catholic Church was so instrumental in its passage. Under the Constitution, Rhonda argued, it is impermissible to prefer the potential life of a fetus to the health and life of a pregnant woman.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled against her, 5-4, saying that a woman's freedom of choice did not carry with it "a constitutional entitlement to the financial resources to avail herself of the full range of protected choices." In other words, equal protection of the law only applied to those with enough money to pay for their own abortions.
At the same time Rhonda was working on abortion rights, she and Peter Weiss, another CCR attorney, were developing Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, a case that revolutionized international human rights law. This case came out of Paraguay, then under the rule of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, who exercised power for 35 years using the usual methods of dictators. In 1976, seventeen year old Joelito Filártiga was abducted from his school, tortured and killed. When his family sued Peña, the chief of police responsible, in Paraguay, their attorney was arrested and later disbarred. In 1978, Dolly Filártiga, Joelito’s sister, came to the US and got political asylum. When she learned that Peña-Irala was also here, on a tourist visa, she went to the CCR, who sued for damages for Joelito’s wrongful death.
Rhonda kept talking about the case, but it was almost impossible for me to believe that she could pull off something like this. How could a US court have jurisdiction in a crime committed by a foreign national in another country? Rising to the challenge, Rhonda and Peter Weiss found an obscure law passed to protect foreigners in the early days of the republic, the Alien Torts law of 1789, which said "The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” They argued that torture was a violation of human rights so despicable that those who practiced it became the enemies of all humankind and therefore could be sued in any country. The US district court agreed and they won.
This visionary case opened up a whole new area of international human rights law. Since 1993, US lawyers have filed 29 cases in US courts seeking to hold US corporations responsible for violations of human rights in other countries. Indeed, one can say that Rhonda’s 1980 case set the precedent for such milestones as the trial of Pinochet in Spain, and the establishment of international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
In 1983, Rhonda became a founding faculty member of the new City University of New York law school, whose mission is to train students in human rights and poor people’s law. There she set up the International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic in 1992 to teach the next generations of human rights lawyers how to integrate gender into their work. In the International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic, students do both litigation and advocacy, locally and globally, in conjunction with women's and LGBTQ advocates, human rights lawyers, and grass-roots organizations in the United States and abroad. The CCR’s obituary describes the groundbreaking work that came out of the clinic:
Under her leadership, CUNY Law’s IWHR clinic enabled students and activists around the world to participate in a range of precedent-setting legal and advocacy campaigns. For example, IWHR’s amicus briefs in the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia resulted in the recognition in international law of rape as a crime of genocide and torture. IWHR’s work with the United Nation’s Committee against Torture, and other international bodies, contributed to the recognition that gender crimes, such as domestic and other forms of gender violence, can constitute torture under the United Nation’s Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
One of Rhonda’s most important cases was the 1996 lawsuit Jane Doe v. Islamic Salvation Front and Anwar Haddam, which charged Algerian fundamentalists with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including assassination, rape and torture. In recent discussions of Gita Sahgal’s charges against Amnesty International (see my earlier blogs) Rhonda often referred back to this Algerian case, in which the judge made a summary judgment against the defendants because of insufficient evidence, The reason she couldn’t produce enough authoritative evidence, Rhonda told me, was that the major human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, hadn’t been willing to gather the evidence. Even though their researchers were asked over and over to take testimony from civilians who had suffered at the hands of the FIS and other fundamentalists, they were too busy defending the rights of these same fundamentalists against the government to want to hear very much about the abuses their clients had committed. So in the end, the record did not truly represent the human rights situation in Algeria.
Rhonda was concerned at the end of her life to make sure such human rights cases against fundamentalist armed groups continue to be prosecuted. For this reason, she set in motion a process whereby, after her death, her life insurance and other assets would become seed money for a Copelon Fund for Gender Justice at the CCR. The CCR arranged a luncheon in her honor to announce the establishment of this fund, just two and a half weeks before she died. At the luncheon, a number of people spoke of Rhonda’s work, but most memorable was the speech she gave herself. Very thin, and too weak to stand, she spoke with the same courage and clarity she always had, in the same soft, friendly voice, making it clear she was approaching her own death the way she had approached every other great contest, doing her best to win but ensuring that, even if she lost, the work—the central work of defending and extending women’s human rights—would go on. It was an exemplary end to an exemplary life.
For video clips of Rhonda, go to the CUNY law school website.