1911 December 2

Harriet Pilpel, Reproductive Rights Pioneer, is Born


Harriet Pilpel was an attorney and prominent women’s rights activist. After graduating from Columbia University Law School, Pilpel joined Morris Ernst’s law firm (on Ernst, see May 21, 1976) and became a pioneer in the fight for reproductive rights. She also wrote and lectured extensively on issues regarding freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and participated in 27 cases heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pilpel served as general counsel for both the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood (as had Morris Ernst). At the 1964 ACLU Biennial Conference she delivered an extremely influential paper arguing that existing criminal abortion laws and laws criminalizing homosexual activity both violated fundamental constitutional rights. Pilpel also served on the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women under President John F. Kennedy. She died on April 23, 1991.

Attacks on Planned Parenthood, which Pilpel served for many years as General Counsel, increased dramatically in 2015. In the summer of 2015 an anti-abortion group, the Center for Medical Progress, released a series of videos which had been secretly recorded and then selectively edited to create the false impression that Planned Parenthood had been selling fetal tissue obtained from abortions. The videos sparked political attacks on Planned Parenthood from Republican Governors and presidential candidates. On September 29, 2015, Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards replied to criticisms of the organization in a long hearing before the House of Representatives.

View Harriet Pilpel Papers: http://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/sophiasmith/mnsss155_bioghist.html

Learn more about Pilpel and the ACLU: Leigh Ann Wheeler, How Sex Became a Civil Liberty (2013)

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