Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) most illustrious alumni. She founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and in the weekend following her passing, the ACLU renamed its Center of Liberty to the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Center of Liberty.
When Justice Ginsburg embarked on her legal career at the ACLU, there were hundreds of laws on the books that discriminated on the basis of sex. Ironically, these laws were predicated on “protecting women.” For example, women were prohibited from jobs that required them to work at night or to work where she would be required to carry or lift more than 15 pounds.
Before Justice Ginsburg, arguments to get rid of sex discrimination never prevailed in the court. She changed that; she changed history. In her short tenure at the ACLU, Justice Ginsburg played a significant role in 34 Supreme Court cases. She argued six cases before the court herself and prevailed in five of them. In her first oral argument before the Supreme Court, there was not one single question from any of the nine justices. Many observers described the justices as “transfixed.”
Justice Ginsburg was a person ahead of her time — a visionary architect of legal protection for women’s rights and gender equality. She possessed the then-radical belief that laws steeped in gender stereotypes hurt both women and men. Laws derivative of patriarchal notions of what it means to be a man or a woman deprive us all of the freedom to control our own lives. Significantly, she viewed reproductive freedom as a necessary component of true gender equality and dedicated her life’s work to ensuring law was used as a tool to advance equality.
Like many, I thought that between her work ethic, her workout routines and the many health bouts where she came out ahead, Justice Ginsburg would live longer than she did. Her loss comes at a pivotal time for reproductive freedom, in particular, as opponents of reproductive freedom and gender equality work strategically to roll back abortion rights nationally and here in Colorado. If Republicans retain control of the nomination and confirmation process, Justice Ginsburg’s replacement will without doubt wear their hostility to reproductive rights as a badge of honor. The recently named nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, has vowed to overturn Roe v. Wade if confirmed. And a newly configured Supreme Court won’t stop there. Health care, climate protection, voting rights, and immigrant rights all hang in the balance now that Justice Ginsburg is no longer on the bench.
Here in Colorado, we are fighting our own reproductive freedom battle at the ballot: Proposition 115. This measure bans abortion later in pregnancy and denies women the ability to make their own personal medical decisions. The proponents of this initiative are clear — they want to force a woman to continue a pregnancy with no exceptions for health or individual circumstances — even in cases of rape, risks to the woman’s health, or a lethal fetal diagnosis. Prop 115 is a one-size-fits-all mandate that fails to acknowledge that every pregnancy is unique and shows no compassion for Colorado women and families faced with unimaginably complicated circumstances.
Let me be clear: all abortion bans — whether in Alabama or Colorado — are political attacks. They are not about health or medicine. They are about controlling women and taking away decision-making power. This is evidenced by the fact that Proposition 115 is being pushed by many of the same politicians and groups who have tried — and failed — to ban abortion altogether in Colorado every year for the last decade. If Proposition 115 succeeds in Colorado this November, it will embolden the proponents to pursue bans even earlier in pregnancy, with the ultimate goal of restricting all abortion access in Colorado and across the country.
In the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case Frontiero v. Richardson, the then-ACLU attorney and future Justice Ginsburg argued in favor of striking down a law that prevented women in the military from receiving dependent benefits for their husbands. Quoting famed abolitionist and equal rights advocate Sara Grimke, Ginsburg said “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” Proposition 115 bestows no special right or favor for women, but it certainly advocates controlling women’s choices and constraining their autonomy.
These are the freedoms that Justice Ginsburg worked tirelessly to achieve for the last half-century. Now that she is gone, let us honor her legacy by fighting to protect gender equality and reproductive rights. Vote “NO” on Proposition 115.
Denise Maes is public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado.