Harriet Fleischl Pilpel
As general counsel to both Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, Harriet Fleischl Pilpel helped shape the arguments for reproductive rights in the years leading up to Roe v. Wade. After graduating law school, she joined the firm of Greenbaum, Wolff, and Ernst, where she became involved with the birth control movement through Margaret Sanger, a client of Morris Ernst. She worked on multiple cases that went to the Supreme Court, including Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, a major case in which contraception use was defended by the right to privacy. She mentored many young attorneys interested in reproductive rights and coauthored a number of books on law for popular audiences.
Harriet Fleischl Pilpel was a prominent participant and strategist in women’s rights, birth control, and reproductive freedom litigation for over half a century. During her long career as an active civil libertarian, she served as general counsel to both the Planned Parenthood Foundation of American (PPFA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and assisted numerous other organizations concerned with civil liberties, censorship, reproductive freedom, the status of women, and related areas. Pilpel served on several committees of the American Jewish Congress.
Family and Education
Harriet Fleischl Pilpel was born on December 2, 1911, in the Bronx, New York. She was the oldest of three daughters born to Julius and Ethel (Loewy) Fleischl. She graduated from Vassar College in 1932 and received a master’s degree in international relations (1933) and a law degree (1936) from Columbia University. She married Robert C. Pilpel in 1933 and had two children, Judith and Robert. She and her husband were active members of the Ethical Culture Society.
Reproductive Freedom Litigation
After graduating from Columbia, Pilpel joined the firm of Greenbaum, Wolff and Ernst. There, through her association with Morris Ernst, attorney for Margaret Sanger, Pilpel became deeply involved with reproductive freedom litigation, first in the birth control movement and then in the abortion rights movement. Among the birth control cases she worked on with Ernst and others were State v. Nelson (1940), decided in the Connecticut Supreme Court, and Tileston v. Ullman (1943), Poe v. Ullman (1961), and Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), all of which were decided by the Supreme Court of the United States. Pilpel authored Planned Parenthood’s amicus curiae briefs in the latter two cases.
Pilpel’s career encompassed both the pre-Griswold phase of birth control advocacy and the extraordinary developments that would link the Supreme Court’s rulings on contraception to the abortion issue. Thus, she could lay claim to having worked closely with Margaret Sanger and other birth control advocates in their efforts to repeal or overturn state-level birth control laws, and also to having strategized with Linda Coffee, Sarah Weddington, and numerous others concerning Roe v. Wade and related cases. Pilpel was profoundly influenced by arguments that the right to privacy holding in Griswold—the state may not peek into the bedroom and forbid the use of birth control—could be extended to contend that a woman had a fundamental right to abortion, and she participated in the swell of activism and litigation that sought to link the two issues in legislatures, in courts, and in the public imagination. Finally, as the abortion issue came to the forefront in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she helped to shift the emphasis of activists from reform to repeal of legislative restrictions on abortion.
Through her association with the ACLU, PPFA, and similar organizations, Pilpel was a mentor and adviser to many young attorneys involved with the abortion rights struggle. At Sarah Weddington’s request, for instance, Pilpel organized a challenging moot court practice before both argument and reargument phases of Roe v. Wade. Pilpel also authored the Planned Parenthood Foundation of America’s amicus curiae brief in the case. She was a member of the Association for the Study of Abortion, a scholarly group devoted to the study of various reform measures, and she testified before both state and federal legislatures on abortion concerns. Pilpel favored locating a woman’s constitutional right to control her reproductive choices in the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, rather than the First. Her PPFA briefs concerning abortion emphasized the linkage between the right to privacy in decisions and actions concerning contraception and fertility, established in Griswold, and the putative right to a safe, legal abortion, which would be established in Roe.
First Amendment Work and Matrimonial Law
Pilpel’s interest in reproductive freedom was matched by her concern for First Amendment issues. She had an active practice in intellectual property and copyright law, and served as attorney to many writers and publishers, handling general contract work, as well as cases relating to freedom of expression. Her clients included such figures as Edna Ferber, Betty Friedan, Billy Graham, Jerome Kern, Alfred Kinsey, Erich Maria Remarque, Mel Brooks, and Svetlana Alliluyeva (Stalin’s daughter).
Pilpel also specialized in matrimonial law. With Theodora S. Zavin, she coauthored two books, Your Marriage and the Law (1952) and Rights and Writers: A Handbook of Literary and Entertainment Law (1960). She was also coauthor (with Morton D. Goldberg) of A Copyright Guide (1960) and (with Minna Post Peyser) of Know Your Rights (1965). She was a frequent guest on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line and served on several national commissions devoted to the status of women. In 1965, she represented pediatrician Benjamin Spock in an unsuccessful effort to block advertising included in copies of his best-selling Baby and Child Care. Between 1982 and 1991, she was associated with the law firm of Weil, Gotshal and Manges. In 1989, several years after the death of Robert Pilpel, she married Irwin Schwartz, a lifelong friend with whom she had gone to high school.
Harriet Fleischl Pilpel died on April 23, 1991.
“Birth Control and a New Birth of Freedom.” Ohio State Law Journal 27 (Fall 1966): 679–690.
“The Challenge of Privacy.” In The Price of Liberty: Perspectives on Civil Liberties by Members of the ACLU, edited by Alan Reitman (1968).
A Copyright Guide, with Morton D. Goldberg (1960).
Know Your Rights, with Minna Post Peyser (1965).
“The Right of Abortion.” Atlantic 223 (June 1969): 69–71.
Rights and Writers: A Handbook of Literary and Entertainment Law, with Theodora S. Zavin (1960).
“Sex vs. the Law: A Study in Hypocrisy.” Harper’s 230 (January 1965): 35–40.
Your Marriage and the Law, with Theodora S. Zavin (1952).
Faux, Marian. Roe v Wade: The Untold Story of the Landmark Supreme Court Decision That Made Abortion Legal (1988).
Garrow, David J. Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v Wade (1994).
Gilbert, Julie. Opposite Attractions: The Lives of Erich Maria Remarque and Paulette Goddard (1995).
Pilpel, Harriet F. Papers. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Mass., and Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass..
Weddington, Sarah. A Question of Choice (1992).