Walter Dellinger, who served as head of the Office of Legal Counsel under U.S. President Bill Clinton, passed away at his home in Chapel Hill, NC, yesterday—and the tributes began pouring in quickly, from many quarters.
“His death is a tremendous loss to all who care about reproductive rights and about American democracy itself,” says Anu Kumar, Ipas president and CEO. “Walter was a great friend and ally of Ipas for many years, as was his wife, Anne. He was a thoughtful, caring man who had the ability and brilliance to shape legal arguments that could open both hearts and minds.”
In 2004, both Dellinger and his wife were honored as champions of reproductive rights at a celebration looking back on Ipas’s first 30 years. Dellinger told those gathered for the event that his commitment to reproductive rights and gender equity “arises out of a sense of the difficulty women have had in the world, starting with my own mother. Watching her made me particularly sensitive to women’s issues.” His father had died when he was young, and Dellinger was raised primarily by his mother, who worked in a men’s clothing store in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Control over reproductive choices,” Dellinger said, “is absolutely foundational to women’s ability to lead their lives, care for their families and realize their careers. Restrictions of abortion affect women at a deeply practical level and also at a philosophical level.”
He said that one of his proudest achievements was helping draft the executive order that Clinton issued on his first day as president, in January 1993. That order rescinded the Global Gag Rule (also known as the Mexico City Policy) that had been originally introduced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. It restricts foreign nongovernmental non-governmental organizations that receive U.S. global health funds from using their own resources to engage in abortion-related work. He said rescinding the gag rule was an attempt to free medical practice “from the grasp of politics.”
Dellinger also said that he was deeply concerned about attempts to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States in 1973. And he made a point about Roe v Wade that seems prophetic in light of today’s extreme attacks on reproductive rights in the United States:
“Unless America provides the leadership and support…to ensure that women around the world can exercise their own reproductive choice, that goal will never be achieved. America will become a problem rather than a leader.”
In addition to advocating for reproductive rights, Dellinger was also a strong advocate for racial equality and for the rights of LGBTQ people. He wrote an amicus brief in the Lawrence v Texas case when it was before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, saying that “there is nothing about gay men and women in America that justifies treating them as criminally deviant.”
Dellinger was a professor for nearly 25 years at the Duke University law school and was professor emeritus there at the time of his death. His wife, Anne Maxwell Dellinger, died last year and had been a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Government. His daughter-in-law, Jolynn Dellinger, served on the Ipas Board of Directors from 2008 to 2013.
Dellinger remained a thought leader right up until the end. Just this month, he wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in support of President Joe Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court.