This month marks the 50th anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut, the decision overturning laws that prohibited even married couples from obtaining birth control.
In other words: the decision that first told the government it had no Constitutional business lurking in the bedrooms of consenting adults.
Now one of the most pro-choice states in the nation, Connecticut was the last state to keep its “Comstock laws” — a web of regulations based on 1873 federal legislation (also adopted by over 20 other states) intended to stamp out any activities that anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock and his followers considered “obscene” or “sinful.”
Urged for decades by birth control supporters to rescind the state’s 1879 statute that had criminalized the discussion and distribution of all materials related to sexuality, reproduction and contraception, Connecticut lawmakers refused to budge. Their rationales ranged from upholding “decency” to the idea that promoting reproduction — regardless of individual circumstances — was a legitimate state interest.
Exasperated by this intransigence advocates, led by Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn (mother of actor Katharine Hepburn), took matters into their own hands. In 1935 they opened the Maternal Health Center of Hartford, offering birth control information and devices, often to women who had just borne children across the street in Hartford Hospital. By 1939 birth control centers were operating in ten Connecticut towns.
But that year a Waterbury birth control clinic was raided. Staff were arrested and supplies confiscated. Appeals to the Connecticut courts were to no avail, and all of Connecticut’s birth control centers closed by the middle of 1940. Planned Parenthood continued to provide referrals and information and to arrange for women to obtain contraception in nearby states.
More court cases were brought. Nothing changed. Finally, in 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court intimated that someone would have to be arrested in order for a case against Connecticut’s birth control ban to be made.
Enter Estelle Griswold.
If being arrested was necessary to challenge the law, Estelle Griswold was eager to be arrested. She became executive director of Planned Parenthood of Connecticut, which opened a clinic in New Haven in November of 1961, with C. Lee Buxton, MD, of Yale University’s Medical School as the medical director.
They didn’t have long to wait.
Nine days after the clinic opened, the police came.
Griswold, scion of an old Connecticut family, was ready for the raid — cheerfully providing the police with a tour of the facility and a lecture on birth control before they bolted the doors..
A month later Griswold and Buxton, charged with “aiding and abetting” the provision of contraception, were convicted and fined $100 each.
Their conviction was appealed through the lower courts and finally argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. In June of 1965, the Court struck down the birth control ban by finding a “right to privacy” (and other protections) woven throughout the Constitution. While Griswold v. Connecticut focused on the right to sexual and reproductive privacy within marriage, it set the stage for Eisenstadt v. Baird, the 1972 decision extending those protections to unmarried women — and for Roe v. Wade which, in 1973, extended the privacy doctrine to abortion.
Birth control was big news for other reasons in the early 1960s. After years of research, the first birth control pill was marketed in the U.S. in 1960. “The pill” soon became the most widely used contraceptive and a symbol of a major cultural shift: its high reliability rate meant that, especially for women, personal choices about sex could be truly separated from choices about reproduction. There was no turning back.
“We deal,” Justice William O. Douglas wrote for the 7-2 majority in Griswold v. Connecticut, “with a right of privacy older than our Bill of Rights, older than our political parties, older than our school systems.”
If we’re talking about real “traditional values” (not the ersatz ones spouted ad nauseum by the crew that thinks that women are not smart enough to make their own choices about health and reproduction) we can’t do better than Douglas’ words, or those of Justice William Brennan, who wrote for the majority seven years later in Eisenstadt v. Baird: “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”
Sometimes, unfortunately, history seems to be moving backwards.
(The story of the pill’s development — including the darker chapters — is too long to go into here, but is effectively presented in a PBS documentary: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pill/)
© Rhea Hirshman 2015