Happy Belated Birthday to Griswold v. Connecticut

Last week I was so buried in my writing that I plumb forgot to honor the 45h  anniversary of  the U.S. Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut (June 7, 1965).   So, here’s some history (based on information from contemporary newspaper accounts, as well as  David J. Garrow, Liberty and Sexuality:  The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1998) and John W. Johnson, Griswold v. Connecticut:  Birth Control and the Constitutional Right of Privacy (Lawrence:  University of Kansas Press, 2005) ).

Yale New-Haven Hospital was at the center of birth control politics in both the state of Connecticut and the nation. In 1958, Dr. C. Lee Buxton, chair of the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Yale Medical School, along with three of his patients, filed a lawsuit claiming that the state’s laws prohibiting the sale, distribution, and use of contraceptive drugs and devices were unconstitutional. The suit reached the U.S. Supreme Court in June of 1961, but the Court dismissed the case since no state laws had been violated. Yet, the court opinion that accompanied the decision also declared Connecticut laws were “dead words and harmless, empty shadows.” On November 1 of that year, the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, led by Buxton and PPLC Executive Director Estelle Griswold, decided to test the validity of the court’s opinion, and opened a birth control clinic in New Haven. Nine days later Buxton and Griswold were arrested for violating state laws outlawing contraception. The defendants appealed their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court culminating in the court’s decision in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) declaring “Connecticut’s birth-control law unconstitutionally intrudes upon the right of marital privacy.”

Immediately following the Griswold decision, the Connecticut Birth Control League opened the New Haven Planned Parenthood clinic. Initially, league officials reported an “uphill fight” in gaining acceptance, due to a lingering “moral stigma” against family planning among some individuals. By 1967, “unbelievable change” had occurred, and “birth control is booming in the Elm City” — especially among female graduate students at Yale University (this is before the undergraduate college admitted women).

Unmarried women in other states were not necessarily so fortunate: in Massachusetts, Bill Baird was arrested for “crimes against chastity” for giving contraceptive foam to an unmarried teenage girl following a lecture at Boston University in 1967.  His conviction was overturned in the decision Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), in which the Supreme Court rule  “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted government intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”

As a recent editorial in the Roanoke Times observes, these rights to privacy still “remain suspect”.   So, go out and enjoy them while you still have them!

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