When Contraception Was a Crime: Griswold v. Connecticut

Estelle Griswold, left, and Cornelia Jahncke, both of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, celebrate the Supreme Court's decision in favor of birth control access.

Estelle Griswold, left, and Cornelia Jahncke, of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of birth control access.

The right to access birth control was in the crosshairs last year, when the Supreme Court ruled that certain employers had the right to exclude emergency contraception from their employees’ health plans. But the Hobby Lobby case was just one in a long line of contraception-related cases decided by the Supreme Court, and while that outcome was a setback for the reproductive rights movement, history also is filled with decisions that helped advance the cause. One of those victories came 50 years ago this Sunday, on June 7, 1965, when the Supreme Court handed down a decisive win for contraception access in Griswold v. Connecticut.


Griswold v. Connecticut was a landmark case in expanding access to birth control — but it was only a first step.


When the birth control pill came onto the market in 1960, it was a dream come true for anyone wanting to control her own reproduction. But in 30 states it was illegal to advertise contraception, and in two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, it was outright banned. In fact, anyone using birth control in Connecticut was at risk for a fine or imprisonment. These draconian laws didn’t stop people from seeking birth control from their doctors, but it did force them to engage in activities that were technically “criminal.”

Connecticut had been the birthplace, in 1844, of one of history’s most relentless anti-contraceptive crusaders, Anthony Comstock, whose Puritan upbringing spurred a nearly lifelong crusade against what he saw as the devices of immorality. Comstock was the driving force behind federal and state laws that banned birth control, and it’s estimated that he initiated as many as 4,000 arrests, one of the last of which was Bill Sanger, husband of Margaret Sanger, for distributing a pamphlet on family planning. Comstock died on September 21, 1915, months after Sanger’s arrest.

Connecticut’s anti-contraception law predated the birth of oral contraceptives by more than 80 years. It was so broadly worded that more old-fashioned family-planning methods, such as diaphragms and condoms, could also see their users fined or sent to jail. There was also equal punishment for anyone “aiding and abetting” would-be contraceptive users, meaning that doctors, pharmacists, and others could be punished for providing patients with birth control or information about it.

In 1961, just a year after the Pill hit the shelves in American pharmacies, two birth control advocates spearheaded an act of civil disobedience in response to Connecticut’s Comstock law. Estelle Griswold, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and Dr. C. Lee Buxton, the chair of the Department of Obstetrics at Yale University’s medical school, opened a birth control clinic — and were promptly arrested, prosecuted, and fined $100 apiece for defying state law. During the clinic’s brief lifespan, from November 1 to 10, married couples received counseling, exams, and birth control prescriptions — all in violation of state law.

Ms. Griswold immediately challenged the constitutionality of Connecticut’s anti-contraception law, but it was upheld in state courts, only to wend its way to the Supreme Court, which, in a 7-to-2 decision, ruled that married couples had a constitutional right to make private decisions about contraception. Of course, the ruling was limited in scope, applying only to married couples — who were not the only people with a pressing need for reliable contraception. Premarital sex existed in the 1960s, just as it always had, and unmarried mothers were often coerced into giving their babies up for adoption, while single mothers who raised their “illegitimate” children were targets of scorn. Yet, somehow, the contraceptive needs of unmarried women were not considered important.

Just as Roe v. Wade was framed as an issue of privacy between a woman and a doctor, so too was Griswold v. Connecticut an affirmation of marital privacy rather than an individual’s right to enjoy full bodily autonomy, independently of her marital status. Women were viewed in the context of their relationship to a man — and Griswold empowered the married couple with the right to joint decision-making over the female reproductive system.

Luckily, the perception of wives has been changing over the past 50 years. While marriage used to enshrine female subservience into law, married women have gained recognition as distinct individuals since the 1970s and ’80s. Spousal rape is now recognized by U.S. law, wives don’t hand over their economic independence to their husbands on their wedding days, and more married couples strive toward egalitarian partnerships.

Nor is marriage and motherhood as likely to be seen as a woman’s highest calling — they are choices that each individual can make for herself as she decides her future. Unmarried people with uteruses have been increasingly regarded as entitled to the same family-planning methods that were originally restricted within the purview of marriage.

Unfortunately, there are still political and social forces that use the female body as a battleground for philosophical debate. The anti-abortion movement is increasingly becoming an anti-contraception movement, as exemplified by the Hobby Lobby case and other attacks on widening access to birth control. One might think that contraception’s ability to prevent unintended pregnancy would be embraced by abortion opponents, but the fight to limit access to birth control belies a more sinister motive: to deny women full control over their own bodies.

Griswold v. Connecticut was a landmark case in expanding contraception access — but it was only a first step. In restricting its ruling to married couples, the Supreme Court perpetuated the idea that birth control was only appropriate within the confines of marriage, either ignoring the fact that unmarried people can be at risk for pregnancy, or not wishing to grant the privileges of reliable contraception to those who engage in premarital sex. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Supreme Court ruled that unmarried people, too, had an equal claim to birth control, in Eisenstadt v. Baird. Given the growing movement to restrict this access, our right to contraception is one we must never take for granted.

One thought on “When Contraception Was a Crime: Griswold v. Connecticut

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *