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. Continue reading

Roe v. Wade: Repercussions on the Movement for Reproductive Rights

Many would be surprised to learn that a reproductive-rights champion like Ruth Bader Ginsburg would criticize the Roe v. Wade decision.

Even an abortion rights champion like Ruth Bader Ginsburg has criticisms of the Roe v. Wade decision.

On January 22, 1973 — 42 years ago today — the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, wherein a Texas woman sought an abortion, but existing legislation in Texas prevented her from doing so. The Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 that it was unconstitutional for states to interfere in the process of a physician providing a first-trimester abortion. Before the ruling, it was illegal for physicians to perform an abortion in 30 states. In the remaining 20 states, it was illegal for physicians to perform abortion unless it was deemed medically necessary.

Women, their autonomy, and their right to decide their future were not given as reasons why Roe v. Wade was decided the way that it was. Justice Harry Blackmun wrote for the Supreme Court, stating that the case was a right to privacy issue that was protected under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. Before his death in 1999, Justice Blackmun stated outright that Roe v. Wade was not about women’s rights. Ronald Rotunda, law professor at Chapman University, recalls a 1994 conversation with Justice Blackmun where he explicitly spelled out the ruling’s intentions: “Roe ‘protected the woman’s right, with the physician, to get an abortion.’” Rotunda made clear that “Blackmun emphasized the italicized phrase with his voice.  He spoke of the case as a doctor’s rights case, not a woman’s right case.”


Some reproductive rights supporters think Roe v. Wade faltered in not explicitly prioritizing women’s rights to control their own bodies.


Each January, reproductive justice advocates celebrate the Roe v. Wade decision because it is absolutely essential that a woman is able to obtain an abortion if that is what she decides — because she, and she alone, should decide her future and fate. However, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade was never about women’s rights. Numerous legal scholars in favor of reproductive rights have taken issue with how Roe v. Wade was handled. Their criticisms are largely that: (1) the Supreme Court went beyond its role of judicial power and into that of legislative power by making abortion legal in all 50 states, and (2) the Supreme Court failed to make the decision about a woman’s right to choose her own future. Below is only a brief cross-section of these criticisms. Continue reading

Hobby Lobby: Birth Control and the Law

Birth control activists Margaret Sanger and Fania Mindell inside the Brownsville birth control clinic, circa October 1916

Birth control activists Fania Mindell and Margaret Sanger inside the Brownsville birth control clinic, circa October 1916

In 1964, when I was a 16-year-old college freshman, my Bronx pediatrician asked if I was sexually active, and offered to prescribe birth control whenever I started having sex.

In 1964, his doing so was legal in New York because of a 1918 ruling by Judge Frederick E. Crane of the New York Court of Appeals, but not in Massachusetts, where I was in school.

Birth control is only legal in this country because of a concerted campaign of civil disobedience carried out by Margaret Sanger and her followers. Here is a brief look at the legal history of birth control in the United States.


In 1917, a judge opined that women did not have “the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.”


In 1873, the Comstock Act was passed into law, making the dissemination of “obscene” material through the mail illegal. Any attempts in the early part of the 20th century to teach about sexuality and the prevention of pregnancy — including Margaret Sanger’s work as well as Mary Ware Dennett’s The Sex Side of Life, which she wrote for her sons when she could not find any adequate literature to assist in educating them — were prosecuted under the Comstock Act.

Margaret Sanger witnessed her mother’s early death after 11 live births and seven miscarriages. Later, as a nurse on New York’s Lower East Side, she witnessed poor women dying from attempting to abort unwanted or dangerous pregnancies. She decided to challenge the Comstock Act. Continue reading

Judging Sex: From Bowers v. Hardwick to Lawrence v. Texas

Tyron Garner, left, and John Lawrence, right, react to the decision in Lawrence v. Texas.

Tyron Garner, left, and John Lawrence, right, react to the decision in Lawrence v. Texas. Image: Metro Weekly

This week, two related Supreme Court cases both mark anniversaries.

Twenty-seven years ago (and yes, I totally had to get out my calculator for that one), on June 30, 1986, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick. In it, the court concluded, “The Constitution does not confer a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy.” That is, even though previous courts had established and upheld a constitutional right to privacy when it came to some matters of sexual health — such as in Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade — states were free to enact laws that made it illegal for people to engage in “homosexual sodomy” — basically, outlawing same-sex couples from having oral or anal sex.


June 26 is the 10th anniversary of Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down sodomy laws nationwide.


On its way to the Supreme Court, the relevant appeals court held that laws that discriminated against same-sex couples’ consensual sexual activities violated an individual’s “fundamental rights because his homosexual activity is a private and intimate association that is beyond the reach of state regulation by reason of the Ninth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” However, other courts of appeals had issued rulings in conflict with that sentiment. When the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Bowers, it explicitly rejected that same-sex sexual activity fell under the same constitutional right to privacy:

No connection between family, marriage, or procreation, on the one hand, and homosexual activity, on the other, has been demonstrated, either by the Court of Appeals or by respondent. Moreover, any claim that these cases nevertheless stand for the proposition that any kind of private sexual conduct between consenting adults is constitutionally insulated from state proscription is unsupportable.

However, another date in June — the 26th, to be specific — marks the 10th anniversary of a different case involving gay rights: Lawrence v. Texas. That ruling reversed and overturned the court’s decision in Bowers.

So in those 17 years between Bowers and Lawrence, what changed? Continue reading