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

2014: A Rundown Retrospective

2014 was a pretty not-so-stellar year in reproductive rights, if we’re being honest.

But hold your chin up. All did not suck!

While we’re never sure what new, exciting, or horrible fates await us at the dawn of a new year, rest assured that we’ll be here covering the news that matters most with regard to reproductive and sexual health, politics, gender issues, and reproductive justice well into 2015 and beyond.

Meet Our Candidates: Felecia Rotellini for Arizona Attorney General

The Arizona general election will be held on November 4, 2014, and early voting is already underway! Reproductive health care access has been under attack, both nationally and statewide, but Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona has endorsed candidates who have shown strong commitment to reproductive justice. To acquaint you with our endorsed candidates, we are running a series called “Meet Our Candidates.” Make your voice heard in 2014!

felecia-rotellini scaledFelecia Rotellini is running for Arizona attorney general. The role of Arizona’s attorney general is to serve as chief legal officer on behalf of the state of Arizona. She boasts nearly 30 years of prosecutorial experience, including in her current role as a prosecutor for a private law firm in Phoenix and her previous position as superintendent of the State Banking Department in Arizona under Gov. Janet Napolitano.

Ms. Rotellini’s opponent is Mark Brnovich, who publicly spoke out in favor of businesses instead of people during the case of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, which eventually allowed businesses to exclude contraception from the health insurance plans they provide their employees on the grounds of religious beliefs. Putting faith before the law, Brnovich has made clear his intention to legally protect every demographic but women when he states, “Whether that be protecting the rights of the unborn, children, seniors, or our veterans, we have a solemn obligation to protect those who cannot protect themselves. My faith and my experience as a prosecutor teaches me that.” Brnovich goes further in implying that he feels no obligation to protect and defend laws that concern women when he specifies: “We also have an obligation to protect and defend our laws that concern the unborn.”

Ms. Rotellini takes a broader approach to inclusiveness as she seeks to uphold the law to protect all Arizonans, including members of the LGBTQ community. As Arizona’s attorney general, she pledges to “support equal protection under the law for one and all, with no exceptions.”

Ms. Rotellini was kind enough to speak with us on October 28, 2014.


“I’m disappointed that my opponent supports a new version of SB 1062 to legalize discrimination against LGBT individuals.”


Tell us a little about your background.

I have lived in Arizona for 28 years; I’ve been a practicing attorney for 28 years. Eleven of those have been in the private sector as a litigation attorney, and 17 of those years as a public lawyer. I worked as a prosecutor in the attorney general’s office for 13 years in both the civil and criminal divisions from 1992 to 2005. And then I ran the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions as superintendent in the cabinet of Gov. Napolitano and also Gov. Brewer. I was in that job from 2006 to 2009. Over 17 years, I was in uninterrupted public service. I had the opportunity to work primarily in financial fraud, consumer fraud, and senior fraud.

I have had some very big cases. Because of my background as a trial lawyer, I did jury trials in my civil practice from 1986 to 1992. I was the lead lawyer for the state against Arthur Andersen, the accounting giant, for the failed audits of the Baptist Foundation of Arizona, where there were 11,000 investors who lost their retirements, and we were able to return $217 million to the victims, mostly working-class and senior citizens. 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

Supreme Court Rules Against Women in Hobby Lobby and Buffer Zone Cases

Five out of six male Supreme Court justices voted in favor of Hobby Lobby's right to deny full contraceptive benefits. Their opinion does not represent the entire male population. Photo: NARAL

Five out of six male Supreme Court justices voted in favor of Hobby Lobby’s right to deny full contraceptive benefits. Their opinion does not represent the entire male population. Photo: NARAL

On the morning of June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court (or should I say the men of the Supreme Court) ruled in favor of two corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, who argued that they should not have to provide insurance coverage for their employees’ birth control, as required by the Affordable Care Act, because of the business owners’ personal religious beliefs.

The court stated that when corporations are “closely held” and it can be shown that the owners operate the business consistently with certain religious beliefs, then these corporations can be exempted from federal laws that burden those religious beliefs.


Emergency contraception and IUDs work primarily by preventing fertilization, and won’t interfere with existing pregnancies.


The “beliefs” in question held by these two corporations concern two forms of birth control — emergency contraception and IUDs (intrauterine devices). But their “beliefs,” that emergency contraception and IUDs are abortifacients, aren’t rooted in actual science.

Here are the details.

Hobby Lobby believes that “life begins at conception.” They define “conception” as the time at which a sperm and egg combine to create a zygote.

The medical community, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), defines conception as the point at which a fertilized egg implants in the uterus. According to ACOG, the term “conception” properly means implantation. Continue reading