The 40th anniversary this year of legal birth control for unmarried women can be traced to an 80-year-old man: Bill Baird.
He has spent the past 50 years overturning laws and otherwise ensuring a woman’s right to control her body through access to birth control and abortion. And it was 40 years ago that he won Baird v. Eisenstadt: the US Supreme Court in March 1972 struck down a Massachusetts law prohibiting the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried people, ruling that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
Baird v. Eisenstadt gave every woman in the country the right to buy and use birth control, whether or not she was married. The case stemmed from his high profile arrest for violating Massachusetts’ obscenity laws and “Crimes against Chastity” by giving contraceptive foam and a condom to a nineteen-year-old woman after his birth control lecture at Boston University on April 6, 1967. Contraceptives could be distributed only by doctors and pharmacists and only to married people. He was thrown in the former Charles Street Jail and faced 10 years in prison.
Baird says that Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women rejected his plea for help in overturning the law because he is a man, and the American Civil Liberties Union said that his case had “no constitutional merit.” None of these groups has acknowledged the 40th anniversary of a right that women of all ages take for granted. Baird welcomes their collaboration with his ProChoiceLeague.org.
My connection with Baird began in 1974 while working as a news reporter in Marlboro. He came to town to thwart an ordinance that would outlaw abortion clinics. When a new mother voiced support for him, the priest at the Immaculate Conception Church, Marlboro, refused to baptize her baby and posted a black flag with a sign on the church lawn saying “Bill Baird is the devil incarnate.” A compassionate Jesuit priest baptized her baby on the church steps, surrounded by a media circus, and was subsequently defrocked.
I soon accepted Baird’s invitation to visit his abortion clinic in Copley Square (closed in 2002 due to lack of funds). Teenage girls and married women told him that he saved their lives. I witnessed their abortions and their relief afterward. Baird says that two thirds of all his patients were Roman Catholic.
I also covered a debate between Baird and the male president of a local anti-abortion group. Baird asked, “If your girlfriend were raped by a black man and got pregnant, would you be opposed to her having an abortion?” The response: “Yes, but I wouldn’t want the kid to be a half-breed.” I led my story with that lethal mixture of rape, abortion and race, and the speaker demanded a retraction. Republican Senatorial candidate Todd Akin has outraged America without even mentioning race.
Now, 38 years later, I was drawn to hear Baird, a western Massachusetts resident, speak recently at a church near Boston. He talked about the woman with nine children who bled to death in his arms after trying to abort herself with a coat hanger. And the girl who came to him for an abortion after being raped by her father.
And his US Supreme Court victory in a 1979 Massachusetts case: Bellotti v. Baird, when the court ruled that teenage girls do not have to secure parental consent to have an abortion. Baird, who has spent $200,000 of his own funds on legal fees, noted the hypocrisy of requiring parental consent for an abortion while a teenage mother is a legally emancipated minor.
Jailed eight times in five states for showing birth control methods and devices in public, Baird criticized the Catholic Church for “letting kids get raped” while calling him a murderer. “The Catholic Church believes life begins at conception, which means that you’re nine months old at birth,” he said. “That also means the U.S. Census should count pregnant women as two people.”
He challenged Massachusetts officials again when he bought contraceptive foam at the former Zayre’s department store. When the police tried to arrest him, he produced the sales receipt, which included the Massachusetts state sales tax.
While some male politicians threaten our reproductive rights in 2012, let’s acknowledge a man who has dedicated his life to legalizing – and protecting – them.
Sherry Alpert is a public relations consultant in Canton.