Thursday marks the 47th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision to make birth control legal in the United States, but the case is still being argued.
The threshold Griswold v. Connecticut ruling of June 7, 1965, reversed an 1879 Connecticut statute prohibiting the use of “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception,” and stipulating that “any person who assists, abets, counsels, causes, hires or commands another to commit any offense may be prosecuted and punished as if he were the principal offender.”
The law was challenged by Estelle Griswold, executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and the League’s medical director, Dr. C. Lee Buxton, chair of the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Yale’s School of Medicine, who provided these services at the Planned Parenthood Center of New Haven for 10 days in 1961 before the two were arrested and fined. The Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision in their favor famously provided the right to “doctor-patient privacy” and, ever since, has either been credited with, or blamed for, the court’s subsequent Roe v. Wade position on access to abortion.
In March of 1965, as the girlfriend of Dr. Buxton’s son, I attended the Griswold v. Connecticut oral arguments. It stuns me still that neither my future father-in-law nor my husband-to-be lived to witness the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973, or could have imagined, then, the progress that would be achieved by my generation of girls who, as feminists, intensified the momentum generated by those initial acts of resistance.
In that historic courtroom I wasn’t aware that it was forbidden to take notes — a guard admonished me — and yet, while lacking that quotable record of my impressions during those momentous deliberations, I can recall with a piercing precision my recognition of the fundamental unfairness. It was the discrepancy between those Connecticut women denied their “right of marital privacy” and my own sexual freedom as a mere college student with lawful access to contraception in New York. It was that some of us were protected, and some weren’t.
My generation’s coming-of-age in the late ’50s and early ’60s was haunted by the girls who got sent away to submit their infants to those newly flourishing “homes for unwed mothers,” where all evidence of identity was guaranteed to be permanently lost. This involuntary surrender was a safer alternative, certainly, to the fatally botched procedures that could only be whispered about like the cruelest of rumors, but that those inhumane “solutions” were counted as “choices” in that era of willfully limited options epitomizes the injustice the court corrected.
By contrast, the generation of our daughters has produced the recent public testimony of a Georgetown Law School student, Sandra Fluke, whose protest against undercutting the assurance of free health care — by once again excluding contraception — drew a lamentably insulting response from the political talk radio of the ferocious right. From the other side of the media brain, on the related issue of Kathleen Sebelius’s contested invitation to speak at this year’s Georgetown graduation, television commentator Chris Matthews credited the secretary of health and human services by saying that her “making birth control free, which is what she has done, will do more to reduce unwanted pregnancies than anything I can imagine.”
And isn’t this the goal? There can be no more joyous work on earth than to assist at the birth of a child, but the combined medical disciplines of obstetrics and gynecology are joined — OB/GYN — in the common objective of providing for a woman’s entire reproductive health. Living in a time when the basic definitions of “life” and “death” are increasingly less fixed, it becomes all the more essential that a woman and her doctor are guaranteed the freedom to seek, and to offer, the best possible care.
This right to privacy was decisively established by the Supreme Court nearly a half-century ago, and despite the persistent echo reverberating on both sides of the argument, the Griswold v. Connecticut ruling holds. Today’s nearly universal practice of birth control speaks for itself as a force for good, and justly serves as its own eloquent proof.
Alexandra Marshall has published six books. Her work-in-progress is a novel about adoption and the Siege of Sarajevo.