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Poe v. Ullman

Justiciability Of The Claim

An 1879 state of Connecticut statute prohibited advising use of contraceptive devices and the actual use of contraceptives to prevent pregnancy, including use by married couples. Research of the succeeding years indicated that this statute had been enacted once in 1940, charging a physician and two nurses with operating a birth-control clinic (State v. Nelson). In 1960 Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc., on behalf of the appellants--Paul and Pauline Poe, Jane Doe, and Dr. C. Lee Buxton--prepared a case which challenged the constitutionality of this statute, making the claim that it violated the appellants' right to privacy and violated their liberties protected and guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.

Both Pauline Poe and Jane Doe experienced pregnancies that resulted in children who did not live past birth due to congenital abnormalities, near-death illness, and felt extreme mental anguish upon the termination of the pregnancies. Their physician, in both cases, Dr. C. Lee Buxton, advised them that further pregnancies would end similarly, and in Mrs. Doe's case her probable death. He advised that the best prevention of further difficulties was some method of contraception. However, the Connecticut law prohibited Dr. Buxton from disseminating prescriptions or advice about contraceptive methods to either of these women on the grounds that it could result in criminal prosecution. The only recourse would be for the married couples to abstain from intimate relations in order to prevent pregnancy.

Poe v. Ullman was first heard in the Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut where the complaint was dismissed. The appellants then requested a declaratory judgment from the U.S. Supreme Court, which would formally make the statute unconstitutional. The two claims were, first, that by invoking the anti-contraceptive law, the married couples were denied the right to make decisions about the most intimate and private parts of their lives. Secondly it was stated that the threat of prosecution for the private use of contraceptives deprived them of the protection of due process under the law. Buxton also claimed that the Connecticut law prohibiting him from giving sound and safe advice to his patients denied him the right of due process of practicing his profession and earning a living based on his training as a physician.

In a 5-4 decision, Justice Frankfurter, delivering the opinion of the Court, dismissed the case. He wrote that the case before them did not clearly indicate a direct threat of prosecution by the state's attorney if the appellants acquired and used contraceptive devices. In the course of research the Court found that contraceptives were readily available in Connecticut drug stores, and yet there had been no prosecutions in that state for the sale of these items. Frankfurter went on to write that law enforcement officials were more likely to notice the open, public sales of contraceptives than the use of contraceptives in the privacy of the appellants' homes. It was the opinion of the majority that Poe v. Ullman had no sense of urgency nor a real and direct injury to the appellants, which are the basis for the justification of a case.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Poe v. Ullman - Appellant's Claim, Significance, Justiciability Of The Claim, Defining The Right To Privacy