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Birth Control

In the early twentieth century, a group of reformers sought to legally provide birth control information. The most prominent of these reformers was MARGARET SANGER, who coined the term birth control. Sanger challenged state laws restricting birth control information, seeking to draw public support. Though the courts generally rebuffed her efforts, Sanger helped build a national movement. In 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League, which, in 1942, became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Renewed legal challenges to restrictive state laws began in the 1950s. By 1960, almost every state had legalized birth control. Nevertheless, laws remained on the books that prevented the distribution of birth control information and contraceptives. A specific target was the 1879 Connecticut little Comstock law that made the sale and possession of birth control devices a misdemeanor. The law also prohibited anyone from assisting, abetting, or counseling another in the use of birth control devices.

The Supreme Court reviewed the Connecticut law in GRISWOLD V. STATE OF CONNECTICUT, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1965). Estelle Griswold was the director of Planned Parenthood in Connecticut. Just three days after Planned Parenthood opened a clinic in New Haven, Griswold was arrested. She was convicted and fined $100. The Connecticut courts upheld her conviction, rejecting the contention that the state law was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court struck down the Connecticut birth control law on a vote of 7 to 2. In his majority opinion, Justice WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS announced that the law was unconstitutional because it violated an individual's right to privacy. Douglas asserted that "specific guarantees in the BILL OF RIGHTS have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance. Various guarantees create zones of privacy." Thus, these "penumbras" (things on the fringe of a major region) and "emanations" added up to a general, independent right of privacy. In Douglas's view, this general right was infringed by the state of Connecticut when it outlawed birth control. He said that the state cannot be permitted "to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives."

The Griswold decision invalidated the Connecticut law only insofar as it invaded marital privacy, leaving open the question of whether states could prohibit the use of birth control devices by unmarried persons. In Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438, 92 S. Ct. 1029, 31 L. Ed. 2d 349 (1972), the Court reviewed a Massachusetts law that prohibited unmarried persons from obtaining and using contraceptives. William Baird was arrested after giving a lecture on birth control to a college group and providing contraceptive foam to a female student. The Court struck down the law, establishing that the right of privacy is an individual right, not a right enjoyed only by married couples. Justice WILLIAM J. BRENNAN JR., in his majority opinion, stated, "If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether or not to beget a child."

With Griswold and Eisenstadt, state prohibition of birth control information and devices came to an end. These decisions also enabled schools to give more information to students concerning sex education. Some schools even dispense contraceptives.

In 1997, the FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION (FDA) approved the use of emergency contraceptive, known popularly as the "morning-after pill." Developed by Canadian professor Albert Yuzpe and known as the Yuzpe Regimen, the pill contains heavy dosages of hormones that can prevent pregnancy if taken 72 hours after sexual intercourse. Proponents, including pro-choice advocates in the abortion debate, claim that it is a safe and effective method of birth control. Pro-life advocates and others denounce the pill as a form of abortion. Some critics in the medical field also claimed that repeated use of the pill could have unknown long-term effects due to its high level of hormones.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Recovered memory to RepugnancyReproduction - Historical Background, Restricting Antiabortion Protests, Birth Control, Abortion, Pregnancy And Medical Developments, Reproductive Hazards In The Workplace