1972 March 22

Unmarried Women Win Right to Contraceptives in Massachusetts


In Eisenstadt v. Baird, decided on this day, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a Massachusetts law banning contraceptives for unmarried people. Birth control and abortion rights pioneer Bill Baird was arrested at Boston University on April 6, 1967, when he handed a condom and a package of contraceptive foam to a 19-year-old unmarried woman. He was arrested and appealed.

Baird brought another important case to the Supreme Court, Bellotti v. Baird, decided on July 2, 1979, in which the Court ruled that minors did not need parental consent to obtain an abortion. (States have since passed parental consent laws, requiring consent by a parent or guardian, which have been upheld by the Supreme Court.)

The fight for public access to birth control devices and information was a long one. See, for example, the notorious 1973 Comstock Act (passed on March 3, 1873), which outlawed the distribution of devices and information for many decades. Margaret Sanger, the greatest birth control advocate in American history, opened the first birth control clinic in America on October 16, 1916. She was arrested a week later and served a one month jail term for her crime. The Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law banning birth control devices on June 7, 1965, and established a constitutional right to privacy. Congress passed the first law providing federal funds for family planning services on December 24, 1970.

Justice Brennan for the Court: “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 to whether to bear or beget a child.”

Watch a documentary on the case: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFcMNLyzaD8

Hear the oral arguments in the case: http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1971/1971_70_17

Read: Linda Gordon, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America, 3rd ed. (2007)

Learn more about National Condom Week: http://www.nationalcondomweek.com/

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