1965 June 7

A Constitutional Right to Privacy: “Griswold v. Connecticut”


In the landmark case of Griswold v. Connecticut, decided on this day, the Supreme Court established a constitutional right to privacy. The case involved the arrest of Estelle Griswold, director the Planned Parenthood clinic in New Haven, Connecticut, for violating the state law banning the use of contraceptives (see the law quoted, below).

The Court had rejected an earlier challenge, in Tileston v. Connecticut on February 1, 1943. The Griswold decision became the basis for the historic Roe v. Wade, establishing a constitutional right to abortion on January 22, 1973. Conservatives have criticized the Griswold decision because the word “privacy” does not appear in the Bill of Rights. In his majority opinion, Justice William O. Douglas argued that specific provisions of the Bill of Rights have “penumbras” and “emanations” that establish other specific rights, such as a right to privacy (see below).

The fight for the right of access to birth control had been a long one. Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America on October 16, 1916, was promptly arrested, and on February 2, 1917 was sentenced to a month in jail for her crime. Sanger and others were frequently barred from speaking on the subject. On April 16, 1929 she was barred from speaking in Boston and appeared on stage that night with a gag in her mouth.

The Connecticut law: “Any person who uses any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception shall be fined not less than fifty dollars or imprisoned not less than sixty days nor more than one year or be both fined and imprisoned.”

Justice Douglas: “ . . . specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.”

Read: John W. Johnson, Griswold v. Connecticut: Birth Control and the Constitutional Right of Privacy (2005)

Listen to the oral arguments before the Supreme Court: http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1964/1964_496

Read: David Garrow, Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade (1998)

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