Revisiting a Landmark Birth Control Ruling, 50 Years Later

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In the Griswold v. Connecticut ruling in 1965, the court decided in favor of allowing married couples to use contraception, a precedent-setting decision. Tony Rollo/Newsweek

Fifty years ago, on June 7, 1965, the Supreme Court reached a landmark decision on married couples’ “right to privacy” that effectively legalized the use of contraception. The ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut decided in favor of family planning advocate Estelle Griswold, and against the then-deeply Catholic state of Connecticut, by striking down Connecticut's “bedroom patrol laws,” known to be among the strictest in the country. The decision was later expanded beyond married couples and was cited in a Roe v. Wade opinion in support of a woman’s right to have an abortion. Newsweek examined the symbolic decision in a June 21, 1965 article.

Back in Business

One afternoon in November 1961, detectives appeared at a converted mansion in central New Haven and asked to see Mrs. Estelle Griswold, executive producer of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut. The visit was expected, since Dr. C. Lee Buxton, chairman of Yale’s department of obstetrics and gynecology, and Mrs. Griswold had opened a family-planning clinic in defiance of Connecticut’s birth-control law--one of the stiffest in the nation. It was obviously a test case, and the district attorney in a sense let the pair write the script for their arrest. “He asked how we’d like it done,” Buxton recalled last week. “Did we want him to send a paddy wagon with policemen and photographers, or would we prefer to turn ourselves in quitely?”

Buxton and Mrs. Griswold chose the latter; each was fined $100 and the clinic closed. But eventually the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and last week the court ruled that the Connecticut statute was unconstitutional.

Bedroom patrol 

The Connecticut law, passed in 1879, stemmed from the campaigning of Anthony Comstock, a Protestant and an anti-vice campaigner. The law prohibited not only the sale but also the use of contraceptive devices. Though it was, as one Connecticut doctor once put it, “unenforceable short of having a policeman under every bed in the state,” the law stayed on the books in the heavily Roman Catholic Connecticut despite efforts to overturn it. Well-informed women, of course, could easily obtain contraceptives in most drugstores and advice from their family doctors on how to use them. But the law effectively barred dissemination of birth-control information and devices to the uninformed and the poor through Planned Parenthood clinics.

Mrs. Griswold, a childless woman in her 60s who first became interested in birth control and population pressures through social work and world travel, had been technically violating the law since 1957 by advising women where they could go to get birth-control information. She and her Planned Parenthood associates, for example, would get the names of new parents from newspaper birth-announcements and send form letters inviting them to get in touch with their office in Orange Street. Then, the interested mothers and fathers would be directed to the nearest out-of-state Planned Parenthood clinic, such as those in Port Chester, N.Y., and Providence, R.I. Planned Parenthood workers also distributed brochures containing birth-control advice in low-income neighborhoods throughout the state, again in defiance of the law. The workers, Mrs. Griswold recalls, received cries for help rather than criticism. “Why weren’t you here last year?” was the anguished plea.

Meanwhile, Buxton had joined the battle after several women at his hospital died of pregnancy complications; there had been no way for them to get birth-control advice. A suit brought by Buxton and two patients came before the Supreme Court for repeal of the Connecticut law. When the court refused to rule on the ground that the law was not enforced and was a “dead letter,” Buxton and Mrs. Griswold decided to invite arrest and prove otherwise.

The impact of the new decision on birth-control programs nationally is as yet uncertain. The Connecticut statute was ruled unconstitutional chiefly on the ground that its prohibition of the use of contraceptives violated the individual’s right to marital privacy. Although 29 states now have restrictive birth-control laws of some kind, no state law bans the use of contraception altogether. So the Connecticut case does not automatically void any of the other state laws. Some family planning experts, however, believe the decision will help the current trend toward more liberal official and social attitudes toward birth control. “One of the best consequences of this agitation,” Buxton said last week, “is that people are getting on the bandwagon about repealing these laws.”

Catholic vote

The decision only gives the birth-control bandwagon its latest imputes. On June 1, a 21-member commission named by Gov. John A. Volpe of Massachusetts met for the first time to review his state’s birth-control law--the most severe next to Connecticut’s--with an eye toward revision. Kept on the books largely because many legislators feared offending Catholic voters, the Massachusetts statute prohibits the sale and dissemination of birth-control information, even by doctors, and therefore effectively bars birth-control clinics. But just last March, Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston announced that he would not oppose revision of the law.

Last week, Mrs. Griswold was busy planning the reopening of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Orange Street. With the help of Buxton, she hopes to have a medical staff and equipment ready within six weeks. Besides teaching women how to use such contraceptives as diaphragms and jellies, the new clinic will dispense birth-control pills, which are proving more acceptable to women than the older methods. In addition, some of the women will be given the intra-uterine devices now becoming generally available in the U.S. The IUD’s, which are “permanently” placed in the uterus by a doctor, are more acceptable than the pill for some women. Like most Planned Parenthood centers, the New Haven clinic will continue to conduct sex-education classes and premarital courses. But Buxton and Mrs. Griswold don’t plan to launch a campaign to advertise these services. “After this case,” he said last week, “I don’t think we need to be publicized.”