Reproductive rights are a church-state separation issue, and Americans United since our earliest days has worked to prevent religious freedom from being used to interfere with reproductive freedom. Back issues of Church & State magazine from the 1950s and ’60s are studded with stories about doctors who were fired because they dared to counsel couples about contraceptives and state and local officials who bowed to clerical pressure and shut down health clinics.
Eventually, the issue of reproductive rights came to a head in the courts. A key ruling occurred 54 years ago today when the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Griswold v. Connecticut. Estelle Griswold, executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, joined forces with Dr. Lee Buxton of Yale Medical School to challenge an 1879 Connecticut law outlawing the sale or manufacture of contraceptives. (Odd fact: That old law was sponsored by P.T. Barnum. Yes, the famed circus showman once did a stint in the Connecticut legislature, and he was apparently no fan of birth control.)
Griswold and Buxton opened a clinic in New Haven that offered counseling, information and medical advice. No actual birth control devices or medications were offered, but even that was too much for the state’s powerful Catholic lobby, which promptly ordered state officials to raid the clinic.
That’s just what Griswold and Buxton wanted, of course. Now they had a test case, and they took it all the way to the Supreme Court. Ruling 7-2 in Griswold, the high court cited the right to privacy and invalidated state laws that banned the use of contraceptives by married couples.
A few years later, the court extended the ruling to cover unmarried couples as well. That case, Eisenstadt v. Baird, came about after William Baird, a birth control advocate, was arrested for giving a young woman a package of contraceptive foam during a lecture at Boston University. Under Massachusetts law at the time, only married people could obtain contraceptives.
Griswold is an important, if sometimes overlooked, ruling that definitely touches on issues of church-state separation. The right to privacy outlined in the decision gave Americans a powerful shield to fend off intrusive actions by conservative religious groups determined to meddle in our most intimate affairs. The right to privacy also formed the basis of 1973’s Roe v. Wade ruling striking down state anti-abortion laws.
Unfortunately, these rights, as hard-fought as they were, are not secure. Abortion is under attack in several states, and even the right to access affordable birth control has been eroded thanks to a misguided ruling by the Supreme Court in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case and the Trump administration’s harmful regulations that would allow bosses and universities to use religion to deny their employees and students access to contraception.
Americans United will be in court on Monday with our allies at the Center for Reproductive Rights and the National Women’s Law Center to defend religious freedom and reproductive freedom. We sued the Trump administration and the University of Notre Dame on behalf of students whose access to birth control has been blocked by the Trump rules and an illegal backroom deal negotiated with the administration and Notre Dame. AU attorney Alison Tanner will be one of the lawyers arguing our case
Griswold and Buxton helped Americans win the right to make private choices about reproduction and sexuality free from interference by conservative religious interests. On the anniversary of the Griswold ruling, we honor their memories by recommitting to defend the freedoms they fought so hard to protect. Join us!