American writer Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy deals with the story of a socially ambitious young man who, dismayed because he has impregnated his working-class girlfriend, engineers her death.
The book was banned in some cities – but not because of its depiction of murder. Rather, conservative religious leaders feared that a plot hinging on an unwanted pregnancy would spur young people to get curious about birth control.
Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case is an unpleasant reminder that some people haven’t moved much beyond that point.
It can be hard for us in 2014 to grasp just how long and hard right-wing religious interests fought to block Americans’ access to birth control. Laws in some states banned not only the sale of birth control but also the dissemination of information about contraceptives.
You read that right. In some states, a married couple could ask their doctor for advice about how to limit the size of their family – and it would be illegal for him to respond.
In my recent book Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You The Right To Tell Other People What To Do, I discussed some of the history behind this contentious issue. I pointed out that the anti-birth control laws changed only because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they must.
Connecticut had a law stating, “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.” The law also stated that anyone who “assists, abets, counsels, causes, hires or commands another to commit any offense” related to birth control “may be prosecuted and punished as if he were the principal offender.”
Estelle Griswold and Dr. Lee Buxton of Yale Medical School decided to test the law, so they opened a clinic in New Haven to dispense information about birth control. (Again, they were only dispensing information, not actual devices.) Prodded by the state’s Catholic hierarchy, police promptly raided the clinic and arrested Griswold and Buxton.
Of course, that was their plan all along. Griswold and Buxton wanted to challenge the law in court, and the clinic raid gave them the power to do so. The result was a landmark Supreme Court ruling, Griswold v. Connecticut, holding that married couples have a privacy right to use birth control. A few years later, in a separate case, the high court extended that right to unmarried couples.
Some conservative religious leaders today act as if this is all so much ancient history and assert that while they personally oppose the use of birth control, they would never try to ban it again. They are being disingenuous. They dropped their anti-contraception campaign only because the courts forced them to and public opinion turned against them.
Many Americans assumed this was a long-dead issue. They were surprised when it suddenly came roaring back to life in the wake of the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Even more people were surprised that birth control opponents were basing their legal argument on the principle of religious freedom.
The use of birth control is the United States is ubiquitous. As it became affordable and easier to get, contraception pushed along a social revolution that was already under way – the emancipation of women and the growing women’s rights movement.
Furthermore, the right to privacy outlined in Griswold resurfaced in other decisions that the far right despises, chiefly 1973’s Roe v. Wade, invalidating many state anti-abortion laws, and Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which struck down state laws that banned sodomy between consenting adults.
Consider Griswold. Consider its fruits. Consider how it changed American society. Consider how much of the Religious Right’s agenda could be implemented if they could chip away at or overturn that opinion.
Don’t for one minute believe the lie that cases like Hobby Lobby are about religious freedom. They are about one thing: Religious conservatives who have lost the power to meddle in our most intimate and private affairs and who are so eager to get it back that they’re willing to use the noble principle of religious liberty as a cat’s-paw in their theocratic schemes.
AU attorneys are examining today’s ruling and will have a more thorough analysis later. But make no mistake, it gives oxygen to the long-running anti-contraception crusade of the far right and reopens a debate that the theocrats lost years ago. It's hard to describe how unfortunate that is.