Elizabeth Borg

(WOMENSENEWS)–In 1961 Estelle Griswold, the wife of an Episcopal minister, and Dr. Lee Buxton, a licensed physician and a professor at Yale Medical School, were arrested, tried and convicted as accessories in crime.

Their offense? Providing information, instruction and medical advice on contraception to married couples.

Their conviction stood until June 7, 1965–40 years ago today–when the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that laws prohibiting people from using contraception or counseling others about it violate the constitutional right to privacy.

As a law student, I closely studied Griswold v. Connecticut and how it profoundly deepened the constitutional right of individuals to be free from government intrusion in their own private lives.

But most Americans know little about this landmark case that first affirmed our right to use modern birth control and has served as the legal foundation for rulings on sexual relations, reproductive rights and family life ever since.

States Dictated Most of 20th Century

For most of the 20th century, a majority of state governments dictated the nature of sexual relations of Americans by denying them the ability to plan their families.

In the early 1960s, laws in 28 states made it illegal for married couples to use contraception. That finally changed when the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Griswold v. Connecticut that the statute prohibiting the use of contraceptives violated the right of marital privacy.

The precedent set by Griswold established the legal basis for extending the right to privacy to non-married individuals in 1972 and affirming the right to abortion in Roe v. Wade.

In the 40 years since this groundbreaking decision, birth control has become the most commonly used drug among American women in their childbearing years. And our right to birth control is something nearly everyone takes for granted.

Our nation took a great step forward by recognizing the right of individuals to make their own private decisions about planning their families. Griswold also set the stage for the beginning of the progressive movement to stabilize world population. By allowing couples to decide the number and spacing of their children, the ruling helped to slow population growth based on personal choice, not government fiat.

But, sadly, Americans’ right to birth control is increasingly threatened.

Some ideologues have long wanted to deny women this important tool and bring America back to the days when Estelle Griswold was arrested.

Senator Rick Santorum and Representative Tom Delay have both recently suggested that Americans have no real right to privacy.

For example, Santorum said that he thought states should have the power to outlaw birth control. And he’s the third highest-ranking member of the U.S. Senate.

Obstacles to Family Planning

The radical right is doing everything in their power to block access to family planning. The average American woman, who spends 30 years of her life trying to prevent unwanted pregnancy, has to contend with several serious obstacles:

  • The FDA is stalling on the second application for over-the-counter access for the emergency contraceptive Plan B, despite the fact that their own advisory panel has advocated for such availability.

  • The cost of contraception prevents many women from fulfilling their family planning needs. Even if a woman has health insurance, her plan may not cover birth control. Title X–the national family planning program that offers publicly supported contraceptive care to low income and uninsured women–needs more funding to serve an increasing uninsured population.

  • At the urging of right-wing political leadership, a growing number of pharmacists around the country are now refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control. Four states have laws or regulations that give legal cover to pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions and legislatures in 13 states have introduced measures to do the same.

  • Fewer young people are now learning about contraception at school. The federal government is currently spending millions each year to teach abstinence-only curricula. These programs mention contraception only in terms of failure rates, which are often grossly exaggerated and factually inaccurate.

Right-wing extremists, led by President Bush and high-ranking congressional leadership, want to take away our right to birth control. It’s time to fight back. In a country where half of all pregnancies are unwanted or mistimed, access to contraception should be expanded, not curtailed.

As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut we must work harder than ever to ensure that all Americans can exercise their right to privacy and plan their families according to their own very personal decisions.

Elizabeth Borg is director of membership at Population Connection in Washington, D.C. Population Connection is America’s largest grassroots population environmental organization.

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