June 7: Establishing A Constitutional Right to Privacy

 

 

Today in 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court established a constitutional “right to privacy” for Americans by overturning a 92-year-old Connecticut law that outlawed the use of birth control.

Back in 1873, during the apex of the Victorian era in the United States, Congress passed the Comstock Law, which outlawed “the circulation of obscene literature and articles of immoral use” through the U.S. mail.  The “obscene” and “immoral” material in question was anything related to the discussion and use of contraceptives and abortifacients; even so, several states passed supplementary “morality laws” that expanded the definition of “obscene material.”  Connecticut ‘s own “Act Concerning Offenses against Decency, Morality, and Humanity,” which passed in 1879, was one of the most restrictive acts in the nation, outlawing both the discussion and use of contraceptives.

A man protests outside Estelle Griswold’s clinic in New Haven, 1961.

Over the next seventy years, American attitudes on morality and sexuality changed drastically — but most of the restrictive state laws inspired by the 1873 Comstock Law remained on the books.  Even after the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive pill in 1960, the sale and use of “the pill” remained illegal in Connecticut.  Soon afterwards, Estelle Griswold, president of the state’s Planned Parenthood chapter and a longtime social activist, defiantly opened a birth control clinic in downtown New Haven with Dr. C. Lee Buxton, an obstetrician at Yale Hospital, where they provided counseling and supplied contraceptives to couples.  To help legitimize their business, they only accepted married couples with stellar character references as their clients.

Nine days later, they were both arrested and fined $100 under Connecticut’s 1879 law prohibiting the discussion, sale, and use of contraceptives.  Their arrest set off a chain of lawsuits and appeals that eventually arrived on the doorstep of the Supreme Court in 1965 as Griswold v. Connecticut.  The justices struck down the antiquated Connecticut law by a 7-2 majority, arguing that marriage was a form of association even “older than the Bill of Rights” that existed in a “zone of privacy” entitled to constitutional protection against government intrusion.

Today, Griswold v. Connecticut is hailed as a landmark case — the first in American history to establish a Constitutional right to privacy which has been cited in countless court cases ever since.  Seven years after Griswold, the Court expanded the “right to privacy” to individual Americans, regardless of their marital status.  A giant step for womankind — and the protection of individual liberties — became the law of the land on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Nancy Finlay, “Taking on the State: Griswold v. Connecticut,” connecticuthistory.org

Before Griswold, Offering Birth Control was Illegal,Hartford Courant

Barbara Sicherman, “Connecticut Women Fight for Reproductive Rights,Connecticut Explored