40 years after landmark case, access to birth control still threatened

June 14, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

MY COLLEGE friends and I found out through the grapevine about a doctor in town who would prescribe birth control pills. One after another, we climbed the stairs to his dusty and dimly lit second-floor office and endured a humiliating pelvic exam in exchange for a prescription for a packet of pills.

It was 1970, and it was illegal.

We were unmarried, and unmarried women could not legally receive birth control information or products until 1972. We were just 18 or 19 years old, and teenagers could not legally receive birth control information or products until 1977.

When my mother found my birth control pills that summer after my freshman year, she was predictably angry. "Your father and I never used these kinds of things," she said. "We just got on our knees and prayed."

My mother had five pregnancies in five years, so it appears their prayers were unanswered.

But I wonder now if her anger had more to do with how little control she had over her own life than how I was living mine.

It is hard to imagine the time in which my mother lived, a time when condoms were illegal and when the distribution of birth control information and products was a felony, and women and their doctors could be charged for violating the infamous Comstock anti-obscenity laws.

It took the courage of a Connecticut society matron and a Yale doctor to change that.

Estelle Griswold was the executive director of Planned Parenthood of Connecticut in the early 1960s when all her volunteers could do was offer women rides to Rhode Island and New York, where it was easier to get birth control products and information.

In those days, Planned Parenthood didn't operate clinics. They were illegal. Instead, Planned Parenthood raised money to continue to fund 40 years of unsuccessful lawsuits and lobbying to get the Comstock laws overturned.

Griswold decided to take the bull by the horns, and she and C. Lee Buxton, chairman of the Yale School of Medicine's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, opened a birth control clinic in New Haven. Within a few days, police arrived to arrest them.

"But before she let them take her to the station, she gave them a tour of the clinic and sat them down and gave them a lecture about birth control," Judy Tabor, who now heads Planned Parenthood of Connecticut, said at a Washington celebration of the 40th anniversary of the seminal Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut.

The newspaper photographs of the arrest reveal a remarkable pair of civil disobedient protesters. Buxton can be seen to be a gray-haired gentleman of 57, and Estelle Griswold, 61, is in pearls, a fur collar and a little Mamie Eisenhower hat.

In June 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First, Third, Fourth and Ninth amendments, taken together, created a new constitutional right -- the right to privacy in marital relations. The court ruled that the state could not restrict a couple's right to be counseled about birth control.

In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that unmarried women were entitled to equal protection under Griswold. And in 1977, the ruling was extended to teenagers.

But a woman's right to practice birth control is under siege. Pharmacists and health care providers want the right to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills and morning-after pills, and insurance companies don't want to pay for them.

The federal government is cutting funds to the clinics that provide free services to poor women. And state legislatures are pushing to require those clinics to report to parents if their children arrive asking for help or advice.

All these years later, I venture to say most of my college friends and I have taken our own daughters to the pediatricians or nurse practitioners they have known since they were babies for a frank but upbeat discussion about sex and birth control. And I bet some of those girls have left the office with protection.

A recent poll by the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association found that 88 percent of those responding -- including 80 percent of those who identify themselves as strongly pro-life -- believe that women should have access to contraception.

The pollsters didn't ask, but I don't believe any of us want our daughters to return to a time when the only birth control was prayer. Or a scary climb to a dingy office.

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