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Griswold v. Connecticut 1965

Birth Control Legalization

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Updated February 23, 2013

The Griswold v. Connecticut case was decided on June 7, 1965. This case was significant because the Supreme Court ruled that married people had the right to use contraception. It essentially paved the road for the reproductive privacy and freedoms that are in place today. Prior to this case, birth control use was either restricted or outlawed.

Background:

In 1960, there were still 30 states that had laws (usually passed sometime during the late 1800s) that restricted the advertising and sale of contraceptives. Some states, like Connecticut and Massachusetts, prohibited birth control use altogether.

In fact, in the state of Connecticut, the use of contraception was punishable by a $50 fine and/or up to one year in prison. The law banned the use of "any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception." The law further maintained, "any person who assists, abets, counsels, causes, hires or commands another to commit any offense may be prosecuted and punished as if he were the principle offender." Although this law was created in 1879, it had almost never been enforced.

In 1961, Estelle Griswold (Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut) and Dr. C. Lee Buxton (Chair of the Department of Obstetrics at Yale University School of Medicine) decided to open a birth control clinic in New Haven, Connecticut with the chief intent to challenge the Connecticut  law's constitutionality. Their clinic provided information, instruction, and medical advice to married people about ways to prevent conception. At the clinic, they would also examine the women (wives) and prescribe the best contraceptive device or material for each of them to use.

Griswold was frustrated by the Connecticut law since it turned women who wanted birth control as well as their doctors into criminals. The clinic only operated from November 1 to November 10, 1961. After being open just 10 days, both Griswold and Buxton were arrested. They were then prosecuted, found guilty, and each fined $100. Their conviction was upheld by the Appellate Division of the Circuit Court as well as the Connecticut Supreme Court. Griswold appealed her conviction to the US Supreme Court in 1965.

Plaintiff's Claim:

In Griswold v. Connecticut, Estelle Griswold and Dr. C. Lee Buxton disputed that the Connecticut law against birth control use conflicted with the 14th Amendment, which states,

"No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law...nor deny any person the equal protection of the laws" (Amendment 14, Section 1).

Supreme Court Hearing:

On March 29, 1965, Estelle Griswold and Dr. Buxton argued their case in front of the Supreme Court. Seven justices presided over the hearing - Chief Justice: Earl Warren; and Associate Justices: Hugo Black, William J. Brennan Jr., Tom C. Clark, William O. Douglas, Arthur Goldberg, John M. Harlan II, Potter Stewart, and Byron White.

Supreme Court Decision:

The case was decided on June 7, 1965. In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that the Connecticut law was unconstitutional because it violated the Due Process Clause. The court further stated that the constitutional right to privacy guaranteed married couples the right to make their own decisions about contraception. Justice William O. Douglas wrote the majority opinion.

Who Voted For and Against the Griswold v. Connecticut Ruling:

  • The Majority: William O. Douglas wrote that the right to marital privacy lies within the "penumbra" of the Bill of Rights. In a concurring opinion, Justice Goldberg wrote that the right of privacy in the marital union is “a personal right ‘retained by the people’ within the meaning of the Ninth Amendment.” Justice Harlan II and Justice White also concurred by maintaining that privacy is protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

  • The Dissent: Hugo Black and Potter Stewart both filed dissenting opinions explaining that the government has the right to invade an individual’s privacy unless there is a specific constitutional provision prohibiting such invasion. Justice Black argued that the right to privacy is not found anywhere in the Constitution. Justice Stewart characterized the Connecticut statute as "an uncommonly silly law" yet claimed that it was still constitutional.

The Rationale Behind the Griswold v. Connecticut Decision:

This Supreme Court decision overturned a Connecticut law that prohibited contraceptive counseling as well as the use of contraception. The ruling recognized that the Constitution does not explicitly protect one's general right to privacy; however, the Bill of Rights created penumbras, or zones of privacy, into which the government could not interfere.

The Court maintained that the right to marital privacy was intrinsic in the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments. The ruling further established the right of privacy in the marital relationship to be an unenumerated right (one that is inferred from the language, history, and structure of the Constitution though not expressly mentioned in the text) inherent in the meaning of the Ninth Amendment. Once characterized this way, this right to marital privacy is considered to be one of the fundamental liberties that is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from interference by the states. Thus, the Connecticut law violated the right to privacy within marriage and was found to be unconstitutional.

The Griswold v. Connecticut ruling essentially determined that privacy within a marriage is a personal zone off limits to the government. As per Justice Douglas 's opinion of the Court,

“The present case, then, concerns a relationship lying within the zone of privacy created by several fundamental constitutional guarantees. And it concerns a law which, in forbidding the use of contraceptives rather than regulating their manufacture or sale, seeks to achieve its goals by means having a maximum destructive impact upon that relationship. …
Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship.
We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights… Marriage is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred. …Yet it is an association for as noble a purpose as any involved in our prior decisions.”

What Griswold v. Connecticut Did Not Allow:

Though the Griswold v. Connecticut ruling legalized the use of contraception, this liberty was only applied to married couples. Therefore, birth control use was still prohibited for individuals who were not married. The right to use contraception was NOT extended to unmarried people UNTIL the Eisenstadt v. Baird Supreme Court case decided in 1972!

Griswold v. Connecticut established the right to privacy only pertained to married couples. In the Eisenstadt v. Baird case, the plaintiff argued that denying unmarried individuals the right to use birth control when married people were allowed to use contraception was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court overturned a Massachusetts law that criminalized the use of contraceptives by unmarried couples. The Court ruled that Massachusetts could not enforce this law against married couples (due to of Griswold v. Connecticut), so the law functioned as "irrational discrimination" by denying unmarried couples the right to have contraceptives. Thus, the Eisenstadt v. Baird decision established the right of unmarried people to use contraception on the same basis as married couples.

Significance of Griswold v. Connecticut

The Griswold v. Connecticut decision has helped to lay the foundation for much of the reproductive freedom currently allowed under law. Since this ruling, the Supreme Court has cited the right to privacy in numerous Court hearings. The Griswold v. Connecticut set the precedent for the total legalization of birth control, as determined in the Eisenstadt v. Baird case.

Additionally, the right to privacy served as the cornerstone in the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case. In Roe v. Wade, the Court determined that the right of women to choose to have an abortion is protected as a private decision between her and her doctor. The Court further ruled that banning abortion would violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against state actions that contradict the right to privacy (including a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy).

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