Before Roe v. Wade, there was Griswold v. Conn.
If You Ask Me
In the summer of 1961, I wrote, “For a few days in October, Connecticut women will be able to receive birth control advice and devices in New Haven, where the Planned Parenthood League will open the state’s first birth control center in more than 20 years.” The league planned to test an ancient Connecticut birth control law that prohibited the use of contraception by everyone, including married couples.
It turned out to be a few days in November, 1961, the first to the 10th, before Planned Parenthood opened and the state closed down the new birth control center and arrested Dr. C. Lee Buxton, a Yale gynecologist who practiced there and Estelle Griswold, executive director of the state Planned Parenthood League.
Griswold would give her name to Griswold v. Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court 1965 decision repealing the law by ruling that the Constitution did “protect the right to marital privacy” even though the words never appear in the document.
And Griswold thereby begat, in a way, Roe v. Wade, the 1973, 7-2 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. The Roe decision was grounded on that right to privacy discovered in Griswold eight years earlier when Judge William O. Douglas wrote that privacy was covered in the rights to life, liberty and property grounded in several constitutional amendments.
The two dissenters, Democrat Hugo Black and Republican Lewis Powell, didn’t care much for the law but they couldn’t find the right to privacy the others saw so clearly.
Stewart, in fact, said he found the law “uncommonly silly” but felt the Court had no choice in finding it constitutional.
Connecticut’s birth control law was known as a Comstock law in honor of a Puritanical postal inspector whose main duty was keeping what he considered dirty material out of the mail. He was very good at it.
By the middle of the 20th century, Comstock laws only remained in the old Puritan states of Massachusetts and Connecticut, supported strongly, but not exclusively, by the influential Catholic Church in those states. Members of other religious faiths were also split, but mainly opposed to the totally unenforceable law.
But even though the use of condoms and birth control devices was growing, lawmakers in the two states were not eager to take a position on either side. They became even more reluctant to take a stand as some eminent Catholic laymen and clergy expressed their opposition to the law and called for its repeal.
Doctors, I pointed out in the series, had complained that birth control information was the only existing medical knowledge that Connecticut forbade them to use.
And I quoted Dr. Norman St. John-Stevas, a well-known British Catholic lawyer and writer who argued that Catholics campaigning for the maintenance of the unenforceable law “gain little for public morality. They do, however, increase the fear of Catholicism in the minds of non-Catholics.”
Most of the five-part series was devoted to the plans being made by Buxton and Griswold to test the law by forcing the state to close the lawbreaking birth control center they were about to open in New Haven and testing the closing in the courts, up to, they hoped, the Supreme Court.
Griswold said Connecticut Planned Parenthood had sent 12,000 state women to New York and Rhode Island during the past four years to be fitted with contraceptive devices in circumvention of the 82-year-old state law. She told me that the 12,000 women who had literally smuggled illegal contraceptive devices into the state prove the demand and need for centers.
We know now that things worked out as planned for Griswold and Buxton. The closing of their center made it to the Supreme Court, which found for Griswold and against Connecticut — and by extension, Massachusetts.
And my series of articles? I guess you’d have to say it wasn’t well received. In fact, it wasn’t received at all and the few quotes you read here are the first to be printed anywhere in the 61 years since they were written.
I had proposed the series to the Courant’s state editor, my immediate superior, and he readily approved. But the finished product was killed by the managing editor, the Courant’s top news executive, on the grounds it would offend some readers.
Those running the then-locally owned Courant were every bit as courageous as the state’s lawmakers.
Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.