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An arrest in New Haven, contraception and the right to privacy

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2007 - Spring


When police raided a Trumbull Street clinic on November 10, 1961, it came as no surprise. The Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut (PPLC) had opened the clinic days earlier to offer birth control counseling and to prescribe contraceptives — deliberate violations of an 1879 statute prohibiting the use of “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception.”

Estelle Griswold, the feisty executive director of the PPLC, and C. Lee Buxton, M.D., the medical director of the clinic and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the School of Medicine, were arrested, convicted and fined $100 each. The PPLC had spent decades lobbying the Connecticut General Assembly to repeal or amend the statute, one of the “Comstock laws” promoted by anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock in the late 19th century.

For 21 years the PPLC had operated only as a transport service, shuttling patients to clinics in Rhode Island and New York, where contraception was legal. In Connecticut married women with private physicians could often obtain birth control information and devices, but poor women, or women without connections, could not. Two previous attempts to challenge the statute, in 1943 and 1961, had been dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court, in the first case because the doctor involved lacked standing to sue on behalf of patients, and in the second case, also involving Buxton, because the plaintiffs had not been threatened with prosecution.

Police charged Griswold and Buxton with aiding and abetting the commission of a crime —anyone who prescribed and advised women about contraceptives was as culpable as the women who used them. The resulting case, Griswold v. Connecticut, had far-reaching consequences for women’s health and reproductive rights. “Women and families were moving eagerly to adopt birth control across the country,” said Susan Lloyd Yolen, vice president of public affairs and communication for Planned Parenthood of Connecticut. “The birth control pill came out in 1960, but Connecticut was a holdout on birth control at that point.”

In 1965 the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas Emerson, J.D., dean of the Yale Law School, and Catherine Roraback, J.D. ’48, represented the PPLC. On June 7, 1965, the court ruled 7-2 that the Connecticut law violated the constitutional right to marital privacy. “It paved the way for the nearly unanimous acceptance of contraception that now exists in this country,” said Yolen.

“The ruling meant the police had no right to raid your house to look for contraception,” said Gary L. Gross, M.D. ’65, HS ’70, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and the medical director of federally funded family planning clinics in Boston. Gross, who worked with Buxton as a student and resident, said that Buxton believed in women’s rights, the importance of contraception for all women and providing good health care free from interference.

After Griswold, the PPLC opened clinics throughout the state, physicians no longer feared arrest for dispensing contraception. It meant, said Gross, that people could decide the number and spacing of their children.

Griswold also laid the groundwork for later reproductive-rights decisions. In its 1972 decision in Eisenstadt v. Baird, the U.S. Supreme Court extended the right to privacy to individuals, effectively legalizing birth control for unmarried women, said Gross. A year later, in Roe v. Wade, the court recognized a woman’s right to choose abortion.

“In 1957, the wife of a Yale Law School student couldn’t obtain a diaphragm at the student health service,” said Gross. “But when the first women were admitted to Yale College in 1969, the health service provided lectures about birth control and where to obtain it as part of freshmen women’s orientation.”

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