Did you know that Connecticut was once the most restrictive states in the country for contraceptive access? The restrictions began on the federal level in 1873 with the passage of An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use, also known as the Comstock Law. The law is named for a native of New Caanan, Anthony Comstock, an anti-choice advocate. This regulation banned the sale or distribution of materials promoting birth control or abortion. Twenty-four states followed up with their own laws regarding “obscenity,” but Connecticut’s was by far the harshest. In 1879, a law was passed that banned contraceptives altogether.
This ban persisted for eighty-six years, until Estelle Griswold, Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, took on the state’s ban in the landmark Supreme Court case Griswold vs. Connecticut. Catherine Roraback, Griswold’s attorney, argued that the ban violated marital privacy as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. On June 7, 1965, the Court sided 7-2 with Roraback, citing the right to privacy in the Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Justice William O. Douglas wrote for the majority opinion “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…” This case set a precedent for the right to privacy against government interference. This argument that was used to win cases like Eisenstadt v. Baird of 1972 which guaranteed the right to contraception for unmarried couples and Lawrence v. Texas of 2003 which ruled that sodomy laws were unconstitutional. (Yes, there were still sodomy laws on the books in 2003). And, of course, the right to privacy was argued in Roe v. Wade (1973) which established the constitutional right to abortion.
Griswold’s attorney Catherine Roraback had a long history of defending women’s and civil rights in the courts. Born in 1920, she was the only woman in her graduating class at Yale Law School. In addition to Griswold vs. Connecticut, she litigated Women v. Connecticut in 1972, guaranteeing the right to abortion for Connecticut citizens one year before Roe v. Wade. Through the era of Griswold, Roraback mentions that the courts and the press assumed they were only challenging the statute on behalf of married people. She says,
“This is something the younger generation doesn’t understand… But back in the ’50s, I can tell you that although doctors were pre- scribing to women, it was always to married women….Most of the younger women would go to a place like New York City to get their contraceptives, but even in the New York clinic there was a need to be a married person, in quotes. I can remember people borrowing a ring to go to New York.”
Every year NARAL Pro Choice Connecticut awards the Catherine Roraback Award to individuals and organizations who have fought for the rights to privacy, abortion, and reproductive health. Without Roraback’s success in Griswold, the fight for abortion and contraceptive rights would have been longer and more arduous.
It’s important for us to remember Griswold’s enormous impact as our modern courts become more and more anti-choice. During his campaign, President Trump said “I am looking to appoint judges very much in the mold of Justice Scalia.” Justice Scalia, who served on the Supreme Court for thirty years, was a staunch anti-choice advocate who believed abortion is murder and that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. “In the mold” of Scalia, Trump has appointed record numbers of judges: 12 appeals-court judges in his first year (which is four times more than Obama appointed in the same time period) and 80 federal judges. And this is just the beginning; there are 124 vacancies in the District Courts. This is all in the wake of the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court who has a long history of being hailed by anti-choice organizations like the Federalist Society. This matters because anti-choice legal teams like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) are challenging abortion and contraceptive access at every turn they can. NIFLA v. Becerra will decide the fate of a California law requiring more transparency from fake women’s health centers and requiring licensed health centers to release information on family planning and abortion services to patients. As we continue to see the proliferation of the anti-choice movement, from fake women’s health centers to the passage of abortion restrictions, we should never forget the importance of the courts in maintaining reproductive freedom. Today we remember a judicial victory in Griswold vs. Connecticut, and we remember that we must stay vigilant as the fight is not over.