Eisenstadt v. Baird 1972

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Eisenstadt v. Baird 1972

Appellant: Thomas Eisenstadt, Sheriff of Suffolk County, Massachusetts

Appellee: William R. Baird, Jr.

Appellant's Claim: That the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court erred in overturning Baird's conviction on charges of distributing contraceptives without a proper liscense.

Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Joseph R. Nolan

Chief Lawyers for Appellee: Joseph D. Tydings

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., William O. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: Chief Justice Warren E. Burger (Lewis F. Powell, Jr., and William H. Rehnquist did not participate)

Date of Decision: March 22, 1972

Decision: Ruling in favor of Baird, the Court upheld the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision that the state law was unconstitutional because it denied unmarried and married persons equal protection in violation the Fourteenth Amendment.

Significance: The decision expanded the right of privacy to unmarried people and made contraceptives legally available to them throughout the United States. Importantly, the decision broadened the constitutional right of privacy in a way that foreshadowed the Court's landmark finding the following year that the right to privacy protects a woman's right to have an abortion.

In 1873 U.S. Congress passed of a federal law, commonly known as the Comstock Act, prohibiting the distribution of birth control devices as well as information about birth control methods. Most states also had laws banning the sale, distribution, and advertising of contraceptives (birth control devices). One state law, Connecticut's, completely banned the use of contraceptives for anyone anywhere. In spite of the laws, the need for birth control resulted in the growth of birth control advocacy (support, in favor of) groups. In 1916 Margaret Sanger opened a birth control clinic in New York City and, continuing her role of reforming attitudes toward birth control, founded the organization Planned Parenthood in 1942.

Opened in 1961, the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, directed by Estelle Griswold, provided information to married people about the use of birth control methods to prevent pregnancy. Soon, Griswold faced charges of violating Connecticut's 1879 law banning the use of contraceptives. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in Griswold v. Connecticut (1964) as an unconstitutional invasion of an individual's right to privacy in relationships between married adults. The Court ruled that contraceptives could not be banned for married adults. However, furnishing contraceptives to unmarried people remained illegal in many states. In Massachusetts a birth control law made it a felony (serious crime),

for anyone to give away a drug, medicine, instrument or article for the prevention of conception [pregnancy] except in the case of (1) a registered [licensed] physician administering or prescribing it for a married person or (2) an active registered pharmacist furnishing it to a married person presenting a registered physician's prescription.

William R. Baird, Jr., Arrested for Lecture

In 1967, birth control activist William R. Baird, Jr. came to the campus of Boston University to give a lecture to students on birth control methods and to distribute birth control devices to interested coeds. Pointing out that over ten thousand women had died from illegal abortions in 1966, he condemned laws making contraceptives available only to married women under a doctor's care. He intended to "test this law in Massachusetts. . . No group, no law, no individual can dictate to a woman what goes on in her own body." Baird was neither a licensed physician nor licensed pharmacist. Between 1500 to 2000 people attended his lecture on contraception and at the end he gave a woman a package of contraceptive foam directly violating the law. Baird was immediately arrested.

Baird Convicted

Baird was not arrested for distributing the contraceptive foam to an unmarried person. No proof was actually ever offered that the woman was unmarried. Instead, Baird was charged under the law with having no license and, therefore, no authority to distribute to anyone. The Massachusetts Superior Court found Baird guilty of violating the law as did the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Supreme Judicial Court saw the law as a health measure designed to prevent "dangerous physical consequences" by allowing only a licensed physician or pharmacist to legally distribute contraceptives. Baird was neither a licensed physician nor pharmacist, therefore not authorized to distribute the contraceptive. Hence, he violated the law.

Almost three years after his first conviction, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July of 1970 that the Massachusetts birth control law was unconstitutional and reversed Baird's conviction. The appeals court interpreted the law as actually a prohibition on contraception which the Griswold decision outlawed when it struck down Connecticut's prohibition against the use of contraceptives by married couples. Sheriff Thomas Eisenstadt of Suffolk County, Massachusetts appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Equal Protection Violation

Baird's chief argument for the Court was simple, the law was unconstitutional because it treated two similar groups (married and unmarried persons) unequally and the state did not have a compelling (very important) reason or purpose to do so. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., delivered the opinion of the Court, a 6–1 vote as two justices did not take part.

After accepting that Baird could indeed speak for unmarried persons who had been denied access to contraceptives, the Court examined the Massachusetts law to see if it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Equal Protection Clause says that a state shall not deny equal protection of the laws to any person. The Massachusetts law, obviously, treated unmarried persons and married persons unequally in their access to contraceptive. If it did violate equal protection, the Court would then have to find a compelling purpose for the state to need the law or it could not stand. The Court considered three points before coming to their conclusion.

First, the Court inspected the law to see if the state's purpose could legitimately be to discourage premarital sexual intercourse, called "fornication" in legal matters. Brennan wrote, "the statute [law] is riddled with exceptions making contraceptives freely available for use in premarital sexual relations [under various circumstances]." Because of the many exceptions or holes in the law, Brennan noted deterring fornication could not reasonably be considered as the key purpose of the ban on distribution of contraceptives to unmarried persons.

Secondly, the Court, continuing to look for a compelling state aim, explored the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decision. The purpose of the law was, according to that court, to protect "the health needs of the community by regulating the distribution of potentially harmful articles [some types of contraceptives]." The Court found that when the law was first written by the Massachusetts legislature, its purpose had nothing to do with health, but was directed at preserving morals. Besides, this law would still be "discriminatory against the unmarried, and was overbroad [reach too far]." There were other laws to prohibit distribution of harmful drugs. Justice Brennan rejected health as the law's purpose.

Thirdly, Justice Brennan asked, "If the Massachusetts statute cannot be upheld as a deterrent to fornication or as a health measure, may it, nevertheless, be sustained simply as a prohibition on contraception?" Agreeing with the First Circuit Court of Appeals, Brennan wrote,

whatever the rights of the individual to access . . . contraceptives may be, the rights must be the same for the unmarried and married alike. If under Griswold the distribution of contraceptives to married persons cannot be prohibited, a ban on distribution to unmarried persons would be equally impermissible [not permitted].

Next came Justice Brennan's famous and memorable reasoning,

It is true that in Griswold the right of privacy in question inhered [exists in] in the marital relationship. Yet the marital couple is not an independent entity [body] with a mind and heart of its own, but an association of two individuals each with a separate intellectual and emotional makeup. If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget [create] a child.

With that the Court held the Massachusetts laws clearly violated the Equal Protection Clause by treating married and unmarried persons unequally. It further found that Massachusetts had no compelling reason to have the law. The Court affirmed the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the law was unconstitutional and overturned Baird's conviction.

Expanding Privacy

The Supreme Court established a broader view of privacy in Eisenstadt, stating that all individuals married or single, enjoy the liberty to make certain personal decisions free from government interference. This clearly included the decision whether or not to have a baby. This reasoning would foreshadow the Court's 1973 finding in Roe v. Wade that the right to privacy protected a woman's right to have an abortion. Four years later the Supreme Court also cited Eisenstadt in ruling in Carey v. Population Services International (1977) that states could not prohibit the distribution of contraceptives to minors.


I PPF/WHR was founded in New York City in 1954 and is one of six regions that make up the International Planned Parenthood Federation. The IPPF/WHR region covers forty-six countries throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, the United States, and Canada. The IPPF/WHR serves more than eight million people each year through over 40,000 service clinics. Their mission is to "Promote and defend the right of women and men, including young people, to decide freely the number and spacing of their children, and the right to the highest possible level of sexual and reproductive health."

IPPF/WHR focuses especially on advancing the family planning movement in traditionally underserved areas and emphasizes mother and child health. Through information, support, and providing access to family planning services, IPPF/WHR works to eliminate unsafe abortions.

Suggestions for further reading

Benson, Michael D. Coping with Birth Control. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1998.

International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Region, Inc. [Online] Website: http://www.ippfwhr.org (Accessed July 31, 2000).

Jacobs, Thomas A. What Are My Rights?: 95 Questions and Answers About Teens and the Law. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, Inc., 1997.

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