Recent controversy over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate has served as a reminder of how shaky our rights to contraception can be. Although 99 percent of women have used contraception at some point in their lives, access to contraception is still subject to challenges. Section 2713 of the Affordable Care Act mandated that employers’ health plans include coverage for contraceptives without co-pays or deductibles. Critics attacked the law as unfair to religious institutions that oppose the use of contraceptives. Responding to pressure, the Obama White House offered a compromise that shifted the responsibility for coverage from any religious institution opposed to the mandate to the employees’ health insurance.
The right of unmarried Americans to obtain contraceptives was only established 40 years ago.
Our rights to contraception are not only shaky at times, but also not long established. When people think of celebrities like Marlon Wayans, Cameron Diaz, or Maya Rudolph, old age is probably not what comes to mind. However, what they have in common is that they were each born in 1972, the year the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case Eisenstadt v. Baird (405 U.S. 438), a landmark decision that guaranteed unmarried couples the same access to birth control as married couples. March 22 of this year marks the 40th anniversary of this court victory for reproductive rights activist Bill Baird, and for the reproductive freedoms he defended in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bill Baird has championed reproductive rights in many ways throughout much of his lifetime, from founding an organization called the Parents Aid Society to distributing contraceptives in a converted delivery truck he called the “Plan Van.” However, he is best known for a legal fight that began when hundreds of students at Boston University petitioned him to challenge a 19th-century Massachusetts law that prohibited the provision of contraceptives to unmarried individuals. At the time of Baird’s challenge to the law, unmarried people were able to buy condoms, since they could be sold on the grounds that they prevented sexually transmitted diseases, but other contraceptives were prohibited.
Baird responded to the petition by committing a prearranged violation of the law on April 6, 1967. At a lecture he gave that day, Baird handed a condom and a package of contraceptive foam to an unmarried 19-year-old woman. Baird was promptly arrested and given a prison sentence. His appeal launched a court battle that took him to the Massachusetts Superior Court and later to the Supreme Court.
Eisenstadt v. Baird established that all people, on the grounds of their right to privacy, should be free from government interference in their reproductive decisions, regardless of whether they are married or unmarried. The significance of the decision was apparent a year later when it was quoted six times in the Roe v. Wade judgment, the landmark decision that legalized abortion in the United States. Baird’s was a remarkable victory for the precedent it set, but Baird wasn’t finished. Baird returned to the Supreme Court for two more legal challenges, in 1976 and 1979, both against restrictions on the reproductive rights of minors.
In a span of less than a decade, Baird’s three Supreme Court cases and Roe v. Wade established many of the reproductive freedoms we have now. We’re fortunate that those freedoms were established in so short a time, but many will doubtless find it sobering, and perhaps surprising, that at least one of them, the right of unmarried people to obtain contraceptives, was established so recently.