The U.S. Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut struck down a law that prohibited birth control. The Supreme Court found that the law violated the right to marital privacy. This 1965 case is important to feminism because it emphasizes privacy, control over one’s personal life and freedom from government intrusion in relationships. Griswold v. Connecticut helped pave the way for Roe v. Wade.
The anti-birth control statute in Connecticut dated from the late 1800s and was rarely enforced. Doctors had tried challenging the law more than once. None of those cases made it to the Supreme Court, usually for procedural reasons, but in 1965 the Supreme Court decided Griswold v. Connecticut, which helped define the right to privacy under the Constitution.
Connecticut was not the only state with laws against birth control. The issue was important to women across the nation. Margaret Sanger, who had worked tirelessly throughout her life to educate women and advocate birth control, died in 1966, the year after Griswold v. Connecticut was decided.
Estelle Griswold was the executive director of Planned Parenthood of Connecticut. She opened a birth control clinic in New Haven, Connecticut with Dr. C. Lee Buxton, a licensed physician and professor at Yale’s medical school. They operated the clinic from November 1, 1961 until they were arrested on November 10, 1961.
Connecticut law prohibited the use of birth control:
“Any person who uses any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception shall be fined not less than fifty dollars or imprisoned not less than sixty days nor more than one year or be both fined and imprisoned.” (General Statutes of Connecticut, Section 53-32, 1958 rev.)
It punished those who provided birth control as well:
"Any person who assists, abets, counsels, causes, hires or commands another to commit any offense may be prosecuted and punished as if he were the principal offender." (Section 54-196)
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas authored the Griswold v. Connecticut opinion. He emphasized right away that this Connecticut statute prohibited the use of birth control between married persons. Therefore, the law dealt with a relationship “within the zone of privacy” guaranteed by Constitutional freedoms. The law did not just regulate the manufacture or sale of contraceptives, but actually prohibited their use. This was unnecessarily broad and destructive, and therefore a violation of the Constitution.
“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 to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship.” (Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 485-486).
In Griswold v. Connecticut, Justice Douglas famously wrote about “penumbras” of the rights of privacy guaranteed under the Constitution. “Specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras,” he wrote, “formed by emanations from those guarantees that give them life and substance.” (Griswold, 484) For example, the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press must guarantee not just the right to utter or print something, but also the right to distribute it and to read it. The penumbra of delivering or subscribing to a newspaper would emanate from the right to freedom of the press that protects the writing and printing of the newspaper, or else printing it would be meaningless.
Justice Douglas and Griswold v. Connecticut are often called “judicial activism” for their interpretation of penumbras that go beyond what is literally written word for word in the Constitution. However, Griswold clearly cites the parallels of previous Supreme Court cases that found freedom of association and the right to educate children in the Constitution, even though they were not spelled out in the Bill of Rights.
Legacy of Griswold
Griswold v Connecticut is seen as paving the way for Eisenstadt v. Baird, which extended the privacy protection around contraception to unmarried people, and Roe v. Wade, which struck down many restrictions on abortion.