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Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

Case

In 1879, a Connecticut law banned the use of contraceptives and established punishment for anyone who assisted in providing contraception. The law became more heavily enforced as the government tried to restore Protestant morality - many religious leaders opposed abortion and birth control. If someone was found guilty of violating the Connecticut law, they could pay a fine or serve up to a year in prison. 

Connecticut and Massachusetts were the only states that banned all birth control use. These restrictions on birth control were opposed by Planned Parenthood, a reproductive freedom organization led by white middle-class women. Estelle Griswold, the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Connecticut, provided medical advice and prescribed contraceptives for married women. Griswold knew she was acting in violation of Connecticut law and purposefully wanted to challenge the law’s constitutionality since she felt it turned women and their doctors into criminals. While her clinic was only open for ten days during 1961, she was arrested for aiding and abetting contraceptive use. She was found guilty by the trial court and fined one hundred dollars which is equivalent to $797.56 in 2018. 

Griswold appealed and was represented by Catherine Roraback, a Civil Rights attorney who argued that the law was in violation of substantive due process and equal protection provided under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment holds that the state may not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny any person the equal protection of the laws.” Since laws against contraception have historically inhibited healthcare access for poorer women more so than rich women, Roraback thought equal protection was core to her argument. The state of Connecticut defended the ban stating that it discouraged illicit sexual relations and reinforced the idea that the purpose of sex was to procreate. The case was meant to determine the constitutionality of birth control. When Griswold v. Connecticut reached the Supreme Court in 1965, more than one million American women were taking some kind of birth control pill.

Decision

In a 7-2 plurality decision, the Court ruled that the Connecticut law violated the right to privacy by forbidding married people from using birth control. Justice William O. Douglas decided to use privacy framing instead of economic liberty framing. The Justice found the right to privacy in the Constitution taken as a whole. He noted that the right to privacy could be found in the First Amendment, the Third Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, and the Ninth Amendment. Douglas was specific in mentioning the issue of marriage and noted that under this law, police could search the marital bedroom for contraceptives, which he found ridiculous.

However, there was disagreement over where the right to privacy could be found in the Constitution. Justice Arthur Goldberg found the right to privacy solely in the Ninth Amendment and the incorporation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Goldberg noted that the Ninth Amendment shows that the government cannot infringe on rights that are not explicitly listed but are nonetheless fundamental. 

Justice Harlan wrote a concurrence arguing that the right was found under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Harlan wrote that a state trying to push their moral judgment on a marital relationship was wrong. However, he made the distinction between a marriage between a husband and a wife, which should be “fostered and protected,” and actions like adultery and homosexuality, which the State can outright “forbid.” The Court agreed that the right to privacy was fundamental, but they could not decide where in the Constitution it resides. 

Dissent 

Justice Hugo Black seized upon this uncertainty in his dissent. He argued that there is no constitutional provision for the right to privacy. Black wrote that while “I like my privacy as well as the next one,” the government can invade it. Justice Potter Stewart wrote that while he thought the Connecticut law was “uncommonly silly,” it is not the Court’s job to determine if it is wise or not. Stewart was unable to say that the law violated the Constitution. 

Impact

Griswold v. Connecticut established a constitutional right to privacy. It laid the foundation for the right to privacy to be later used in Roe v. Wade (1973), which protected a woman’s right to an abortion in consultation with her doctor. The right to privacy was also cited in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which extended the constitutional right to engage in same-sex relations. 

The case also served as a cornerstone for reproductive freedom. However, Griswold only established the constitutionality of married couples' access to contraception. Eisenstadt v. Baird struck down laws banning contraception for unmarried individuals in 1972, giving them the same rights as married individuals. Birth control and contraceptives have become commonplace. As of April 2020, sixty percent of women who are at the age of reproduction use contraceptives.

Think Further

  1. Why do you think the Court made a distinction between married and unmarried couples regarding contraceptive use? What is the difference? 
  2. Where do you think the right to privacy lies in the Constitution, if anywhere? 
  3. Justice Harlan specifically differentiated between married heterosexual relationships and homosexual relations. Do you think he could have envisioned that the Court’s decision would serve as a precedent for the Court to uphold homosexual relations thirty-eight years later in Lawrence v. Texas

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  1. Gillman, Howard. American Constitutionalism, Second Edition. Volume II Rights and Liberties. [Virtual Source Bookshelf]. 
  2. Stacey, Dawn. “How Griswold v. Connecticut Led to Legal Contraception.” very well health, 1 July 2020. https://www.verywellhealth.com/griswold-v-connecticut-1965-906887. 
  3. “Privacy” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/privacy. 
  4. “Contraceptive Use in the United States.” Guttmacher Institute, April 2020. https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/contraceptive-use-united-states.