While birth control is much more accessible now than it was about a half-century ago, when contraceptives were used but not publicly discussed, it remains a volatile issue in the United States and is difficult to access in some states. This section discusses laws that enable and restrict access to birth control; an historical overview of birth control laws in the U.S., particularly the landmark 1965 U.S. Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut; a primer on relevant laws since the court established legal access to contraceptives; and other topics related to birth control laws.
Background and History
Birth control is an ancient practice and evidence exists that even primitive peoples took medicines to prevent conception or reduce fertility. In the United States birth control first became a political and legal issue in the 1800s. At that time the birth rates for average white women dropped significantly, in part due to the increase in scientific information about conception, which led to the development of more effective birth control and broader access to contraception. Concerns about a decrease in Caucasian reproduction as well as moral and religious beliefs, which held information about birth control to be obscene, led to legislation limiting and sometimes banning birth control and abortion. This culminated in the Comstock Act laws, which made it illegal to send obscene materials through the mail. The Act’s definition of obscenity included birth control devices
In the early 1900s a public health nurse named Margaret Sanger started the modern birth control movement by writing articles and establishing the country’s first birth control clinic. In the latter half of the century birth control pills and IUD devices were developed. The Supreme Court’s Griswold v. Connecticut struck down state laws prohibiting birth control use by married couples.
In subsequent decades federal funding for family planning services, availability of birth control for those on Medicaid, and inclusion of birth control in insurance programs were legislated. However, some opponents were successful in the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court, which found that a corporation may object to providing birth control where it violates the corporation’s religious beliefs.
Griswold v. Connecticut
The Supreme Court’s decision in Griswold v. Connecticut was an important victory for those seeking reproductive rights. A doctor and the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut were arrested and fined $100 for giving contraception advice to married couples, which was forbidden under Connecticut state law. The pair sued the state of Connecticut in response and the Supreme Court found that the state law against contraceptives violated the “zone of privacy” implied in the Constitution. They employed a “penumbra” theory to show that although no right or amendment directly protects contraception their interpretation establishes the right to privacy, including the right to “marital privacy.”
Dissenters disagreed with a far-reaching interpretation of a constitutional right-to-privacy, but agreed that the law at issue was outdated, unenforceable, and downright silly. Although the decision was limited to contraception and married couples; the principals it established form the foundation of most subsequent litigation on reproductive rights.