Birth Control and the Law Basics

"Birth control" is a term that describes any method used to prevent a woman from getting pregnant. It's commonplace today, but in the 1800s, laws in the United States prohibited birth control. This was when "temperance" and anti-vice groups advocated for outlawing contraceptives.


Since then, views on birth control in the United States have, of course, changed. In the 1960s, the Supreme Court held that access to birth control was a fundamental right.

The following is an overview of women's reproductive rights and the laws related to birth control. This article explains some of the most important court cases shaping these laws and policies. Continue reading and using the resources below to learn more about reproductive rights and reproductive healthcare.

Women's Rights: Margaret Sanger and Beyond

The turn of the century brought increasing attention to women's rights issues. A strong birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger opened the country's first clinic for women's health care services in New York City in 1916. She was prosecuted for violating New York's version of the Comstock Act. It outlawed the distribution of information about birth control. She served a 30-day sentence in a workhouse. But she later established the National Committee for Federal Legislation for Birth Control.

Sanger proposed a federal bill that outlined the health and death risks to women who underwent illegal abortions. She also proposed a bill to increase awareness of the dangers of completed unwanted pregnancies. The bill sought to reverse the federal position prohibiting birth control. But pressure from religious groups, such as the Catholic Church, caused Congress not to pass Sanger's bill.

Sanger then sought to challenge the Comstock Act by sending contraception through the mail to a doctor. Her actions were prosecuted. But she achieved her goal when a federal district court deemed that the Comstock Act did not prohibit the mailing of contraceptives. That court decided this specifically about circumstances when such an act could save a life. It also decided that this applied when doing so promoted the health of a doctor's patients. Sanger continued leading a growing national movement advocating more information about birth control. She also continued working to universalize access to access to birth control. And in 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League.

Formation of Planned Parenthood

In 1942, the American Birth Control League became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. It still exists today. Planned Parenthood advocates for a range of safe, legal, and accessible contraceptive options. The organization is a target of anti-abortion advocates. But abortions represent a small percentage of their services.

In the 1950s, Sanger and Planned Parenthood supported the research efforts of Dr. Gregory Pincus. This led to the development of the birth control pill. The birth control pill revolutionized family planning. By the 1960s, popular opinion shifted to make contraception readily available. There was a move to make such information far more easily accessible.

Organizations like Planned Parenthood offer various family planning services. These include birth control and prenatal care for pregnant women. If you need help with a family planning issue, consider contacting Planned Parenthood for help.

Griswold v. Connecticut

By the 1950s and 1960s, most states had legalized birth control. But many state laws still prohibited disseminating information about contraception. Some states also still banned the possession of contraception, as well.

A 1965 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision further eroded these laws sanctioning birth control. In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court addressed the prosecution of a Planned Parenthood executive director. Police charged the director with violating a Connecticut state law. This law prohibited the distribution and possession of contraceptives. It also blocked the distribution and possession of any information about them.

The Court acknowledged that the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly offer a right to privacy. But it also found that the right to privacy is inferred from the language in various sections of the Bill of Rights. The Constitution does contain what the Court called a "zone of privacy."

Connecticut's statute violated that zone of privacy. The law allowed police officers to search the bedroom of a married couple for evidence of contraception. But the Court deemed this action to be overly intrusive and an unconstitutional violation of the right to marital privacy. As a result, the Supreme Court threw out the Connecticut law, but only as it applied to married couples.

Griswold established a constitutional right to privacy for married couples to use contraception. A later case established that the right to contraception also extended to single people.

The Evolution of Birth Control Laws

In 1966, the federal government began publicly funding contraception services for low-income families. And in 1971, Congress also repealed the key elements of the Comstock Act.

But some states kept birth control laws despite the repeal of the federal Comstock Act. In 1972, SCOTUS overturned a Massachusetts law related to reproductive health. The law in question only permitted married couples to receive contraception. The Court held that this law violated the equal protection rights of single persons.

In 1977, the Supreme Court addressed a New York state law that permitted only physicians to distribute contraceptives to minors. Under this law, minors were identified as under 16. The law also required that only physicians or pharmacists distribute contraceptives to adults.

The Supreme Court struck down this law as well. In doing so, the Court established constitutional protections for individuals' rights to contraception, even if they were unmarried. The court indicated that a person has a right to privacy, which entails personal decisions about whether to have children.

Emergency Contraception

Known as “Plan B," levonorgestrel is a form of emergency contraception. Within 72 hours of unprotected sex, it is successful in preventing pregnancies. It is one of many commonly used contraceptive methods and part of many reproductive health services.

To learn more about “Plan B," visit the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) page. Having a health insurance plan to get emergency contraception isn't necessary. You also do not need a prescription to get it. But you can get emergency contraception from a health care provider.

In some states, you may need parental consent to get “Plan B" if you're under the age of majority. It's important to review the laws of your state to learn what the age requirements are wherever you live.

Access to Birth Control and Employer-Sponsored Insurance

The Affordable Care Act became law in 2010. It had important ramifications for reproductive care. Among other things, it required employers to include birth control in the health care coverage for employees. But some employers objected to covering contraceptives in their employees' insurance plans. They argued that such coverage violated their religious beliefs.

A case by the craft supply company Hobby Lobby made its way to the Supreme Court. In 2014, the Court held that Hobby Lobby's owners' "deeply held religious beliefs" meant it could opt out of contraception coverage. Thus, it ruled the same for other employers. The court indicated that employers could deny such coverage. SCOTUS's decision cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act 1993 (RFRA).

The Overturning of Roe v. Wade

In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. In Dobbs, SCOTUS claimed that the U.S. Constitution never provided federal protections for abortion access. But the Supreme Court did not universally ban abortion. It is now just a matter that each state can decide for itself.

As abortion laws can vary dramatically from one state to the next, it's important to check the laws of your state to know how and when you can get an abortion. Whatever the case, you can still get birth control methods in every state, and Dobbs did not affect contraception. State legislatures merely have greater power in regulating access to abortion.

Other Resources

  • The Hyde Amendment: This federal law prevents using public funds to get an abortion. This includes the use of Medicaid for abortions. If you rely on Medicaid for health insurance, consider contacting Planned Parenthood or a similar organization. These organizations provide care to patients regardless of insurance coverage. They often provide services on a sliding scale for qualifying individuals.
  • Center for Reproductive Rights: This public health organization is one of the leading reproductive rights groups globally. It deals with issues of universalizing access to reproductive health care. It offers a variety of resources, legal and otherwise, that serve this goal.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) page on birth control: For reliable and up-to-date health information, visit the CDC's page on birth control. To learn more about medication abortions, review the CDC's material on this subject.

Note: Birth control can prevent pregnancy. But remember that birth control won't stop the transmission of many sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like HIV/AIDs.

Questions About Birth Control and the Law? Get Help From an Attorney

If you live in a state with controversial birth control laws, you'll likely want to get legal advice. Understanding your rights under the law is important, especially if you're concerned about family planning. Start the process today by speaking with an experienced family law attorney in your area.

Reproductive freedom is a hot-button issue these days. As such, it has become even more confusing and hard to navigate independently. If you're facing a legal issue related to reproductive freedom or sexual health, contacting an attorney's always a good idea.

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