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Griswold v. Connecticut and the Right to Contraceptives

An important case in the quest for the right to reproductive contraceptives, Griswold v. Connecticut established a constitutional right to marital privacy involving the use of contraceptives -- essentially setting the stage for what would later become the main argument in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade. This article discusses the landmark reproductive rights case and its material impact on such laws.

What Happened in Griswold v. Connecticut?

In 1965, Estelle Griswold, executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and Dr. C. Lee Buxton, a physician and professor at Yale, were arrested and fined $100 for giving contraception advice to married couples.

At the time, a Connecticut law prohibited the use of "any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception" and punished anyone who "assists, abets, counsels, causes, hires or commands another" to do so (in other words, it wasn't a crime to sell birth control devices, but it was a crime to use birth control or any drug or medical instrument for the purposes of preventing conception).

Griswold and Buxton sued the State of Connecticut claiming the law violated their constitutional rights. The issue at stake was whether a married couple had a constitutional "right of privacy" to be counseled in the use of contraceptives.

Supreme Court's Ruling

In a 7-2 decision written by Justice William Douglas, the Court decided that the state law against contraceptives violated a "zone of privacy" that was inherent in the Constitution. Notably, the Court found constitutional protection emitting from "penumbras" or shadows within several amendments to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The "Penumbra" Theory

Although the Constitutional does not explicitly describe a general right to privacy, the Court found a couple's right to contraceptives stems from a "penumbra", or zone, emitting from the Bill of Rights and the First, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, the Court further stated that the Due Process Clause protects liberties that are "so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental."

Under this "penumbra" theory -- which in legal terms refers to implied powers of the federal government -- the Court discussed the various "zones of privacy" which, in this case, referred to "marital privacy" between a man and a woman.

The two lone dissenters (Justice Black and Justice Stewart) disagreed with the far-stretched constitutional right to privacy, yet instead found the law to be outdated, unenforceable, and down-right silly. For example, they asked "Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives?"

The Right to Contraceptives Since Griswold

Since Griswold in 1965 and the attempts to outlaw married couples from using birth control the right to contraceptives has been expanded and further defined by the court. In Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) the court found that unmarried couples have the same right to birth control as married couples. The court further expanded access to birth control to persons under the age of 16 in Carey v. Population Services, Int’l (1977), because not to do so would discriminate against married females between the ages of 14 to 16.

More recently, the Supreme Court has placed some restrictions on the right to contraceptives with its decision in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (2014). In that case, the Court held that a for profit corporation could refuse to provide insurance coverage for birth control to its employees based on the corporation's religious beliefs. While this decision limits access to birth control, there is nothing in the decision that removes anyone's right to contraceptives. The decision was also limited to closely held corporations that refuse to provide health insurance for contraceptives based on claims of religious beliefs.

The overall reasoning in Griswold v. Connecticut regarding the constitutional right to privacy has become the leading argument in several other Supreme Court cases involving the right to privacy. While right to privacy and reproductive right cases continue to undergo political and legislative scrutiny, Griswold v. Connecticut has the potential to influence other modern issues concerning a person's family life, such as same-sex marriage, in-vitro fertilization, and abortion procedures.

Talk to an Attorney to Learn More About Your Reproductive Rights

The Griswold case was a turning point in American law for a range of family law issues, from access to contraception to marital rights for same sex spouses. However, as evidenced by the Supreme Court's ruling legalizing same sex marriage in 2015, many of these marital privacy issues are still contested before the Supreme Court. If you have a legal issue related to reproductive rights or marital privacy rights, you can learn more about the law and your rights by speaking with a family law attorney in your area.

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