The Birth Control Case That Infuriated the Religious Right March 4, 2014

The Birth Control Case That Infuriated the Religious Right

After more than 25 years working at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Rob Boston knows a thing or two about the Religious Right, their motivations and tactics, and what the future appears to have in store for them. His latest book gets to the heart of the religious freedom we’re guaranteed in the Constitution and how conservatives have tried to eliminate them in a variety of areas. It’s called Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do (Prometheus Books, 2014):

In the excerpt below, Boston discusses a historic Supreme Court case involving birth control:

To understand where we are now, we must know where we have been. The ability to access safe, reliable forms of birth control didn’t just appear one day. It was a hard-fought right. There are some today who still believe it was a mistake; they’d love nothing better than to drag our country back to a less-free time, a time when powerful, conservative, religious interests had an inordinate amount of control over all of us.

Prior to the invention of the birth-control pill, devices intended to prevent pregnancy were limited and their effectiveness was spotty — but they did exist. Condoms, for example, have been used as far back as ancient times, often made of animal bladders. The invention of the vulcanization of rubber by Charles Goodyear in 1844 led to the creation of rubber condoms, which, although thick and somewhat brittle, were effective if properly used. Latex condoms, which were increasingly common by 1920, were another step forward.

Women had access to various devices to block access to the cervix, and foams and spermicides were also available. Even in ancient times, women knew that some plants could be used as contraceptives, among them, Queen Anne’s lace and silphium, a plant that is now extinct probably due to overuse. (In addition, nineteenth-century quacks often marketed preparations that they claimed served as contraceptives. They didn’t work, but their existence indicates that the demand was there.)

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church lobbied to restrict access to all contraceptive devices and medications. Many Protestant leaders did as well. Most Protestant denominations would later drop their opposition to birth control. The Catholic hierarchy never did.

It’s important to understand that church officials sought to ban birth control even for married couples and non-Catholics and that this continued until the 1960s. In addition, the laws that church officials pushed to pass didn’t just outlaw birth control, they also forbade information about birth control. Well into the twentieth century, in some states, a married couple could ask a doctor for advice about how best to limit the size of their family and be told that he could not legally distribute such information. Laws like this were common throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century in New England states, which had a strong Catholic tradition.

Naturally, many people chafed at these restrictive provisions. In Connecticut, the laws were enforced only sporadically, but the existence of them on the books rankled many advocates of birth control; these advocates decided to test the law.

In 1961, a birth-control advocate named Estelle Griswold joined forces with Charles Lee Buxton, a doctor and the chair of the Department of Obstetrics at Yale Medical School, to open a clinic in New Haven that, among other things, offered advice and counseling about contraceptives. No actual birth-control devices were distributed at the clinic, but the state’s Catholic leaders still perceived it as a threat and demanded it be shut down. State officials promptly raided the facility and arrested Griswold and Buxton.

Of course, that was just what the two wanted. Griswold and Buxton challenged the state’s action in court. Their case went all the way to the US Supreme Court. In 1965, the high court handed down a landmark ruling, striking down Connecticut’s anti-birth control law in the case Griswold v. Connecticut.

“Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives?” asked Justice William O. Douglas for the seven-member high-court majority. “The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship. We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights.”

Although it’s not as well known as some of the Supreme Court’s other notable decisions, Griswold is an extremely important ruling. In the decision, the high court made note of the existence of a zone of privacy that governs human sexual behavior. It is not within the power of government, the court ruled, to invade this zone and meddle in our most intimate and private affairs.

This principle seems utterly noncontroversial to most Americans today — but that’s only because so many people grew up or came of age in the post-Griswold world. To most people, the right to determine the size of your family (or if you want to have one at all) and the ability to control your own sex life is a given. These ideas are, in part, the fruits of Griswold, and they make perfect sense to most Americans today. To the religious Right, they are an abomination.

Part of this is due to the long-running aversion religious fundamentalists have to any sexual activity that does not result in procreation. But there’s more to the story.

Fundamentalist religions tend to be patriarchal. They look on any innovation or societal change that results in greater autonomy and decision making for women with great suspicion. It is difficult to think of an invention that resulted in greater autonomy for women than the birth-control pill.

So ubiquitous it is now known simply as “the pill,” oral contraceptive medication has been called one of the most significant inventions of the twentieth century. It’s hard to argue with that. Prior to the invention of the pill—an affordable, safe, and effective form of birth control — women were often at the mercy of regular cycles of childbearing and child rearing.

Anyone who reads even casually in history knows how this played out. Fertile women often endured sequential pregnancies, with their lives defined by this experience. (In an age before effective medicine, most families endured the death of at least one child, sometimes several.) Such a system made women economically dependent on men.

By giving women and their partners the power to space births apart and to plan children, the pill offered a form of emancipation. Large families were still an option for those who wanted them, but for those who did not, a new world of options was suddenly open.

The pill put decision making in the hands of women in another important way: it was an effective contraceptive aimed squarely at them. No longer did a woman have to rely on a man and hope he would make the decision to use some form of birth control, such as agree to wear a condom. She had the power in the palm of her hand (often literally).

It is difficult to underestimate the scope of this development and the threat it posed to religious conservatives. For centuries, conservative religious interests had used reproduction to control women and accord them second-class status in society. Suddenly that power was stripped away. A backlash was inevitable.

Worse yet, from the perspective of the religious Right, the Supreme Court began expanding the rights outlined in Griswold. In 1972, the court extended the Griswold ruling to unmarried couples, encompassing them in the zone of privacy outlined in that decision. In another crushing blow to the right wing, the high court held that what consenting adults do concerning reproduction was simply no business of the state or large religious lobbies.

Griswold’s zone of privacy would return to haunt the religious Right again. It was cited in 1973’s Roe v. Wade, which struck down state antiabortion laws, and in Lawrence v. Texas, a 2003 decision that invalidated laws banning homosexual acts between consenting adults.

With a track record like this, it’s easy to see why the religious Right despises Griswold. In its view, the Griswold decision ushered in numerous evils: it chiefly liberated women, it gave sexual license, and it allowed for gay liberation.

But Griswold, from the perspective of members of the religious Right, stands for much more. It is, in many ways, a rebuke of their vision of America. The religious Right’s America is an America where women know their place, gays remain invisible, and sex outside of marriage doesn’t happen.

Griswold upset this tidy applecart. Of course, Griswold didn’t result in or force a change in societal attitudes. It would be easy to argue that Griswold reflected changing attitudes and didn’t drive them. The point is, the attitudes began to change, and Griswold, by codifying these changes in the law, greatly pushed things along. The America that the religious Right had assumed would endure forever — the America that, for so long, granted religious conservatives the right to tell others what to do — wasn’t just challenged, it was turned on its head.

Taking Liberties is available today in bookstores and on Amazon.

If you’d like to win a copy of the book, just leave a comment below explaining how you’ve fought back against the Religious Right. Use the hashtag #ReligiousWrong to be entered (US and Canada citizens only, please).

(Excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher.)

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