When used properly, birth control can prevent STDs. Barrier methods block sperm from entering the uterus, hormonal medications and devices change hormone levels, and sterilization can permanently stop pregnancy.
Women’s rights activists like Estelle Griswold and Margaret Sanger worked tirelessly to make birth control legal for married couples. But single women didn’t get their own rights until 1972, with the Supreme Court decision Eisenstadt v. Baird.
The Comstock Act
The federal law, first passed in 1873, named after Anthony Comstock, a Postmaster General who was known as an anti-vice crusader, banned the circulation of information about birth control, abortion, and other sexual practices that could harm a woman’s health. Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood, was the first to fight back against these laws, which led her to open America’s first birth control clinic in 1916. She was prosecuted under the Comstock Act and served 30 days in a workhouse for violating state laws, but she continued to campaign for legal change.
With the drop in fertility that accompanied the first sexual revolution and then the Baby Boom of the 1960s, there was more pressure on Congress to repeal the Comstock Act and allow married couples access to birth control. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that it was unconstitutional to prohibit the use of birth control by married couples.
It took a few more years for the Food and Drug Administration to approve hormonal birth control methods, but once it did, it became widely available and began to transform women’s lives. The same justices that ruled in Griswold extended their opinion to single people in the 1972 case Eisenstadt v. Baird. That ruling, like the one in Griswold, also relied on equal protection under the constitution.
Griswold v. Connecticut
A year after the Pill hit American pharmacies, two birth control advocates led an act of civil disobedience against Connecticut’s state law. Estelle Griswold, executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and C. Lee Buxton, head of obstetrics at Yale’s medical school, opened a clinic in New Haven and offered married couples counseling, exams and birth control prescriptions — all in violation of state law. They were arrested, prosecuted and fined $100 apiece for their refusal to comply with the Comstock Act.
The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices ruled in Griswold’s favor by a 7-2 vote. The decision declared that the federal Constitution protects married couples’ right to privacy when it comes to contraception, and set a precedent for future Supreme Court decisions.
In the years after Griswold, other states gradually eased their obscenity laws and contraception restrictions. But it took another 30 years before the Griswold ruling was fully put into effect. By the time the Griswold decision was issued, more than a million Americans were already using birth control. In some ways, this was due to the fact that more and more African American women were becoming educated, and they feared that large families could push them into poverty. In the South, many whites also favored access to birth control because they worried that their descendants would be a minority in their region.
Eisenstadt v. Baird
In the early 1900s, Margaret Sanger, a passionate advocate for birth control, challenged the Comstock laws by opening the first birth control clinic in New York City. She was convicted and served a 30-day prison sentence, but her efforts led to a national movement for federal legislation to allow the use of contraceptives for single people.
In 1965, the Supreme Court decided to further erode the Comstock laws in its landmark decision of Griswold v. Connecticut. But by the time that decision was released, the Pill had already made it possible for women to control if, when and how they would become pregnant.
The Massachusetts law in question, passed in 1867, made it a felony to distribute “any drug, medicine, instrument or article for the prevention of conception.” William Baird was arrested under this law when he gave away a container of Emko vaginal foam at the conclusion of his lecture on birth control and overpopulation at Boston University.
Justice Brennan wrote the majority opinion, and his opinion held that Massachusetts violated the First Amendment by restricting the distribution of contraceptives to registered physicians or pharmacists. Justice White and Justice Blackmun did not join Brennan’s decision, but they did agree with the conclusion that the law infringed on the right to privacy established in Griswold and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Before the 1960s, “American women were extremely constrained in their ability to delay, space, or prevent pregnancies,” says Megan Kavanaugh, a principal research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute. Women often faced stigma and a lack of effective contraception options.
In 1873, the US Congress passed the Comstock Act, which classified birth control methods as obscene and made selling or sharing contraceptives illegal. It also banned the shipment of such materials through the mail, and many states adopted their own laws.
Despite the legal obstacles, activists pushed for increased access to birth control. Margaret Sanger, a New York nurse and birth control advocate, challenged the Comstock law by opening her first birth control clinic in 1916. She was arrested eight times for her efforts and spent 30 days in jail before the US Supreme Court overturned the state criminal laws.
Sanger’s advocacy led to the founding of the American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Today, the organization advocates for a wide range of safe and legal contraceptive methods—although abortions still make up just a small percentage of its services.
The advent of the pill and other hormonal contraceptives radically changed women’s lives. Despite these advances, the fight for birth control is far from over. A recent survey found that more than a third of women who experienced unintended pregnancy did not have access to affordable or effective birth control. And state lawmakers are considering bills that would weaken decades-old laws that ensure equitable insurance coverage for contraception, including the pill.