March 22, 2024

Abortion, Birth Control, Reproductive Health

Eisenstadt v. Baird gave the legal right to contraception to everyone. But 52 years later, we still have to work to ensure everyone has the human right to bodily autonomy and the resources and freedom to control their sexual and reproductive lives.

Today marks a critical anniversary in the long fight for reproductive rights: the landmark Eisenstadt v. Baird Supreme Court decision of 1972 that gave the legal right to obtain and use contraception to everyone in the United States––a right that was previously recognized solely for married, heterosexual couples.

The tide began to turn in April of 1967 when lecturer William Baird visited Boston University to teach college students about birth control and available contraception. Following the lecture, he provided a young woman with a condom and Emko Vaginal Foam and was immediately arrested. While his arrest and ultimate conviction might sound shocking to us today, Baird anticipated this response. Massachusetts, like many other states at the time, prohibited the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried individuals, effectively denying many people––young women in particular––the agency to make decisions about their reproductive health. Baird’s lecture was not only a protest of such laws (in this case, the Massachusetts Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency, and Good Order) but a moment of empowerment. 

“I said, ‘Who should make a decision about your rights, your sexual freedom?’” Baird recalled in a conversation at Boston University in 2022. “‘Should it be your parents? Should it be the government? Should it be the church?’ And they all said, ‘Us.'” 

Baird and other prominent groups at the time, including the ACLU, were initially reluctant to take the case to the Supreme Court. Instead, petitioning Boston University students led the charge, their determination resulting in a 6-to-1 decision invalidating the Massachusetts law. Calling upon the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, the Supreme Court decided that there was no rational basis for the law’s distinction between single and married individuals, enshrining equal access to contraception for all.

We celebrate this decision as we celebrate Women’s History Month, not only for its impact on reproductive autonomy and women’s health but also as a reminder of the importance of education and accessibility in the fight for Reproductive Justice. Access to reproductive healthcare and family planning resources is intrinsically linked to education and accessibility––and while we’ve made much progress, barriers to access still exist today. 

Baird’s lecture series was a response to the harm he saw in low-income New York City communities as well as the lack of resources for young people of color. We still have work to do to ensure equitable access today. In fact, according to Power to Decide, “More than 19 million women of reproductive age living in the US are in need of publicly funded contraception and live in contraceptive deserts […] mean[ing] that they lack reasonable access in their county to a health center that offers the full range of contraceptive methods.” 

At Maine Family Planning, we aim to bridge these divides by ensuring all people have access to high-quality, culturally relevant, and affordable sexual and reproductive healthcare services. That’s one reason why it’s critical the State of Maine invests in family planning –– to ensure our health centers, particularly in underserved areas, can stay open longer and meet all Mainers’ needs, regardless of their ability to pay. 

As we continue to build a future where everyone has the human right to bodily autonomy and the resources and freedom to control their sexual and reproductive lives in safe and sustainable communities, we honor the tenacity and courage of those young people who were key to ensuring the legal right to contraceptive access.