A woman's world
How politics and medical advances in birth control have changed the nation
By Kimberly Rivers 08/29/2013
Quick, what was at issue in the 1965 U.S. Supreme Court case of Griswold v. Connecticut? It was decided on June 7 in 1965. Need a hint? It had to do with privacy. Need another hint?
“Most Americans born in the 1970s and later have no idea how much Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade have impacted their abilities to plan their reproductive choices,” said Adina Nack, Ph.D., professor of sociology at California Lutheran University and senior research fellow for the Council on Contemporary Families. “The Griswold and Roe cases affect everyone who wants the U.S. public to have access to contraception and to abortion.”
In case you need another hint, here is an excerpt from the opening oral arguments in 1965 in the case before the U.S. Supreme Court:
“Any person who uses any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing contraception is guilty of a crime,” said attorney Thomas I. Emerson in 1965, reading directly from one of the Connecticut statutes that prohibited contraception. The 1879 law also stated, “Any person who assists, counsels, causes, hires or commands another to commit any offence may be prosecuted and punished as if he were the principal offender.”
Estella Griswold, executive director of Planned Parenthood in Connecticut, and C. Lee Buxton, M.D., were arrested and later found guilty “as accessories to providing illegal contraception.” They were each fined $100. They could have walked away with that and been done. But they appealed, arguing that the law violated the U.S. Constitution. The state court upheld their conviction and they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court found — by a vote of 7-2 — in favor of Griswold and Buxton and went on to establish the right to privacy. Justice William O. Douglas, writing the majority opinion, found that the “spirit” of the First, Third, Fifth and Ninth Amendments, which were all applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment (requires states to provide due process and equal protection under the law to all inhabitants) together created “a general right to privacy that cannot be unduly infringed.”
In ancient Egypt, women turned to nature to help prevent pregnancy. They found that a “suppository” made up of cotton, dates, honey and acacia let a woman determine when she would conceive.
Margaret Sanger not only founded the American Birth Control League in Brooklyn (which would later become Planned Parenthood), but in 1951 she met Gregory Pincus, an endocrinologist who was a bit infamous for creating a rabbit in a test tube. Sanger pestered Pincus to focus on a pill to prevent pregnancy. That same year, through synthesizing hormones from Mexican yams, a chemist named Carl Djerassi had invented the birth control pill. Yes, from yams. Unfortunately for Djerassi, others would have the means — which he lacked — to test and distribute their findings.
The next year, Pincus and another chemist, Frank Colton, each independently produce synthetic progesterone.
But getting medicine to market takes more than initial success in the lab. Money is needed, and the same as today, it takes a lot of it. Enter Katherine McCormick, heiress to the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company fortune and a biologist with a background in women’s rights activism. She provided the necessary funds for research. In 1954, with $40,000 from McCormick, Pincus and gynecologist Frank Rock began the first tests. Following success with 50 women in Massachusetts, a large scale clinical trial began in Puerto Rico, a nation without birth control laws. The trials showed 100 percent success.
The FDA OK’d the pill’s use only for severe menstrual disorders in 1957. It would take another three years to be approved for use as a contraceptive in 1960.
By 1965, after only five years of FDA approval, 6.5 million women in America were on the pill. This first pill was a high dose, and it was not without problems. In 1988, the original pill was replaced by newer pills with lower doses and decreased side effects.
“In the 1960s, FDA approval and increased access to oral contraceptives were significant medical breakthroughs that empowered women to plan their reproductive choices in ways that allowed them greater flexibility to achieve educational goals and pursue careers,” said Nack.
Today we have pills, sponges, condoms, diaphragms, injections, patches and other devices to be used the morning after, every day, as needed, once every three months or every seven years. Legal access to contraception and access to legal abortions combine to let families of all economic levels decide whether and when to have a baby. It would seem that access to safe and effective family planning options, including contraception, would be a no-brainer — especially given that 99 percent of Americans will use contraceptives in their lifetime. So why is it such a hot topic in our political contests?
“Contraception is only controversial in politics,” writes Clare Coleman, president and CEO of the National Family Planning and Reproduction Health Association, in a commentary article dated June 3, “Contraception for All: The Promise of the Griswold Decision Is on the Verge of Fulfillment” on the site RH Reality Check. “The fact is that people of every background and religious affiliation experience the public health and socioeconomic benefits of contraception.”
A 2013 study by the Guttmacher Institute called “The Social and Economic Benefits of Women’s Ability to Determine Whether and When To Have Children” reports that when women have legal access to contraception they are more likely to get a “postsecondary education” and resulting employment. They will have “increased earning power” and longer-lasting marriages because “unplanned births are tied to increased conflict and decreased satisfaction in relationships and with elevated odds that a relationship will fail.” In preventing teen pregnancy, access to legal contraception supports a “young woman’s ability to graduate from high school and to enroll in and graduate from college.” Researchers with the study found that some women continue to lack access and that better implementation of “programs and policies that advance contraceptive access [will] help all women achieve their life goals if and when they decide to become mothers.”
Steven D. Levitt, economist and co-author of Freakonomics
Some benefits of legal contraception and abortion may be more dubious. In the 2005 book “Freakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, a link is made between legal abortion and a decline in crime. The book tells how, in 1995, reports forecast a gloomy picture of the coming decade; murder rates were expected to skyrocket. But then, when that didn’t happen and, in fact, crime dropped, a flourishing economy, better policing and low unemployment were said to be the reasons. Levitt and Dubner point out that another contributing factor was the legalization of abortion that had happened 20 years earlier. They wrote, “Decades of studies have shown that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal,” and, “Because of Roe v. Wade, these children were not being born.” They go on to say, “It wasn’t gun control or a strong economy or new police strategies that finally blunted the American crime wave. It was, among other factors, the reality that the pool of potential criminals had dramatically shrunk.” They finally conclude, after analyzing the varying views of abortion, “When the government gives a woman the opportunity to make her own decision about abortion, she generally does a good job of figuring out if she is in the position to raise the baby well.” (Levitt, Dubner. Freakonomics, New York, HarperCollins 2005.)
Forty-eight years after the Griswold decision and 40 years since Roe v. Wade women, girls, boys, men and families benefit from the policies these court decisions paved the way for. But even with the strong message sent by voters in the previous election that politicians should not target policies or programs related to access to family planning, some states have taken alarming steps toward limiting established access.
“Given recent events, Americans should be very concerned about access to family planning resources,” said Nack. “There have been several states trying to pass more restrictive abortion laws in recent months.” She pointed out that in Texas, lawmakers approved a bill that “bans abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, requires doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and limits abortions to surgical centers.”
On June 18, the National Women’s Law Center reported that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett “signed into law a ban on insurance companies’ coverage of abortion.” The law applies to the “new insurance marketplace” under the Affordable Care Act. The law will make it impossible for women in that state to get insurance coverage on the exchange that would include abortion, “even women whose health may be seriously at risk because of pregnancy.” Pennsylvania is not alone. Twenty states now have laws on the books that do not allow “coverage of abortion in state exchanges,” and six of those states ban abortion coverage in any plan.
Where does this aversion to family planning in our nation come from?
Adina Nack, Ph.D., professor of sociology at California Lutheran University
“Social and behavioral scientists have done a lot of research showing the people’s attitudes do not always match their behaviors,” said Nack. “Due to the stigma surrounding birth control, sometimes coming from religious doctrine, some women might say that they do not support access to birth control, but then in private seek out and [use it themselves].”
It seems contradictory that opponents of legal abortion would not want to support access to contraception and appropriate education to help prevent the unwanted pregnancies that lead to the need for abortions.
“It is hard to imagine that we will ever see a true reconciliation of the opposing sides on the abortion debate,” said Nack. “I am optimistic that we will continue to see a growing majority of Americans in favor of increasing access to safe, affordable contraception. However, in the absence of age-appropriate and medically accurate comprehensive sexuality education, it is unlikely that we will become a society in which unintended pregnancies are a very rare occurrence.” In describing what that education would look like, Nack said it would be “based on research from the fields of medicine, psychology and sociology. It would cover relevant aspects of human development, communication about sexuality, the skills needed to have healthy intimate relationships (both emotionally intimate and physically intimate) and the potential consequences of different sexual behaviors — physical, psychological, and social [consequences].”
Anyone who has benefited from any type of contraception — and that is a lot of people — can remember Estella Griswold as the pioneer who didn’t walk away.