Pro Choice Pioneer


From the Planned Parenthood Website

The Legacy of Bill Baird

by Kara Loewentheil

On January 28, 1995, Bill Baird was shot at outside his home in New York State. This second attempt on his life in as many years did not injure him, but even if it had this long-time reproductive rights crusader would probably not have been fazed.

In the 1960s Baird was at the forefront of the burgeoning reproductive rights movement. Originally a contraceptive foam salesman, he opened his first office in Hempstead, NY, in 1964 where he gave women information about birth control and referred them to doctors who were willing to provide safe abortions even though it was still illegal to do so in the state. He also spent much of the 1960s driving America's first mobile family planning center, which consisted of a 30-foot trailer that he and his wife, Evelyn, operated in Harlem, Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section, and Hempstead.

Baird's legal struggles became milestones on the road to women's equality.
Three years later, in 1967, almost 680 Boston University students signed a petition asking Baird to come to BU and give a lecture about the benefits of abortion and birth control. Baird gave his talk on April 6 of that year to 2,500 students. After the lecture he gave a single female student contraceptive foam and was arrested under a Massachusetts statute that forbade the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried people. He was convicted of a felony and spent 36 days in jail.

His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the now-famous Baird v. Eisenstadt decision, the court ruled in Baird's favor, holding that, "If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child."

Baird's legal struggles became milestones on the road to women's equality. Baird v. Eisenstadt was cited six times in Roe v. Wade, which recognized a woman's constitutional right to choose abortion. A few years later, in 1979, Baird v. Bellotti established that if a state has a parental consent or notification statute for teens who want to procure an abortion, it must establish a separate procedure by which a teen can have the parental notification or consent requirement waived by proving she is mature enough to make her own decision.

In the same year, Baird's nonprofit women's health clinic in Hempstead was firebombed. There were more than 50 people inside at the time, more than half of whom were patients. Later, in the 1980s, Baird became one of the early voices calling for buffer zones around reproductive health clinics.

Always a controversial figure, Baird attracted attention from anti-choice and pro-choice people alike. During a 1993 debate on WEZE radio in Boston, with the Reverend Paul Hill, who was executed in 2003 for the 1994 murders of Dr. John Britton and his escort James Barrett, Hill said, "Killing Bill Baird is justifiable homicide." At the same time, however, Baird was falling out with many of his former pro-choice colleagues. They believed he was unnecessarily provocative and competitive, and he accused them of abandoning him. His clinics were suffering from financial problems that eventually shut them down. Baird, who closed his last clinic on Long Island seven years ago, told the New York Times in 2004 that he is currently writing a book about his time at the center of the movement.

Although he eventually became estranged from the rest of the pro-choice movement, Bill Baird's contributions cannot be ignored. Over the years he endured eight arrests in five states, jail time, felony convictions, an arson attack on his clinic, and two attempts on his life, but he never wavered in his efforts to ensure a woman's right to control her own reproductive destiny.

Kara Loewentheil is a writer in the PPFA Media Relations Department.

050125-baird.xml (captured 05/19/2006)

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