THE REAL HISTORY OF YOUR RIGHT TO BIRTH CONTROL

In 1963, while working at a lucrative career as the youngest clinical director of EMKO, a birth control manufacturer, Bill Baird witnessed a tragedy.

While coordinating research at a New York City hospital, he heard a woman scream.  He raced into the corridor where a young African American woman was covered from the waist down in blood - an 8" piece of wire coat hanger was imbedded in her uterus.  As she slumped to the floor, Bill caught her in his arms.  She lamented the fate of her eight children at home before dying.

Outraged that she and others - mostly low-income women - were not able to access birth control and abortion help, Baird began investigating why.  Hospital directors, health department officials and even Planned Parenthood told him that it was illegal for unmarried people to access birth control.  The National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) were as yet unformed.

Frustrated with the lack of concern for this silent epidemic, he began giving away packages of EMKO contraceptive foam and condoms to those in need.  He converted an old United Parcel truck into what he called his "Plan Van."  He and a team of volunteers drove the classroom on wheels into disadvantaged sections of New York such as Harlem and Bedford Stuyvescent to bring this information directly to the public.

In 1964, he opened the first aboveground birth control and abortion referral clinic in Hempstead, Long Island, New York.  For every woman he helped to obtain an abortion, Bill faced a 10-year prison term.  Over the decades he operated three non-profit clinics in Massachusetts and New York. 

For years, women came to Bill's clinic by the thousands because they could not obtain the help they needed in their home states.  On December 11, 1968 the Washington Post reported, "It was 3a.m. in the morning before the last patient saw Baird...Nowhere is such help available in the country."   

However, such activities got him fired from EMKO.  Then on May 13, 1965 he was arrested in New York for challenging anti-birth control  law 1142 by lecturing out of his "Plan Van" about reproductive rights.  This challenge resulted in the law being changed and birth control became legal in New York.

In 1966, Bill Baird challenged New Jersey's restrictive birth control statute which resulted in his second arrest.

It wasn't until 1967 that his greatest challenge, resulting in his landmark U.S. Supreme Court victory Baird v. Eisenstadt, was initiated.

About 800 Boston University students petitioned the young crusader to challenge Massachusetts Comstock law "Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency and Good Order."  On April 6, 1967, before an overflow audience of 2,500 people at Boston University, Bill gave a speech about birth control, abortion women's rights and overpopulation.  When he gave out one condom and one package of EMKO contraceptive foam to an unmarried minor female student, he was promptly handcuffed,  arrested and ultimately sentenced to three months in prison.

"Crimes Against Chastity" carried with it a 5-year maximum sentence for each violation - a law that even Margaret Sanger and others did not dare challenge.  However, Bill's dream was that if he were successful, his case might be heard by the high court and access to birth control and even abortion would be legal for anyone who needed it.

It took five years before Eisenstadt v. Baird succeeded in legalizing birth control for every American.  In between, in 1969 Bill also challenged Wisconsin's anti-birth control law again getting himself arrested.

Initially, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Baird v. Eisenstadt.  As a result, Bill was forced to carry out his prison term.  The Charles Street jail is now infamous as having been one of the worst in the nation.  Bill was subjected to humiliating strip searches, picked bugs and pebbles from his food (he lost 20 pounds while there due to pneumonia), chased rats from his cell and survived a prison fire in which an inmate burned to death.  Being housed with hardened criminals, such as rapists and murderers, put him under the constant threat of being beaten or raped. 

Finally, on March 22, 1972 Justice William Brennan issued these powerful words to all Americans, 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 to bear or beget a child."

Those words "bear or beget" became the bridge to the abortion case decided the following year in which Eisenstadt v. Baird was quoted six times.  It was also the foundation for Bill Baird's two other U.S. Supreme Court cases Baird v. Bellotti I (1976) and Baird v. Bellotti II (1979) which gave minors the right to an abortion without parental veto.  The Court declared, "The Bill of Rights is not for adults only." Additionally, Justice William O. Douglas said, "While the teachings of Bill Baird and Galileo may be of a different order, the suppression of either is equally repugnant."  He agreed with Bill Baird that the case was in part about free speech.  (More can be read on these important decisions in a 2006 May/June Humanist magazine article by Joni Baird.)

It is an unfortunate fact in the history of the reproductive rights movement, that not only did Bill have to fight those fighting against reproductive rights, but also his "allies."

Planned Parenthood said that Bill Baird's efforts to legalize birth control were an "embarrassment" and that his case had "no constitutional value."  (Many are unaware that Planned Parenthood was against abortion and its 1967 Spring newsletter stated that "Abortion takes the life of a child once it has begun.") Later, one of its representatives said about Bill Baird that every movement "requires its nuts."

The ACLU initially announced at Boston University that it would accept Bill's case in Eisenstadt v. Baird but then dropped it two weeks later.

Feminists also refused to support his efforts.  It is unfortunate that Betty Friedan, in a 1971 New York post interview said that Bill Baird was a CIA agent.   Ms. Magazine founder, Robin Morgan wrote in her book that men like Bill were in the movement to "make woman come across easier."

Despite these invalidations, the influence of Eisenstadt v. Baird is only now being recognized--even by Planned Parenthood which included Bill Baird in its 2008 calendar.  Eisenstadt v. Baird was quoted five times in the 2003 gay rights victory case Lawrence v. Texas.  According to a 2004 Roger Williams University Law Review article by Roy Lucas, the attorney in Roe v. Wade , Eisenstadt v. Baird was cited many hundreds of times."  He also disclosed that the case was mentioned in "over 52 subsequent Supreme Court cases from 1972 through December 2002" and that according to "Shepard's citator, each and every one of the eleven U.S. Court of Appeals Circuits, as well as the Federal Circuit, has cited Eisenstadt v. Baird

Roy Lucas wrote that the Eisenstadt v. Baird has been "cited by the highest courts of all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico" and said that "...in 1972 [Baird] supplanted its timid older cousin Griswold [the 1965 case that legalized contraception for married people only].

Over the decades Bill Baird (who has been labeled by UPI and other media as the "Father of the Abortion Movement") has never wavered in his commitment to the woman who died in his arms of a coat hanger abortion nor to those unknowns who may die in the future if abortion and even birth control are made crimes again.

(C)2006-2012 Bill Baird