If history does, indeed, repeat itself, then there is great merit in knowing and remembering what has gone on before. In that spirit, I am sharing some information that arrived from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, noting that 20 years ago this month the Supreme Court struck down a law making it a crime for a physician to prescribe birth control to a married couple.
Put another way, up until 20 years ago, laws in 29 states barred the dissemination of contraceptives or contraceptive information. The historic case that struck down those laws was Griswold v. Connecticut.
The Planned Parenthood document tells the story this way: "The Griswold case grew out of the . . . efforts of Estelle Griswold, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Connecticut . . . who tried unsuccessfully for 11 years to overturn a state statute barring the use of contraceptives. Eventually, after opening a clinic in New Haven -- a deliberate act of civil disobedience -- Mrs. Griswold and Dr. C. Lee Buxton, the clinic's medical director and chairman of the Yale School of Medicine, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, were arrested in 1961. They were jailed for dispensing a package of birth control pills to a married couple . . . . " The court overturned the conviction by a 7-to-2 decision.
"By affirming that the right of privacy in the marriage relationship was guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, Griswold laid the groundwork for a chain of rulings that have led, in turn, to the establishment of a wide range of family planning options for all Americans."
Some statistics tell what happened, in part, because of the availability of more and better family planning information. In 1965, 31.6 mothers died per 100,000 live births; by 1982, that number had dropped to 7.9. Infant deaths declined from 24.7 per 1,000 live births to 11.2. Better nutritional programs and prenatal care for pregnant mothers, enormous advances in medical care for women and low-birth-weight babies obviously contributed to the decline in these death rates, but so did the factor of unwanted births, which declined by more than two-thirds between 1965 and 1982. Women who were not healthy enough to bear children, who could not afford to bring them up, who carried genetic defects, or who did not want children for a host of other reasons, were able to practice birth control or obtain abortions.
The Griswold decision was written by Justice William O. Douglas, and he ended it with some thoughts worth remembering: "The present case, then, concerns a relationship lying within the zone of privacy created by several fundamental constitutional guarantees. And it concerns a law which, in forbidding the use of contraceptives rather than regulating their manufacture or sale, seeks to achieve its goals by means having a maximum destructive impact upon that relationship . . . . Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship.
"We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights -- older than our political parties, older than our school system. Marriage . . . is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths . . . . "
Family planning is something many of us take for granted. The fertility rate for American women dropped from 2.9 children in 1965 to 1.8 children by 1982. The Planned Parenthood document cites a 1964 New York City study that found that women on public assistance who were 15 to 44 year old had a childbearing rate that was 74 percent higher than that for all women in that age range; by 1978, that figure had dropped to 38 percent. And access to birth control has allowed millions of women to plan their families and work to support them.
Yet, 20 years after the Griswold decision, there is an administration that decries abortion while it has worked to curtail federal support for family planning both here and abroad. Far right political and fundamentalist groups are opposing not only abortion, but also certain forms of contraception. Federal funding for contraceptive research has declined. Most sex education courses taught in schools still do not teach contraception, even though that is one of the two most reliable methods of preventing teen-age pregnancies.
Twenty years after the Griswold decision, the attitudes that created the Connecticut law in 1879 still flourish in some quarters. Perhaps the fitting question to ponder now is whether 20 years from now they could prevail.