The Forgotten Father of the Abortion Rights Movement

What Bill Baird's aggressive, often illegal form of activism can teach a new generation about combating anti-abortion forces.

By Donald A. Collins | 10 October 2019
Church and State

January 22, 1974. (Bettmann / Getty)

My wife Sally Epstein and I were overjoyed to see this piece on Bill Baird and his wife Joni, whom my wife Sally and I have known, supported and greatly admired for years. Bill worked for Joe Sunnen at EMKO, a St Louis based maker of a method of vaginal foam which Joe pushed well and supported through his foundation which was headed by Sam Landfather. I knew them both and admired their selfless willingness to take the heat of the anti-family planning crowd led by the Roman Catholic Church.

But Bill Baird saw the need for abortion services as going beyond contraception which after all fails often and makes safe early abortions a mandatory need.

I have been involved with the abortion issue since 1965, and as it is still being ruthlessly attacked, I feel articles such as The Forgotten Father of the Abortion Rights Movement become ever more important to share widely.

While Planned Parenthood is now fully on board with abortion services, even forsaking Title X money now, this was not always the case.

It takes selfless heroes like Bill Baird to put their lives, fortunes and public respect at risk to get the job done! How else would Baird have been named in 3 Supreme Court cases for his persistence?

Answer–no one. Credit? Indeed and very much overdue! There is no hero in this movement including the many I knew well and admired greatly including Elton Kessel, Leonard Laufe, Malcolm Potts, Alan Guttmacher, Rei Ravenholt, Fred Jaffe, Frank Notestein and many more heroes now mostly gone. It shows we must ever keep alert since the enemies of choice seem never to stop trying to inflict their murderous anti-choice views on women worldwide.

Read this masterpiece and rejoice at the bravery of this man and his steadfast wife Joni as they continue to fight for choice.

I first met Bill Baird in Hempstead, Long Island, on a freezing December night in 1968. This was 18 months after he was arrested and jailed for handing a can of contraceptive foam to an unmarried coed at Boston University. And it was some four years before the Supreme Court would hand down its decision in Eisenstadt v. Baird, the case that grew out of Baird’s illegal action and established the right of unmarried people to possess contraceptive products. Eisenstadt, in turn, was a crucial privacy precedent that the Court cited in 1973’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision establishing a woman’s right to an abortion. But on that night in 1968, Baird was attending to more immediate matters: a clinic packed with desperate women.

Until three in the morning, I listened as Baird counseled them on birth control and provided names of doctors who would perform abortions. I was writing about illegal abortions for The Washington Post, a series that was considered daring in those days. I had already detailed several cases of death due to back-alley abortions, and the atmosphere surrounding the procedure was shot through with fear. Assistance for women was totally underground, and dangerous; there were no other public referral services like Baird’s in the country. “Women today have no idea what it was like back then,” Baird told me earlier this year, when we reconnected over the phone.

For his efforts, he endured years of death threats, violent attacks, and public enmity, sometimes even from his own ostensible allies in the abortion rights movement. His influence, though, is hard to overstate. Once known as the father of abortion rights, Baird’s often extra-legal actions also led to numerous other privacy rights laws and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Roy Lucas, the lawyer who helped fashion the right-to-privacy argument that took center stage in Roe, characterized the Supreme Court decision in Eisenstadt as “among the most influential in the United States during the entire century.”

Today, Baird laments, “no one knows I exist.” Indeed, millions of single women who take the pill, same-sex couples who are legally married, and women who have known nothing but legal abortions for nearly 50 years, have no idea that an 87-year-old man who is half-blind, broke, and in poor health helped secure those freedoms—freedoms that, in the age of Trump, they are dangerously close to losing. And many of Baird’s unwitting beneficiaries have also forgotten the main lesson of his brand of aggressive activism: that “extremism” can be an effective force behind genuine, long-lasting, badly needed change.

Baird, who never studied law, has two other Supreme Court victories bearing his name: Baird v. Bellotti I (1976) and Baird v. Bellotti II (1979), which gave minors the right to abortion without parental consent. (These decisions have since been largely eroded by state laws.) Eisenstadt has also been cited in more than 52 Supreme Court cases from 1972 through 2002. All eleven U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, as well as the Federal Circuit, have cited Eisenstadt as authority.  In this century, Eisenstadt was again cited in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

The day after Roe became law, Baird predicted that the opposition, led by the Catholic Church, would never stop until the decision was struck down. He has been battling against that backlash ever since—and watched it gain significant ground since the election of Donald Trump, who has managed to install two anti-abortion justices on the Supreme Court and has overseen anti-abortion measures proliferate in red states.

“I wish that that sexist Trump and all of those other old white men would have just one giant menstrual cramp so that they can even begin to understand what it is like to be a woman,” he told me, his voice quivering with outrage. “Women are going to die again because of these old white sexist men—the Catholic Church, the extreme Evangelicals and their lawmakers. We could lose Roe v. Wade. I have been saying this for decades as restrictions have been placed on abortion rights—and nobody listens.”

Conservative legislatures—emboldened by Trump’s Supreme Court appointments and his outrageous lies about abortion providers “ripping babies” from mothers who “execute” their living children—have passed or introduced state laws that criminalize abortion after six weeks. That cutoff date comes at a point before most women even know they are pregnant. By May in 2019 alone, nearly 30 abortion restrictions had been introduced across the country. More than 400 state-level abortion restrictions have been enacted since 2011.

As it continues to rack up victories, the anti-abortion movement has only grown bolder and more relentless, with sophisticated websites and thousands of Crisis Pregnancy Centers across the country seeking to discourage women from going through with abortions. Moreover, these centers refuse to offer birth control advice or contraceptives, which could have stopped the unwanted pregnancies of the many women they see who already have multiple children. And in a vicious cycle, their activism fuels more aggressive anti-abortion measures from state lawmakers.

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013

By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
ASIN: B00MA40TVE
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