Citing With Affection A Major Hero for Abortion Rights and Family Planning, Bill Baird

By Donald A. Collins | 5 February 2013
Church and State

(Credit: Joni Baird / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

On February 5th here in Washington, DC NARAL Pro Choice America conducted a Gala Celebration of Roe v Wade’s 40th Anniversary. There was much to celebrate and out-going NARAL President, Nancy Keenan, eloquently spoke to the successes of her administration. Incoming President, Ilyse Hogue offered all present good reasons to support and join the fight for choice which, sadly, is far from over, as numerous challenges to women’s right to choose remain.

However, this was a night to celebrate the progress made by NARAL and many other organizations and individuals who have so valiantly worked for choice over the years.

It should be noted that major victories for choice did not begin with Roe, as important as that victory was.

Surely one was Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965), a landmark case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Constitution protected a right to privacy. This recognition the right to privacy is implied in our Constitution was later cited by Justice Blackmun in his historic opinion on Roe.

Another major breakthrough now cited in all the legal cases on abortion was made possible by another major hero, Bill Baird, who could not attend, although he was of course invited, as he is not well.

We all wished him a speedy recovery so that he may continue as he has for decades to put forth the family planning and choice message.

We found this Boston Globe story about him particularly apt and thus suggested its full quotation as its author so perfectly tells his powerful and exhilarating story.

Bill Baird, the unsung hero of the birth control battle
Sherry Albert, Boston Globe, September 24, 2012

The 40th anniversary this year of legal birth control for unmarried women can be traced to an 80-year-old man: Bill Baird.

He has spent the past 50 years overturning laws and otherwise ensuring a woman’s right to control her body through access to birth control and abortion. And it was 40 years ago that he won Baird v. Eisenstadt: the US Supreme Court in March 1972 struck down a Massachusetts law prohibiting the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried people, ruling that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

Baird v. Eisenstadt gave every woman in the country the right to buy and use birth control, whether or not she was married. The case stemmed from his high profile arrest for violating Massachusetts’ obscenity laws and “Crimes against Chastity” by giving contraceptive foam and a condom to a nineteen-year-old woman after his birth control lecture at Boston University on April 6, 1967. Contraceptives could be distributed only by doctors and pharmacists and only to married people. He was thrown in the former Charles Street Jail and faced 10 years in prison.

Baird says that Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women rejected his plea for help in overturning the law because he is a man, and the American Civil Liberties Union said that his case had “no constitutional merit.” None of these groups has acknowledged the 40th anniversary of a right that women of all ages take for granted. Baird welcomes their collaboration with his

My connection with Baird began in 1974 while working as a news reporter in Marlboro. He came to town to thwart an ordinance that would outlaw abortion clinics. When a new mother voiced support for him, the priest at the Immaculate Conception Church, Marlboro, refused to baptize her baby and posted a black flag with a sign on the church lawn saying “Bill Baird is the devil incarnate.” A compassionate Jesuit priest baptized her baby on the church steps, surrounded by a media circus, and was subsequently defrocked.

I soon accepted Baird’s invitation to visit his abortion clinic in Copley Square (closed in 2002 due to lack of funds). Teenage girls and married women told him that he saved their lives. I witnessed their abortions and their relief afterward. Baird says that two thirds of all his patients were Roman Catholic.

I also covered a debate between Baird and the male president of a local anti-abortion group. Baird asked, “If your girlfriend were raped by a black man and got pregnant, would you be opposed to her having an abortion?” The response: “Yes, but I wouldn’t want the kid to be a half-breed.” I led my story with that lethal mixture of rape, abortion and race, and the speaker demanded a retraction. Republican Senatorial candidate Todd Akin has outraged America without even mentioning race.

Now, 38 years later, I was drawn to hear Baird, a western Massachusetts resident, speak recently at a church near Boston. He talked about the woman with nine children who bled to death in his arms after trying to abort herself with a coat hanger. And the girl who came to him for an abortion after being raped by her father.

And his US Supreme Court victory in a 1979 Massachusetts case: Bellotti v. Baird, when the court ruled that teenage girls do not have to secure parental consent to have an abortion. Baird, who has spent $200,000 of his own funds on legal fees, noted the hypocrisy of requiring parental consent for an abortion while a teenage mother is a legally emancipated minor.

Jailed eight times in five states for showing birth control methods and devices in public, Baird criticized the Catholic Church for “letting kids get raped” while calling him a murderer. “The Catholic Church believes life begins at conception, which means that you’re nine months old at birth,” he said. “That also means the U.S. Census should count pregnant women as two people.”

He challenged Massachusetts officials again when he bought contraceptive foam at the former Zayre’s department store. When the police tried to arrest him, he produced the sales receipt, which included the Massachusetts state sales tax.

While some male politicians threaten our reproductive rights in 2012, let’s acknowledge a man who has dedicated his life to legalizing – and protecting – them.

Should you choose, you could write Bill a get well message on his email which is If you could, a contribution to his Pro Choice Action League would be especially appreciated. Go to that web site:

What Wikipedia tells us about Bill and his historic work can be found at

Having worked with Bill over the years I have come to know him and his wife, Joni, who has just completed a biography of his life, one of true and continuous sacrifice for the cause of women’s right to choose and obtain contraceptives.

It was particularly heartwarming to feel among those with whom we shared this information at the NARAL gala celebration that they so well understood what this noble, brave and gentle man and his lady have done for women. While it is vital to see, as the Gala demonstrated, so many young and vital activists emerging to continue a fight which is far from over, but taking time as we do with this recitation of a life well lived must be part of how we go forward to victory.

What Wikipedia tells us about Bill:

Bill Baird is a reproductive rights pioneer, called by some media the “father” of the birth control and abortion-rights movement. He was jailed eight times in five states in the 1960s for lecturing on abortion and birth control. Baird is believed to be the first and only non-lawyer in American history with three Supreme Court victories.

In 1967 hundreds of students at Boston University petitioned Baird to challenge a Massachusetts law that prohibited providing contraception to unmarried persons. On April 6, 1967, he gave a lecture at Boston University, during which he gave a condom and a package of over-the-counter contraceptive foam to a female college student. He was immediately arrested and eventually jailed. His appeal of his conviction culminated in the 1972 Supreme Court decision Eisenstadt v. Baird, which established the right of unmarried persons to possess contraception on the same basis as married couples. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brennan wrote in that decision: “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as to whether to bear or beget a child.” Eisenstadt v. Baird has been described as “among the most influential in the United States during the entire century by any manner or means of measurement.”

You doubtless may recall some of the details of his seminal achievement for women which is again described by Wikipedia:

Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972), is an important United States Supreme Court case that established the right of unmarried people to possess contraception on the same basis as married couples and, by implication, the right of unmarried couples to engage in potentially nonprocreative sexual intercourse (though not the right of unmarried people to engage in any type of sexual intercourse).

The Court struck down a Massachusetts law prohibiting the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried people, ruling that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

William Baird was charged with a felony for distributing contraceptive foams after lectures on birth control and population control at Boston University. The prearranged violation of the law occurred on April 6, 1967 when Baird handed a condom and a package of contraceptive foam to an unmarried 19-year-old woman. Under Massachusetts law on “Crimes against chastity” (Chapter 272, section 21A), contraceptives could be distributed only by registered doctors or pharmacists, and only to married persons.

After Baird was convicted, an appeal resulted in partial overturn by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which concluded that the lectures were covered by First Amendment protections. However, the SJC affirmed the conviction under contraceptive distribution laws. Baird filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus, which was refused by the federal district court. Upon appeal, The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated the dismissal and remanded the action with directions to grant the writ, and dismiss the charge, reasoning that the Massachusetts law infringed on fundamental human rights of unmarried couples as guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This ruling was then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, by Sheriff Eisenstadt, who had prosecuted the case, on the ground that Baird lacked standing to appeal, being neither an authorized distributor under the statute nor a single person.

In a 6-1 decision (Justices Rehnquist and Powell were not sworn in on time to participate in the case), the Court upheld both Baird’s standing to appeal and the First Circuit’s decision on the basis of the Equal Protection Clause, but did not reach the Due Process issues. The majority opinion was written by Justice William J. Brennan Jr. and joined by three other justices, William O. Douglas, Potter Stewart, and Thurgood Marshall. Brennan reasoned that, since Massachusetts did not enforce its law against married couples and could not under Griswold v. Connecticut, the law worked irrational discrimination by denying the right to possess contraceptives by unmarried couples. He found that Massachusetts’s law was not designed to protect public health and lacked a rational basis.

Brennan, writing for the Court, wrote that the right of privacy recognized in Griswold v. Connecticut extended to procreative decisions made by unmarried couples, as well as married couples. In doing so, he extended the right announced in Griswold to any procreative sexual intercourse: “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.”

Justice Douglas, concurring, argued that since Baird was engaged in speech while distributing vaginal foam, his arrest was prohibited by the First Amendment.

Justice White, joined by Justice Blackmun, did not join Brennan’s opinion but concurred in the judgment on narrower grounds. White and Blackmun declined to reach the issue of whether Massachusetts could limit distribution of contraceptives only to married couples. They argued that Massachusetts had asserted an implausible health rationale for limiting distribution of vaginal foam to licensed pharmacists or physicians.

Chief Justice Burger dissented alone, arguing that there were no conclusive findings available to the Court on the health risks of vaginal foam since that issue had not been presented to the lower courts, and thus no basis for the Court’s finding that the Massachusetts statute served no public health interest. Burger also held that the Massachusetts statute independently advanced the state’s interest in ensuring couples receive informed medical advice on contraceptives.

Brennan’s ruling recognizing rights of single people to procreate vel non (or not) on the same basis as married couples was not immediately taken to its logical conclusion: all sex between consenting adults is constitutionally protected. Carey v. Population Services International, decided in 1977, struck down a New York law forbidding distribution of contraceptives to those under 16 but failed to produce a majority opinion and thus is not widely cited. Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986 rejected the claim of homosexuals to a fundamental right to engage in sodomy. However, Lawrence v. Texas overruled Bowers in 2003, citing Eisenstadt in support of this ruling, and recognized that consenting adults had a right to engage in private, consensual non-commercial sexual intercourse. Roy Lucas, a prominent abortion rights lawyer, assessed the case as “among the most influential in the United States during the entire [20th] century by any manner or means of measurement.” Eisenstadt v. Baird is mentioned in over 52 Supreme Court cases from 1972 through 2002. Each of the eleven U.S. Court of Appeals Circuit, as well as the Federal Circuit, has cited Eisenstadt v. Baird as authority. The highest courts of all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have cited Eisenstadt v. Baird.

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)
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  1. I did not know about this hero of the fight for abortion rights. Thank you for this article! We need the stories about what happens to women when abortion is outlawed.

  2. Even with Trump exiting the public stage in a few months (Creek don’t rise) now is the time to support many of the funds that make up (I give to myself). Too many women have to leave town and state to travel to places where there are clinics and the laws not as restrictive. The prochoice side needs to collect money to purchase small piston propeller planes to transport women from restrictive states and regions (the South, Utah, the Mountain West and the lower Mid West) to less restrictive ones (the Northeast, the West Coast, Upper Midwest, New Mexico). There has to be enough rich members and even less wealthy members that can raise the money to cover purchase, fuel, pilot training, insurance and hanger rental. Ideal if some members already owned their planes.


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