Although it has been over 400 years since those pesky Puritans arrived on the cold, bleak shores of Cape Cod, all hopped up on zealous energy and not enough food supplies, we’re still carrying a lot of their emotional baggage around today. Particularly around sex and reproduction, or as they called it, “indulgence of the flesh.” To your average Fear-God or Job-Raked-Out-Of-The-Ashes (real Puritan names) such fleshly indulgence was a mortal sin if you were unmarried, but perfectly fine – encouraged, even – within a Godly marriage.
Things got worse when Catholics started emigrating from Europe during the 19th century, taking the whole thing a bit further. To your average Patrick John Paul or Katherine Dolores Margaret, sex was a sin even if you were married, if it wasn’t done with the explicit intention of creating Catholic babies.
The Victorian era which followed pretty much locked that down for all of time. As far as your average Harriet Abigail or Cecil George was concerned, you don’t talk about it, don’t write about it, don’t think about it – don’t think about it! – and overall pretend it doesn’t exist, whether you intend to bring life into the world or not.
In our modern era, we have done away with such uptight ideas about chastity. Ask your average Brooklyn Paisley or Niall Liam Zayn – we are liberated! And yet, we still have an ongoing political debate about access to birth control methods, which really boils down to whether or not people should be *allowed* to have sex not expressly for the purpose of reproduction.
Some see this as evidence of tradition that we should celebrate. Some see this as sheer lunacy. Some, like Bill Baird, see it as a problem that needs to be solved.
Bill Baird was a 20th-century activist who dedicated his life to the pro-choice cause. He opened the nation’s first abortion facility in 1964, and for a long time his clinics were some of the rare places these services were available, offering a safe alternative to back-alley methods.
Something that might stun you, if you’re under the age of 40, is that birth control for unmarried couples was illegal until 1972, when Baird stepped in. No pill, no condoms, no contraceptive devices – unless you put a ring on it.
I don’t know who was more delighted by this plan, the Puritans or the Catholics or the Victorians, but for centuries in the United States, whether you were allowed to have sex not expressly for the purpose of creating life came down to whether or not you were married.
In 1967, Baird was invited by students to speak at Boston University and to challenge a 1879 Massachusetts law titled “Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency and Good Order.” The law barred unmarried couples from using birth control. At the event, he handed a nineteen-year-old woman a free condom, and the police arrested and imprisoned him. (Even publicly displaying birth control was a felony!)
But Baird wasn’t worried. He had planned the whole stunt, in order to create a legal case that he could then defeat in court, in order to decriminalize birth control. Plus, he thought, he’d have the backing of other pro-choice organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.
…But things didn’t go to plan.
Just two weeks after his “Crimes Against Chastity” arrest, the ACLU retracted their support after questioning his constitutional basis for the case. The newly-formed National Organization for Women (NOW) thought it was problematic that a man was the one fighting this case, and refused to support him.
Planned Parenthood, which was anti-abortion at the time, called him “overly enthusiastic” and said they were fine with the law as it stood. Betty Friedan even floated a rumor to the New York Post that Baird was a CIA agent!
With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Baird had plenty of those too; his abortion clinic had been firebombed by pro-life activists during the day when it was full of people. Let that sink in.
Undeterred in his quest to decriminalize birth control, Baird took the case – Eisenstadt v. Baird – to the Supreme Court, where he eventually won in 1972. Twenty-six states with statutes similar to the Massachusetts law had to overturn them, and contraception was no longer contraband. The case was an important step in setting precedent for major reproductive-choice cases like Roe v. Wade.
It was also important to securing freedom from government intrusion in private matters, and in free speech. Associate Justice William Douglass wrote in his response that “while the teachings of Bill Baird and Galileo are of a different order, the suppression of either is equally repugnant.”
Justice William Brennan said, in a rather moving turn of phrase, “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.”
It took about half a century, but Baird and his work have finally begun to be accepted by the pro-choice, feminist community – even if he is a man. And in another edition of “The Recent Past,” Baird is still around, at 80 years old. He’s on Facebook!
Here he is at the Liberty Hotel in 2017, the site of the very same Charles Street Jail that imprisoned him in brutal conditions 50 years earlier, after his arrest at Boston University.