How 1965 turned out to be a landmark year (and an embarrassing discovery)
In The Boston Girl, the latest novel by Anita Diamant (author of The Red Tent), in a chapter titled “I figure God created Margaret Sanger, too,” the lead character Addie Baum’s friend Filomena attempts a self-induced abortion by using bleach. A French-Canadian nurse in their neighborhood saves her from dying and completes the procedure. In the parlance of the 1900’s in America, she has “lost” a baby, the stuff of cruel rumors and threats that, because she had terminated the pregnancy, she would be denied burial in the Jewish cemetery upon her own passing.
One of the women who gather around the weak but recovering young woman reveals that her own mother “had five babies in six years and died giving birth to the last one, who died too.”
There’s a way to keep this from happening, she declares. She has a pamphlet about it and she is going to loan it out.
How she got hold of this how-to-prevent-pregnancy information — with the devices available at that time — is not described. What we do know, is that this was considered indecent, even pornographic material. Under the Comstock Law, a federal act passed by Congress in 1873, the mailing of literature about contraceptives and abortifacients, let alone the actual items, was forbidden. In Washington D.C. and other places where the deferral government had jurisdiction, selling, giving away, or having in one’s possession these banned materials was a misdemeanor, and could lead to a hefty fine or even imprisonment of not less than six months.
Half of the states passed similar, so-called anti-obscenity laws which deemed pregnancy prevention efforts within their borders as without redeeming social importance under contemporary community standards.
Meticulously retold in the engaging new book on The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by reporter Jonathan Eig, Margaret Sanger witnessed many such dangerous efforts to terminate unwanted pregnancies when she worked for a visiting nurse service connected with a New York City settlement house. As Eig describes her experiences, “she watched women die because their bodies could not hold up against the strain of producing so many babies under such poor conditions, or because they used primitive birth control devises that caused infection, or because butchers posing as abortionists botched their jobs.”
In the following years, Sanger and her first husband William Sanger were arrested under New York law for disseminating contraceptive information, opening a birth control clinic in Brooklyn, and in 1932 for mailing a shipment of diaphragms from Japan. They won an appeals court decision that struck down federal government barriers. It had taken 18 years of blatant disobedience and legal trials.
In 1965, there were still “Comstock” laws on the book in a few states, including Connecticut, which prohibited the use of drugs or instruments to prevent conception and even giving assistance or counsel in their use. These laws had been written in l879, in fact penned by one of our famous own Universalists, the circus owner P.T. Barnum, who was also a Republican legislator. He justified authoring and working to pass this law as consistent with his Universalism, saying “a human soul that God created and Christ died for is not to be trifled with.” Which meant not interfering with pregnancy, intended or not.
As Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, had done earlier in the century, Estelle Griswold, executive director of the PP League of Connecticut, and medical director Dr. C. Lee Buxton provided the test case, offering themselves up for arrest. They were found guilty as accessories in providing illegal contraception. Their conviction was upheld by the Connecticut Supreme Court, and appealed to the US Supreme Court.
On March 29, 1965, arguments were heard and considered, including the fundamental right to privacy in marital relations.
Like so many other cases, both infamous and groundbreaking, the decision was not made public until June.
Most of us already know the outcome, which has had an impact well beyond the misdemeanor verdict upon which “Griswold vs. Connecticut” was based.
So much has come of it.