Appellants: Charles Lee Buxton and Estelle T. Griswold
Appellee: State of Connecticut
Appellants' Claim: That Connecticut's birth control law violated the U.S. Constitution.
Chief Lawyer for Appellants: Thomas I. Emerson
Chief Lawyer for Appellee: Joseph B. Clark
Justices for the Court: William J. Brennan, Jr., Tom C. Clark, William O. Douglas (writing for the Court), Arthur Goldberg, John Marshall Harlan II, Earl Warren, Byron R. White
Justices Dissenting: Hugo Lafayette Black, Potter Stewart
Date of Decision: May 11, 1964
Decision: Laws that prevent married couples from using birth control violate marital privacy.
Significance: The U.S. Constitution protects a general right of privacy for Americans.
In 1879, Connecticut passed a law making it a crime for anyone, even married couples, to use birth control drugs or devices. (Birth control prevents a woman from getting pregnant when she has sexual intercourse.) The law also made it a crime to give someone medical information and advice about birth control. Connecticut said it enacted the law to prevent married people from having sexual relations outside marriage.
Birth control laws became very unpopular among some Americans. Children are expensive to care for. Without birth control, poor people found it difficult to control the size of their families. Women also faced serious health risks and even death from having too many pregnancies or from having abortions when they could not afford another child. (Abortion ends a pregnancy before the fetus, or unborn child, is born.)
Around 1960, several women filed a lawsuit to challenge Connecticut's law. They said they needed to use birth control for health reasons, but could be convicted for doing so. The courts in Connecticut ruled against the women, so they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Poe v. Ullman (1961), the Supreme Court decided not to decide the case. It said Connecticut's law was "dead words" and "harmless empty shadows" because Connecticut never tried to enforce it. Justice John Marshall Harlan II wrote a dissenting opinion, saying he believed the Court should strike down the law. Harlan foreshadowed what the Court would do a few years later in Griswold by saying the law was an "unjustifiable invasion of privacy."
Griswold tests dead law
Estelle T. Griswold was executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut. (Planned Parenthood is an organization that educates the public about birth control.) Dr. Charles Lee Buxton was chairman of Yale University's obstetrics department. On November 1, 1961, four months after the Supreme Court's decision in Poe, Griswold and Buxton opened a birth control clinic in New Haven, Connecticut. Referring to the Supreme Court's decision in Poe, Buxton said he believed it was now legal for doctors to prescribe birth control for patients in Connecticut.
Nine days later, Griswold and Buxton were arrested and their clinic was closed. At the trial on January 2, 1962, police detectives testified that they entered the clinic on its third day of operation and met Estelle Griswold. She told them the facility was a birth control clinic and offered information and devices.
Griswold and Buxton's attorney argued that Connecticut's law violated the freedom of speech by preventing doctors from counseling patients about birth control. The trial judge rejected this argument. Griswold and Buxton were found guilty and fined $100 each. Both the Appellate Division and the State Supreme Court of Errors affirmed (approved) the convictions, saying the law was valid under Connecticut's police power to protect public health and safety. Griswold and Buxton appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Leave me alone
With a 7 decision, the Supreme Court reversed Griswold and Buxton's convictions. Writing for the Court, Justice William O. Douglas said Connecticut's birth control law violated the constitutional right of privacy. In a concurring opinion, Justice Arthur Goldberg quoted former Justice Louis Brandeis, who called the right of privacy "the right to be let alone."
Griswold was a landmark decision because the U.S. Constitution does not actually mention a right of privacy. Justice Douglas found the right in what he called the "penumbras" of many constitutional amendments. (Penumbra is a body of rights implied in a civil constitution.) For example, the First Amendment protects the right to have private thoughts and to receive information. The Fourth Amendment protects the right to be safe from unfair arrests. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments say the government cannot violate the right to liberty, meaning freedom, without following fair procedures.
Justice Douglas said taken together, these Amendments protect privacy in the United States of America. That means the Constitution protects a general right of privacy. Douglas decided marriage is one relationship protected by the right of privacy. He said marital privacy is "older than the Bill of Rights older than our political parties, older than our school system." Because Connecticut's law invaded marital privacy by preventing married couples from using birth control, it was unconstitutional.
Out of thin air
Justices Hugo Lafayette Black and Potter Stewart dissented, meaning they disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice Black agreed that Connecticut's law was offensive, and Justice Stewart called it silly, but both said the law did not violate the U.S. Constitution. They disagreed that the Constitution contains a general right of privacy. Justice Stewart said if Connecticut's citizens did not like the law, they should ask the legislature to change it. Justice Black added that if Americans wanted a right of privacy in the U.S. Constitution, they should ask the states to add it by constitutional amendment. He said, "That method of change was good for our Fathers, and being somewhat old-fashioned I must add it is good enough for me."
Eight years after Griswold, the Supreme Court said the right of privacy allows unmarried people to use birth control. In 1977, it said the right prevents states from banning birth control for people under sixteen. In the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade (1972), the Court said privacy protects a woman's right to have an abortion. Taken together, these decisions mean the right of privacy lets Americans decide whether or not to have children.
In Roe v. Wade, the Court also clarified that the right of privacy comes from the protection of "liberty" in the Fourteenth Amendment, not from the "penumbras" of other amendments.
Suggestions for further reading
Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Dolan, Edward F. Your Privacy: Protecting It in a Nosy World. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1995.
Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. Your Right to Privacy. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.
Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Profiles in American History: Significant Events and the People Who Shaped Them. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.
Wawrose, Susan C. Griswold v. Connecticut: Contraception and the Right of Privacy. New York: Franklin Watts, 1996.
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