Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

November 12,  2007  



Birth control activist warns young singles

By Thomas F. Coleman


The 75 year-old man stood before a philosophy class and warned them that today's government is trying to strip away their rights -- passing laws to restrict abortions and funding abstinence-only sex education programs.

William Baird told the students he is concerned that today's youth takes the right to access birth control for granted.

"Along comes President Bush, who is stacking the Supreme Court with strictly conservative judges," Baird said. "I'm here because I want you to know of one man's sacrifices."

"Freedom isn't free," Baird exclaimed. "The next time you have sex using birth control, I want you to think about why you're able to have it."

When it comes to birth control and the rights of the unmarried, William Baird knows the legal landscape all too well. 

Baird, a pro-choice advocate for more than 40 years, has had many bouts with the law.  His crusade to secure birth control rights for single people resulted in his being arrested eight times in the 1960s. 

His quest to gain privacy rights for the unmarried started in in 1963 when he was the clinical director of EMKO, a spermicidal foam pharmaceutical company.

During his lecture to the philosophy students, Baird recalled the story of a woman who had tried to perform her own abortion.

"I was in a New York hospital coordinating research when I heard a scream. I went out in the hallway, and a woman, covered in blood from the waist down, fell into my arms. She died in front of me. I think anyone who loses their life like that has a right to choose."

He then explained to the students about the case he won in the United States Supreme Court in 1972 -- Eisenstadt v. Baird -- in which the court declared that the constitution protects the reproductive rights of the unmarried. 

Baird had been convicted of exhibiting contraceptive materials in the course of delivering a lecture on contraception to students at Boston University and for giving a young woman a package of vaginal foam at the close of his address.  The case eventually went all the way to the nation's highest court.

The court ruled that sexually active adults, whether married or unmarried, have a constitutional right to use contraceptives as a means of preventing pregnancy. 

The court rested its conclusion on an earlier ruling -- Griswold v. Connecticut -- in which it had struck down a law prohibiting the distribution of contraceptives to anyone, including married couples. 

Since the distribution of contraceptives to married persons could no longer be prohibited, the court said that a ban on distribution to unmarried persons would be equally impermissible, since the constitutionally protected right of privacy rests in the individual, not the marital couple.

Although it happened more than 30 years after this landmark decision was handed down, the Supreme Court relied on the Baird precedent to declare that state laws criminalizing private sexual behavior of consenting adults are unconstitutional. 

The case of Lawrence v. Texas, which was decided in 2003, concluded that consenting adults -- whether married or unmarried -- may not be arrested or prosecuted for private sexual behavior.

In more recent years, state courts have been invalidating criminal laws prohibiting unmarried heterosexual couples from engaging in sexual intercourse or from cohabiting outside of wedlock.  These decisions have rested on Lawrence v. Texas which rests on Eisenstadt v. Baird.

So the pioneering efforts that William Baird engaged in 40 years ago to secure birth control rights for the unmarried has expanded into a broader principle of sexual freedom for the unmarried.

But Baird has paid a price in terms of ridicule from some segments of American society.

"I have been called the devil, a menace to the nation a sexual pied piper and accused of corrupting youth," he told the philosophy students during his recent lecture.  "I'm a decent man."

That's an understatement.  I think he is a hero for having the courage, so many years ago, to stand up for the rights of single people.

Baird's pebble of advocacy has created major constitutional ripples lasting several decades.  His leadership is certainly a testament to the power of the individual -- how one person committed to a cause can change history.

Bravo, Mr.Baird!


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Unmarried America 2007

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.