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The people versus Bill Baird: struggling for your right to privacy.

Thirty years ago, 679 students at Boston University signed a letter asking me to come to Massachusetts to challenge a nineteenth century law that denied unmarried people access to birth control and abortion devices and information. This law, as amended only the year before, in 1966, declared that the providing or exhibiting of such devices and the printing or dissemination of such information were "Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency, and Good Order," punishable as a felony by up to five years in prison.

These students sought my help be cause, by this time, I had already been dubbed by the news media a "birth-control crusader" I had opened the nation's first abortion facility in 1964 and twice been imprisoned for teaching birth control and publicly showing birth control devices inside the twenty-five-foot, mobile classroom I took to the poor people of Long Island and New Jersey.

So on April 6, 1967, before an overflow audience in excess of 2,000 people, I spoke at Boston University on the public's right to privacy in matters of sexuality, including the right to birth control and abortion. I lectured on birth control methods and devices and emphasized that it is a matter of personal morality and privacy rather than the business of some religious group or government how, when, and with whom one has sexual intercouse. Further, because of its public lobbying stand against birth control and abortion, I stated that the Roman Catholic Church should have its tax-exempt status revoked and be required to register as a foreign lobbyist.

At the end of the lecture, I was promptly arrested by members of the vice squad of the Boston police department and charged with two felonies: publicly exhibiting birth control and abortion devices, and giving away a single condom and package of contraceptive foam to a nineteen-year-old, unmarried female student. The event made headlines nationwide.

All of this I had anticipated. What I had not expected, however, was that Planned Parenthood would turn its back on me. In a letter dated June 29, 1967, Hasel Sagoff, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter, clarified to an inquirer the doctrine current at the time. She wrote:

We are told by our lawyers,

experts in constitutional law, that

there is no violation of

constitutional rights in the

present law. They tell us, and we

agree, that the only way to

liberalize the cur rent law is

through the process of filing a

bill in the legislature and working

for its passage.

Later, Planned Parenthood's national president, Dr. Alan Guttmacher, was quoted by the Harvard Graduate Bulletin as saying, "Every couple seeking birth control information should go to a doctor." The Bulletin then added, "Planned Parenthood feels it can live with the present law and Baird's efforts are an embarrassment"

I was found guilty of the felony charges by Superior Court Judge Donald Macauley on October 17, 1967--though he stayed the sentence pending the out come of my appeal to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. That decision came down on May 1, 1968, with the court ruling unanimously that anyone could lecture on birth control and exhibit birth control devices; however, it also ruled four to three that it was still a crime to give any such device to an unmarried individual.

The latter decision led to my sentencing on May 19, 1969, to an unprecedented three months in Boston's Charles Street Jail. The New York Times reported:

Before the sentencing, both

Judge Macauley and Joseph

Balliro, counsel for Mr. Baird,

mentioned that they had

received more mail on this case

than on any other. They said the

letters had come from

throughout the world and that

most had urged leniency for the


Thirty people, most of them women, peacefully demonstrated on my behalf outside the courthouse.

On February 20, 1970, I began serving my sentence. The experience in the Charles Street Jail was a true nightmare, the details of which I can never forget. Night after night I had to chase rats from the four-by-eight-foot cell in which I was caged, pick bugs from my food, and endure threats of beatings and rape. The guards repeatedly stripped me naked. On one occasion, a fire broke out in the jail, burning an inmate to death.

Meanwhile, my conviction was on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Like 98 percent of all cases they receive, however, the justices initially refused to hear it. Perhaps it was Justice William O. Douglas who encouraged a reappraisal, for he would later write: "The teachings of Baird and those of Galileo might be of a different order; but the suppression of either is equally repugnant."

When the High Court finally heard my case, Baird v. Eisenstadt, it looked into the original intent of the Massachusetts law I had broken. The justices found that its actual objective had been to discourage premarital sex and, in the words of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, "to protect purity, to preserve chastity, to encourage continence and self restraint, to defend the sanctity of the home, and thus to engender in the State and nation a virile and virtuous race of men and women."

So on March 22, 1972--twenty-five years ago--the U.S. Supreme Court ruled six to one in my favor, overturning all similar statutes in twenty six states which had denied to unmarried people the right to birth control devices and information. Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority, based the decision on the right of privacy. He declared:

If the right of privacy means any

thing, 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.

His word bear would prove significant, and I predicted to the press that, because of this decision, all abortion statutes would be repealed within a year's time. And so they were. On January 22, 1973, the Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, citing Baird six times in its decision.

One would think that, after a quarter of a century, the conflict would now be over. Yet in 1996, an unmarried seventeen-year-old, Amanda Smisek, was convicted of "fornication" in Idaho in order to teach her "proper morality." Abortion clinics have been bombed, pro choice Americans have been killed, and the murder of abortion patients has been called "justifiable homicide" by anti-abortion activist Father David Trosch.

Fortunately, action continues in support of freedom. Governor Howard Dean, M.D., of Vermont marked the anniversary of Baird by naming March 22 as "Right to Privacy Day" in a proclamation which read, "Recognition of the right of privacy has freed millions of men and women from the oppression of unwilling parenthood.... This right of privacy is in increasing jeopardy by those who seek to limit its expression." The governors of Massachusetts and Missouri have also recognized this date. The move is on in this twenty fifth anniversary year to encourage the governors of every state, as well as President Clinton, to commemorate this vital liberty by proclaiming March 22 as an annual National Right to Privacy Day.

And now, after a long hiatus, I have been able to return my mobile classroom to the streets of our cities to provide information on birth control and abortion, as well as AIDS prevention, to those Americans who--because of a still deficient sex education and insufficient media advertising devoted to birth control--might secure the information in no other way.

Bill Baird, head of the Pro-Choice League in Huntington, New York, continues to lecture to student audiences and the general public throughout the country and appears frequently on television and radio.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Humanist Flashback
Author:Baird, William Britton
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1997
Previous Article:Big Brother goes to high school.
Next Article:New strategies, new groups.

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