If you have ever used contraception, you are in debt to Bill Baird. If you cherish Roe v Wade, you are in debt to Bill Baird.
Today is Bill’s 90th birthday, so I salute his accomplishments and sincerely thank him.
Do you remember when it was illegal to send condoms through the U.S. mail? Do you remember when all forms of contraception were illegal for unmarried people?
Baird changed this.
And paid an enormous personal price.
In 1967 Baird was jailed for distributing condoms and contraceptive foam to college students (he was ultimately jailed eight times in five different states). His appeal of this conviction culminated in the 1972 Supreme Court decision Eisenstadt v. Baird, which established the right of unmarried people to possess contraception the same as married people.
It was a key moment in our country’s history.
In that decision, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan said “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as to whether to bear or beget a child.”
Eisenstadt v. Baird is mentioned in over 60 Supreme Court cases from 1972 through 2002. It is the foundation for cases including Roe v. Wade (abortion rights) and Lawrence v. Texas (same-sex marriage).
For Baird it’s all bittersweet—along with repeated jail time, he lost his marriage, his kids, his home, and his health.
Before Eisenstadt was even decided, Baird set up two innovative abortion and contraceptive clinics in Long Island. The Catholic Church spent years demonizing Baird by name. There were hundreds of death threats. His clinic was ultimately firebombed and destroyed in 1979—with 50 patients and staff inside.
Meanwhile, Baird wasn’t done suing the U.S. government. In Baird v. Bellotti, the Supreme Court recognized minors’ right to abortion without parental consent.
After founding the Pro Choice League, Baird has spent the rest of his life fighting for Americans’ right to abortion. As part of this work, he went to every Right to Life convention from the 1970s until 2014.
The women’s movement hasn’t always been kind to Bill; some mistrusted his maleness, some disagreed with his activist tactics, while some envied his political success. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinham didn’t want him as a social justice role model.
Belatedly, Bill has been honored by NOW, NARAL, the ACLU, and, 20 years after it jailed him, even the state of Massachusetts. The Free Speech Coalition recently saluted Bill’s “life’s work and enduring legacy” in protecting our sexual rights.
Ms Magazine has finally honored Bill with a major story. Better late than never.
If any of this matter to you, say a not-so-silent prayer of thanks to this old man—still fiery, though now a bit infirm and living in relative obscurity in rural New England.
He was there when you and I needed him. We search the horizon for our next contraceptive rights hero.