The Founding (and forgotten) Father Of The Pro-Choice Movement


By Jay Kirell

It’s been 41 years since the historic Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in America.  On news stations and media outlets across the country today there will be countless representatives from Planned Parenthood, NARAL and other pro-choice organizations brought on to discuss the impact of the decision and how its shaped politics in America since.

There is, unquestionably, a long list of heroes of the women’s rights/pro choice movement.  From Margaret Sanger to Betty Freidan to today’s leaders like Wendy Davis, the pro-choice movement has been spurred along by the power, dedication and vision of tremendous female activists for decades. The sustainment of that movement has lasted for more than four decades after the Supreme Court decision thanks to the relentless vigilance of individual women and women’s organizations.

When looking back at the last 40+ years of the pro-choice movement, though, it might surprise you to learn that it wasn’t NARAL or Planned Parenthood or any individual female activist that first opened the legal door for a women’s right to choose.

It was one man.

One very passionate and dedicated man….

…Who has been almost completely whitewashed from history.

Back in the late 1960s, before the right to have an abortion was even on the radar of most Americans, it was illegal in some states for unmarried people to buy contraceptives.  Actually, for a while, it was illegal in some states for ANYONE to buy contraceptives.

Then, as some legal scholars and students will remember, a little case called Griswold v. Connecticut came about, and legalized birth control for married couples.

That case is considered a cornerstone in the abortion-rights movement, as it established the previously-unknown concept of privacy rights…. even if it technically only applied the right to the privacy of married couples.

Enter a man named Bill Baird.

Baird was guy who worked for a birth control manufacturer in the early 1960s.  He was coordinating research at Harlem Hospital one day when a woman stumbled into the hallway in front of him.  She was covered in blood from the waist down after trying to abort what would have been her 10th child with a coat hanger.  She died right there in the hallway in front of him and from that moment, Baird became – arguably – the nation’s first abortion-rights activist.

He began handing out contraceptives (illegally) at malls and at college campuses.  When he wanted to cover more ground, he converted an old delivery truck into a mobile contraceptive lab  (called the “Plan Van”).  He took the van around New York, into New Jersey and as far away as Wisconsin, handing out contraceptives and lecturing young people on the proper use of birth control.

For this he was arrested.  A lot.

He was first arrested in New York in 1965.  He then went on to challenge the laws that led to his arrest.  He won, and New York soon legalized contraceptives.

He was arrested a year later in New Jersey, which at the time had statutes that criminalized being an unwed mother – seriously – it was called “the law of fornication.”

Then he went to Wisconsin and – spoiler alert – got arrested again.

It wasn’t until he got word that students at Boston University wanted him to come to their campus and challenge Massachusetts’ almost comical named law on “Crimes Against Chastity, Decency, Morality and Good Order.”

When he got to BU, he gave a speech to 1,500 students.  After the speech he gave a female student one condom and a package of contraceptive foam in full view of Boston police.  They arrested him and charged him with a felony.  Unbelievably, he was convicted and ended up spending three months in jail.

This was the impetus for his challenging the Massachusetts statute on birth control, which worked its way through the court system until it reached the Supreme Court in 1972.  Once there, Eisenstadt v. Baird became the case that would tear down the last blockage to full reproductive rights.

The majority opinion was written by Justice William Brennan, with William Douglas, Potter Steward and Thurgood Marshall joining.  Brennan wrote the majority decision, and in one of the most influential sentences ever uttered relating to privacy rights, said: “If the right of privacy means anything, 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.”

This ended up being, no joke, one of the most important Supreme Court decisions of all time.  Not just for women and not just for the issue of contraception or abortion – but for gay rights as well.  Eisenstadt v. Baird is mentioned in over 52 Supreme Court cases from 1972 through 2002, spanning cases ranging from the iconic Roe v. Wade, to the more contemporary Lawrence v. Texas.

He is currently the only non-lawyer in history with three…count ’em…THREE  Supreme Court victories ( Eisenstadt, plus Bellotti v. Baird I and II – which legalized abortions for minors without parental consent).

One would think that someone who has spent decades fighting for the pro-choice cause would be at least somewhat famous, somewhat recognized or appreciated for his efforts.  Sadly though, Bill Baird’s relationship with the rest of the reproductive rights movement has been, at best, mixed.

He was considered an extremist back when he first started.  Passing out contraceptives actually angered Planned Parenthood, which released a statement calling Baird “overenthusiastic… and every couple seeking birth control information should seek a physician.”

Actually, Planned Parenthood seemed to have it out for the guy – even dissing his challenge of the contraception laws in Massachusetts, saying “there is nothing to be gained by court action of this kind. The only way to remove the limitations remaining in the law is through the legislative process.”

And just for good measure, Betty Friedan actually accused him of being a CIA plant in the New York Times.

Which might be why, on this day when the nation’s attention is on the 41st Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, this is likely to be the only place you’ll read about Bill Baird and his place history.

For all that he’s done, it’s puzzling how marginalized he’s been by the establishment Pro-Choice movement.  The man deserves better.

He deserves to be recognized as the founding father of the reproductive rights movement – not its forgotten father.

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