Science and Law: Griswold v. Connecticut: Can the state control your reproductive choices?

March 17, 2015

Science and Law


381 U.S. 479 (1965)

Today’s case is considered a landmark one for establishing the right to privacy in the U.S., which invalidated a state law preventing couples from accessing contraception in consultation with their doctor. Recently, there has been a great deal of controversy with regard to abortion and even contraception and how states can prohibit or limit access. Let’s look at how the constitution was interpreted in this groundbreaking Supreme Court case.

Case Background

  • In 1879 Connecticut passed a statute prohibiting couples from acquiring contraception. The law states that “any person who uses any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purposes of preventing conception shall be fined not less than forty dollars or imprisoned not less than sixty days.” Furthermore, “any person who assists, abets, counsels, causes, hires, or commands another to commit any offense may be prosecuted and punished as if he were the principle offender,” meaning that the doctor could be arrested as well.
  • Estelle Griswold, executive director of Connecticut’s Planned Parenthood League, and Dr. C Lee Buxton, doctor and professor at Yale Medical School violated this law, were found guilty, and fined $100,
  • The two initiated a lawsuit, challenging the law, and took their case to the Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut, which upheld the conviction.
  • They appealed the ruling, and it reached the Supreme Court in 1965.

What issues are being debated?

  • What are the limits of the state’s ability to interfere in the personal lives of private citizens, even in their own home?
  • Should the state be able to interfere with the relationship between patient and doctor?
  • More broadly, what is the state’s role in regulating issues of health and morality?

How was the Constitution interpreted and applied?

  • The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Griswold 7-2, with the majority decision being written by Justice William O. Douglas. He argued that the Connecticut law violated a right to marital privacy.
  • Justice Douglas’ argument stated that multiple protections in the Bill of Rights stem from a fundamental unstated right to privacy, including the 1st Amendment (free speech), 3rd Amendment (the state cannot force citizens to house troops), 4th Amendment (freedom from searches and seizures), 5th Amendment (freedom from self-incrimination), 9th Amendment (other rights retained by people not enumerated in the Constitution), and the 14th Amendment (the equal protection clause)
  • The court found that marital privacy is both “fundamental” and “substantive,” leading to the idea of substantive due process, the idea that the Constitution protects certain liberties that meet these requirements.
  • Justice John Marshall Harlan II argued that the fundamental right to marital privacy existed because American society had a longstanding tradition of protecting marital privacy. (Ironically, this was ignored when the Supreme Court ruled that sodomy laws were unconstitutional, despite the fact that this was in a sense an American tradition.)

Consequences of this ruling

  • The Supreme Court expanded on substantive due process in a related case, Eisenstadt v. Baird, which established that non-married couples also have a right to access contraception.
  • Overall, the establishment of a right to privacy and the concept of substantive due process can be considered the most important results of this case. Despite the fact that privacy is not mentioned in the Constitution, courts have generally recognized that the state has no right to involve itself in certain aspects of everyday life.

Further thoughts

Consider the role of the state in regulating all aspects of sex. This case established that the state cannot interfere with a couple’s choice whether or not to reproduce with regard to contraception. Can the same be said for abortion at any stage during pregnancy?

Recently, states have begun imposing regulations on a variety of aspects of abortion, including banning specific procedures, and forcing physicians to perform certain procedures or state certain information (without regard to medical accuracy in some cases).

I feel that these constitute overreaches that intrude into the patient-doctor relationship and disregard sensible modern medical practices. Regulations on abortion are not by themselves unconstitutional, but when they interfere with smart medicine and place undue burdens on women (especially poor women and minorities), they become intolerable. Consider the implications of Griswold and Eisenstadt when viewing modern federal and state regulations on human sexuality.


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About jslachman381

I'm a Yale graduate who majored in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health.

View all posts by jslachman381


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One Comment on “Science and Law: Griswold v. Connecticut: Can the state control your reproductive choices?”

  1. Says:

    Thank you for this case Very interesting and well written It is valuable to examine the case history and consider the continuing efforts to control and intrude into our reproductive rights




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