How Five Decades Of Legal Birth Control Have Changed Americans’ Lives

Jun 9, 2015 by


CREDIT: Shutterstock/Andrew Breiner

abortion birth control pill

CREDIT: Shutterstock/Andrew Breiner

In 1961, Estelle Griswold opened a Planned Parenthood clinic in Connecticut with the explicit intention of getting arrested. Griswold was handing out prescriptions for birth control in the hopes of challenging a state law dating back to 1879 that criminalized the use of contraception.

It worked: Griswold was convicted for disseminating information about birth control to married couples. She appealed her case all the way up to the Supreme Court — which ultimately decided, exactly five decades ago, that state-level bans on birth control violate married couple’s right to privacy. (The Court has since expanded the right to use contraception to unmarried couples, too.)

For women’s health advocates, Griswold v. Connecticut represents a landmark case that helped establish lasting legal precedent about privacy and reproductive health. And the decision’s 50th anniversary on Sunday serves as a reminder of all the ways in which legal contraception has changed Americans’ lives.

“In part because of the fight that Estelle Griswold led 50 years ago, most people who get college degrees in this country are women, and half of the graduates from law school and medical school are women,” Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, told ThinkProgress in a statement via email. “Access to birth control has transformed women’s health outcomes, educational attainment, and economic opportunity.”

Indeed, a large body of research has linked contraception to American women’s ability to control almost every aspect of their lives. Public health experts — who have designated birth control as one of the most important advances of the 20th century — don’t mince words about the role that contraception has played over the past several decades. It reduces unintended pregnancies, helps women space their childbearing, and leads to healthier babies.

“Birth control, as a core component of family planning, is one of the most important public health success stories of our generation,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, told ThinkProgress. “We politicize it way too much and underemphasize its enormous benefits.”

As Benjamin alludes to, Griswold‘s 50th birthday comes at a time when fierce debates about contraception are dominating the national stage.

Leading anti-abortion groups have successfully cast certain birth control methods as a form of abortion, which has served as an effective method of drumming up controversy around Obamacare’s contraceptive coverage requirements. Last summer, the justices took a step backward in reproductive health policy by ruling in favor of two for-profit businesses that object to covering certain types of birth control, a decision that ended up endorsing scientific inaccuracies about how exactly contraception works.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have attempted to get rid of taxpayer-funded family planning services altogether, and conservative state lawmakers continue to balk at expanding access to the most effective forms of birth control. Social conservatives continue to fight to prevent high school health classes from including any mention of contraception or condoms at all.

“I must say, on a personal level, I can’t believe that we’re still arguing about some of these things. I sometimes get discouraged,” Sarah Brown, the president of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told ThinkProgress.

“But I think it’s a relatively small group that fights so hard on these issues,” Brown added. “From a long-term perspective, we’re making progress. And I think it’s important to realize that, if you look at what women themselves are saying and doing, contraception sure isn’t controversial — at least not in our personal lives. Somewhere upwards of 95 to 99 percent of women who have had sex have used some form of birth control.”

That’s why Brown’s organization has recently been engaged in a widespread effort to increase public conversation around contraception and help challenge the notion that it’s a contentious issue. The “Thanks, Birth Control” campaign, which first kicked off in 2013, encourages Americans to communicate the value of birth control as a basic and nearly universal women’s health service. The National Campaign launched a #ThxBirthControl hashtag to collect positive stories about contraception.

Perhaps unlike most other policy issues, talking about birth control gets personal very quickly. It’s closely related to sexual behavior, intimate relationships, and cultural attitudes toward marriage and family. It threatens to serve as somewhat of a gateway issue into other controversial topics, like abortion access and sex ed classes. That can make it a bit harder for Americans to feel comfortable wading into the conversation.

“I do think public advocacy for contraception is probably not at the level that I would like to see,” Brown, who noted she wouldn’t be in her current leadership role without the ability to use birth control to plan her family, said. “When some of the political controversies get going, I think people who have benefited from contraception have not always stepped forward to explain what it’s meant in their life.”

As the Griswold decision reaches its 50th anniversary, however, there’s some evidence that Americans are starting to make connections between the personal and political nature of birth control. A poll released last week by the National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association found that a broad majority of registered voters agree that access to birth control “plays an essential role in improving community health.” In that same poll, female voters reported they’re three times more likely to support a candidate who favors increasing funding for the family planning safety net.

That’s good news for advocates of reproductive rights — who argue that, if the country doesn’t get more comfortable talking openly about family planning, it becomes harder to defend birth control from impending legislative attacks.

“It’s important for people to be reminded about the vital role that contraception has played, and continues to play, in the lives of both men and women. It’s important we’re not taking its benefits for granted,” Adam Sonfield, a senior public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, told ThinkProgress. “Because clearly, there’s unfortunately a small group of people in this country who want to roll that back.”

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