Griswold vs. Connecticut and the Right to Contraceptives

Griswold v. Connecticut is seen as a landmark case in the right to contraceptives. In this case, the Supreme Court held that married couples have a constitutional right to use contraceptives. This subsequently became the main argument in Roe v. Wade, another landmark case on right to contraceptives.

Griswold v. Connecticut

In November 1961, authorities invoked the two laws in the prosecution of Estelle Griswold, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League in Connecticut, and C. Lee Buxton, a physician and medical director for the League at its office in New Haven. Griswold and Buxton advised married persons on how to prevent conception, and, following a medical exam, they prescribed contraceptive devices or materials for the wife’s use. They were found guilty as accessories under statute 54-196 which generally prohibited the use of birth control and fined $100 each. The two sued the State of Connecticut claiming that the law was unconstitutional.

Issues

The issue in the case was whether there was a constitutional right of privacy enjoyed by married couples and whether they had to be counselled in the use of contraceptives.

Court’s Ruling

In his majority opinion (7-2), Justice William O. Douglas listed a series of cases as evidence for his thesis that “specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.” The marital relationship must be understood as lying within these “zones of privacy,” and the ban on using contraceptives was unconstitutional because it sought to “achieve its goal by means having a maximum destructive impact upon that relationship.”

“Penumbra” Theory

There is no explicit right to privacy under the US Constitution. The Court held that couples have a right to contraceptives and this right stems from a penumbra emitting from the Bill of Rights as well as the Amendments to the Constitution. The Court chose to fashion the “penumbra theory” in lieu of due process to strike down a law prohibiting the distribution or use of contraceptives. According to the penumbra theory, the right of privacy was implicit in a variety of constitutional provisions. The soundness of the penumbra theory has been the subject of considerable debate, but whatever its cogency may be, the fact remains that in Griswold, the Court once again expanded the fundamental right of privacy, this time to include the right of an individual to obtain and use contraceptives. The Court considers procreational and family matters to be fundamental rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The right of privacy, then, includes the right to marry, the right to divorce, the right to have children, the right to use contraceptives, the right to have an abortion, the right to live together as a family, and the right to control the upbringing of one’s children.

The dissenters did not agree with the right to privacy but found the law to be unenforceable, downright silly and outdated.

Conclusion

This landmark judgment led to several other judgments on reproductive rights and the right to contraception.

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