For a PDF version of this factsheet with footnotes, please see below.

In 1965, the Supreme Court held in Griswold v. Connecticut, that a married couple’s right to privacy includes the right to use birth control.  This important case was one of the first steps that enabled women to access birth control legally, and in doing so, gave women greater opportunity to plan their families and lives.  Furthermore, the Griswold case laid the foundation for a broad array of rights that shape Americans’ lives to this day, including rights related to birth control,  child rearing, marriage, family relations, and intimacy.

The Griswold Case

“Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts
of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives?
The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding
the marriage relationship.”

–Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965

In 1961, Estelle Griswold opened a Planned Parenthood clinic in New Haven, Connecticut. At that time, Connecticut had a law criminalizing the distribution of birth control to married people.  Griswold and the clinic’s doctor were arrested for, and ultimately convicted of, providing information and advice about birth control to married couples.  They appealed their conviction on the grounds that the Connecticut law violated their patients’ rights under the Constitution.  In 1965, the Supreme Court agreed with them and struck down the Connecticut law.

Griswold and Access to Birth Control Has Changed Women’s Lives and Society

“The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life
of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”

— Planned Parenthood of Se. Pa. v. Casey, 1992

In Griswold, the Court identified a “zone of privacy created by several fundamental constitutional guarantees.” Recognizing the importance of privacy to marriage, the Court invalidated Connecticut’s attempt to prohibit married couples from using birth control. In 1972, in Eisenstadt v Baird, the Court extended to unmarried couples the right to birth control.

By guaranteeing legal access to birth control, the Griswold decision opened the door for dramatic changes for women and for our society.  Since then, birth control has had such a positive impact on women’s lives that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) named “family planning” one of the ten great public health achievements of the twentieth century, alongside vaccinations and control of infectious diseases.   The CDC came to this conclusion both because of birth control’s impact on women’s health and how it has “altered [the] social and economic roles of women.”

Birth control allows women to plan their pregnancies, and planned pregnancies improve both women’s health and their children’s health.  Planning a pregnancy can prevent many complications that could endanger a woman’s health, including gestational diabetes and high blood pressure. A planned pregnancy allows women, including those with health conditions that can become worse with pregnancy, like heart disease, to take steps so they are healthy enough for pregnancy and childbirth.And, women who wait for some time after delivery before becoming pregnant again lower their risk of adverse birth outcomes, such as low birth weight and preterm birth.  Without Griswold, these health benefits could never have become a reality for women.

In addition to birth control’s health benefits, increased control over reproductive decisions that resulted from the Griswold case has provided women with educational and professional opportunities that have advanced gender equality.  Most women report that the ability to better control their lives is a very important reason for using birth control.  In fact, research has shown that the availability of birth control pills is clearly associated with “increases in U.S. women’s education, labor force participation, and average earnings, coupled with a narrowing in the wage gap between women and men.” Another study found that the availability of birth control pills contributed to an increase in the number of women in professional occupations, including doctors and lawyers.

Griswold’s Broad Impact on Privacy Rights

“[T]he teaching of Griswold is that the Constitution protects individual decisions in matters of childbearing from unjustified intrusion by the State.”

–Carey v. Population Services, Int’l, 1977

Griswold is a cornerstone of many of the privacy rights we cherish today.  In the years after the Griswold decision, the Court expanded the Constitutional right to privacy to contraception for unmarried women and access to abortion services, and over time, based privacy rights broadly, for both men and women, on Griswold’s holding.  These rights include how you define your family, raise your children, and choose with whom to have intimate relationships.

“A host of cases [including Griswold]…have consistently acknowledged a 
‘private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.’”

–Moore v. City of E. Cleveland, Ohio, 1977

Griswold also influenced the Court’s decisions in cases about how to raise children.  For example, the Court has relied on Griswold to support the idea that parents’ decisions about how to raise their children, such as how they should be educated, are protected by the Constitution.  Other family relationships are protected by the “zone of privacy” as well.  For example, the Court relied on Griswold to hold that the state cannot interfere in the realm of family life by preventing close relatives from living together.In the 1970’s, the Court decided several cases which protect the right to privacy as it related to access to birth control and abortion.  After Griswold and Eisenstadt, the Court applied this core constitutional principle of privacy to women’s ability to terminate a pregnancy. In Roe v. Wade in 1973, the Court held that the constitutional right to privacy includes a woman’s right to decide whether to have an abortion.  And, Carey v. Population Services, Int’l, a 1977 Supreme Court case, struck down other laws that limited access to birth control, such as a ban on sales or distribution of birth control to individuals under 16.  

“The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of
the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness…”

–Loving v. Virginia, 1967

The Court has relied on Griswold to protect other rights related to personal relationships, including the right to marry and the right to form consensual sexual relationships.  In the years following Griswold, the Court affirmed that the right to marriage is among the fundamental liberties protected by the right to privacy.  And, the right to engage in consensual sexual relationships first recognized in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 was profoundly influenced by Griswold. In deciding Lawrence, the Court noted that Griswold was “the most pertinent beginning point” for its consideration of the Texas law which banned sexual contact between people of the same sex.  The Court ultimately relied on the decisions in Eisenstadt, Roe, and Carey, all stemming from Griswold, to find that the Texas law was unconstitutional.

“[A]dults may choose to enter upon this relationship in
the confines of their homes and their own private lives
and still retain their dignity as free persons.”
–Lawrence v. Texas, 2003

Conclusion

Over the last fifty years, the right to legally access birth control which started with Griswold has dramatically changed women’s lives and their ability to participate fully in society. And, through Griswold’s impact on other Supreme Court cases, its protections have reached many aspects of our private lives – whether and when to have children, what a family looks like, how to raise children, who to marry, and with whom to have intimate sexual relationships.

 
Published On: June 2, 2015Associated Issues: Birth ControlSupreme Court