(Craig Crawford, The Orlando Sentinel, 9/13/1987) — Bill Baird chased rats, picked bugs from his food and endured strip searches in a Boston prison for doing in 1967 what many would now consider a community service: giving contraceptives to college students.
The longtime birth-control advocate got himself arrested to convince the U.S. Supreme Court that Americans are entitled to privacy in their sexual relations. His strategy worked.
“I’m not a spectator in the cause of freedom — I’ve paid my dues,” said Baird, 55, from his clinic in Hempstead, N.Y. The non- profit clinic is one of three he operates in the Northeast, offering birth control and abortions to the poor.
It has been 15 years since the Supreme Court overturned Baird’s felony conviction for violating a Massachusetts law that outlawed birth control for single people.
The basis for the court’s ruling was its earlier 1965 decision in Griswold vs. Connecticut, which gave married people a right to privacy in the use of contraceptives. Although the Bill of Rights does not explicitly mention privacy Justice William O. Douglas wrote for the majority in Griswold that the right was to be found in the “penumbras” and “emanations” of other constitutional protections.
When Baird reached the court the justices were ready to expand that right to include single people.
“If the right to privacy means anything,” Justice William Brennan wrote in Baird’s case, “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.”
The decision not only voided similar laws in 25 other states, it also paved the way for the court’s controversial opinion a year later in Roe vs. Wade. The Roe decision, which extended the right of privacy to women seeking abortions, cited the Baird opinion six times.
Baird, then 34, wanted to go to prison April 6, 1967, when he took the stage in front of 3,000 students and 20 police officers at Boston University. A committee of students had asked him to talk about birth control. University administrators feared a riot and called the police.
The speech threatened to violate the state’s “crimes against chastity” statute, which forbade anyone to publish or exhibit information about birth- control methods or to give speeches about the subject.
Baird was convinced that going to jail for violating the statute so conspicuously might just propel him to the Supreme Court. In his Boston University speech, he included biblical references to contraception and showed magazine photographs of birth-control pills. Although that would have appeared to violate the broad statute, the police officers did not respond.
Then Baird handed a 19-year-old student a package of contraceptive foam he had bought at a department store. That did it. He was handcuffed on stage and carried off as he told the protesting students to be calm, that history was being made.
Baird, who has four children, suddenly became a national symbol of the sexual revolution. He was no stranger to the issue, having become an activist in 1963 after a woman died in his arms from a coat- hanger abortion. She had staggered into the New York hospital where he worked as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company. Bloodied from the waist down, she said she couldn’t bear another child with nine at home already.
Baird and his wife, Eve, took the $6,000 they had saved for him to finish medical school, bought a van and started touring New York slums, promoting birth control. He never became a doctor, but eventually he changed medicine by forcing a Supreme Court decision about the rights of single people to get professional advice about contraception.
At first, Baird lost in the Boston University case. The jail sentence was delayed so that Baird could appeal. The Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the conviction, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear it. That process took three years.
So Baird finally was jailed in 1970. The experience proved to be grittier than the mere display of principle he had intended. He landed in Boston’s rat- infested Charles Street prison, which a judge ordered closed years later because of its abuse of inmates.
“I’ll never forget the screams of a female prisoner who committed suicide by setting herself on fire,” Baird said. “I had to pick bugs out of my food. The guards would strip me and search my body for drugs. They were just trying to break my spirit, but it didn’t work.”
Covered with lice, Baird was released 36 days later when a federal court overturned the Massachusetts law used to convict him. His lawyer had filed another appeal, and that time the courts were obliged to consider Baird’s case more carefully because he had been imprisoned.
The Supreme Court was more sympathetic to the second appeal, and Baird finally made history, as he had predicted.
Still $200,000 in debt for legal fees and other costs, Baird continues to be an outspoken advocate of birth control and abortion through more than 300 lectures and interviews each year. He is not sorry he took his stand, but he has become almost bitter about public attitudes.
“Things are worse than they’ve ever been,” he said. “Most Americans are decent, but they just don’t want to get involved in protecting freedom. Most won’t even bother to send a postcard to their senator.”