Happy 50th to legal birth control

Supporters of contraceptives rally outside the Supreme Court last June.
Supporters of contraceptives rally outside the Supreme Court last June. AP

Last Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut. On June 7, 1965, the Court declared an 1879 statute criminalizing the distribution and use of contraceptives in Connecticut unconstitutional. Violators of that law faced fines or imprisonment, and any individuals providing counseling on access to contraception were subject to the same penalties. It took the Griswold decision and the Court’s articulation of a “right to privacy” just 50 years ago to legalize access to birth control in the United States.

The Griswold decision remains as relevant today as it was in 1965. Challenges to access to contraception remain and unfair characterizations of women who seek and use contraceptives are not extinct. These problems are even more staggering given the fact that 98 percent of women will use a form of birth control in her lifetime.

A mere 10 years after Griswold, country singer Loretta Lynn made headlines in 1975 with the release of her song “The Pill.” Loosely addressed to her husband, Lynn sings of her personal and physical liberation, saying things were going to change around the house “’cause now I’ve got the pill.” While it seems difficult to believe today, this ode to safe and reliable birth control created a firestorm, and the recording was banned by numerous country radio stations.

It may seem easy to dismiss the Connecticut statute as obviously archaic and Loretta Lynn’s ode to the pill as quaint, but the reality is that for many women in the United States, obtaining affordable, safe and effective contraception is not always a given and women may still be stigmatized for seeking affordable birth control. Much of the debate on the Affordable Care Act in 2012 centered on funding birth control for low-income women and much of the public discourse was derailed by Rush Limbaugh’s characterizations of Sandra Fluke, a witness arguing for such funding. The Affordable Care Act finally acknowledged that birth control is preventive health care for women and made it available with no co-pays, a huge relief for the hundreds of thousands of women paying $60 or more out-of-pocket each month for these prescriptions.

A lack of accessible, affordable birth control has real consequences both for women and society. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in the year 2010, 95,000 North Carolina women experienced an unintended pregnancy, and “these unintended pregnancies cost the state and federal government $858.3 million.” Additionally, the continued votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act jeopardize the eligibility of more than 55 million women for no-copay birth control.

Looking at the costs of unintended pregnancies, though, tells only one part of the story. Planned Parenthood has estimated that access to oral contraceptives accounts for nearly one third of the wage gains made by women since the 1960s. Looking over the last 85 years, Bloomberg Businessweek ranked oral contraceptives as 9th in their list of the 85 most transformational business developments.

Partisan and ideological polarization in the United States remains virulent and debate over the Affordable Care Act remains vehement. Perhaps the 50th anniversary of the Griswold decision provides a good time to reflect on the educational and economic opportunities afforded women and men when families are planned and pregnancies are intended.

Susan L. Roberts is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Davidson College. Email: