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Griswold v. Connecticut and the Right to Contraceptives

An important case in the quest for reproductive rights, Griswold v. Connecticut established a constitutional right to marital privacy involving the use of contraceptives -- essentially setting the stage for what would later become the main argument in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade.

What Happened in Griswold v. Connecticut?

In 1965, Estelle Griswold, executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and Dr. C. Lee Buxton, a physician and professor at Yale, were arrested and fined $100 for giving contraception advice to married couples. A Connecticut law at the time prohibit the use of "any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception" and punished those who "assists, abets, counsels, causes, hires or commands another" to do so. (In other words, it was not a crime to sell birth control devices, but it was a crime to use birth control or any drug or medical instrument for the purposes of preventing conception.)

Griswold and Buxton sued the State of Connecticut claiming the law violated their constitutional rights.

At Issue in the Case

The issue at stake was whether a married couple has a constitutional "right of privacy" to be counseled in the use of contraceptives?

Court's Ruling

In a 7-2 decision written by Justice William Douglas, the Court decided that the state law against contraceptives violated a "zone of privacy" that was inherent in the Constitution. Notably, the Court found constitutional protection emitting from "penumbras" or shadows within several amendments to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Court's Reasoning and the "Penumbra" Theory

Although the Constitutional does not explicitly state a general right to privacy, the Court found a couple's right to contraceptives stems from a "penumbra", or zone, emitting from the Bill of Rights and the First, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, the Court further stated that the Due Process Clause protects liberties that are "so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental."

Under this "penumbra" theory - which in legal terms refers to implied powers of the federal government - the Court discussed the various "zones of privacy" which, in this case, referred to "marital privacy" between a man and a woman.

The two lone dissenters (Justice Black and Justice Stewart) disagreed with the far-stretched constitutional right to privacy, yet instead found the law to be outdated, unenforceable, and down-right silly. (For example, they asked "Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives?")

Conclusion

The overall reasoning in Griswold v. Connecticut regarding the constitutional right to privacy has become the leading argument in several other Supreme Court cases involving the right to privacy on reproductive-related matters. While reproductive rights cases continue to undergo political and legislative scrutiny, Griswold v. Connecticut has the potential to influence other modern issues concerning a person's family life, such as same-sex marriage, in-vitro fertilization, and abortion procedures.

Next Steps
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