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the Body Politic
Vol. 6, No. 2 - February 1996, Page 10
Copyright © 1996, 1997 by the Body Politic Inc.

The Way We Were

Bill Baird: The 30 Year Crusade

Conversations, Clippings and Remembrances

Part I

by Anne Bower

The February, 1992 issue of the Body Politic featured an interview with Bill Baird, a pro-choice activist who began work four decades ago to secure the right to reproductive health care and sexual freedom for Americans. At the time of first printing, we were not a nationally distributed publication so few outside of the Northeast read this tale of repression and sorrow.

In keeping with our mission to educate our readers on the history of this movement, we once again, tell the story of this extraordinary man, a street fighter, who was not afraid to take on religion, the Supreme Court, thugs, and even the pro-choice community for reproductive freedom.


The headline in the Boston paper Friday, April 7, 1967 blared:

Vice Squad Nabs BU Birth Control Speaker

Bill Baird had been arrested again. Before many of us were pro-choice, before many of us were activists, before many of us were born, Bill Baird had created another stir that helped define our right to choose.

I stood before 2,000 people and explained why I felt that women, and only women alone, had the right to make decisions about abortion and why the public had to have the right to privacy in the matter of birth control.
Mr. Baird's reproductive rights activism began in the early 60's when he worked for the Emko foam company and fitted up a mobile van that toured the poor sections of Long Island and New York City dispensing non-prescription methods of birth control and information about their use.

This was illegal. It was illegal because of archaic laws from the 1800's which were still on the books in the supposedly enlightened Northeast. Mr. Baird committed himself to fighting these absurdities after his experiences watching the poor struggle to raise families without access to family planning. The defining experience of this commitment happened in medical school when a woman died in his arms. She had eight inches of coat hanger in her uterus – the poor woman's curette.

Mr. Baird's early activism in support of the distribution of birth control culminated in Eisenstadt v. Baird, the 1972 Supreme Court ruling that established the right to privacy for unmarried as well as married couples. Eisenstadt is one of the cornerstones of Roe, as it defined the right to privacy in decisions about reproduction for everyone.

In a conversation January 23rd, Mr. Baird shared some of his memories about how Eisenstadt came to be, and graciously offered many of his newspaper clippings which document this five year battle. The following account is based on our conversation and these clippings.

Massachusetts General Laws Annotated

Chapter 272 – Crimes against chastity, morality decency and good order

§ 20 ... whoever knowingly advertises, prints, publishes, distributes or circulates, or knowingly causes to be advertised, printed, published, distributed or circulated, any pamphlet, printed paper, book, newspaper, notice, hint or reference to any person, or to the name of any person, real or fictitious, from whom, or to any place, house, shop or office where any poison, drug, mixture, preparation, medicine or noxious thing, or any instrument or means whatever, or any advice, direction, information or knowledge may be obtained for the purpose of causing or procuring the miscarriage of a woman pregnant with child or of preventing, or which is represented as intended to prevent, pregnancy shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than three years or in jail for not more than two and one half years or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars.

In 1967, this law was still on the books, even after the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that married couples had the right to use birth control. Of course, the key word here is married. Many of the students at Boston University were not married, but they joined with Bill Baird in condemning this affront to their ability to make decisions about reproduction. Here, in his own words, is Mr. Baird's account of the fight that culminated in Eisenstadt v. Baird.

You have to understand that Griswold only affected married people and my struggle was for all Americans to have the same right of privacy.

I received a letter from Ray Mungo, who was the editor of the BU News. He had a petition of 300 names saying: Bill, will you come to Massachusetts because Planned Parenthood isn't doing enough. They were just talking about the law and single people had no access.

Very honestly, I had just gotten out of jail in New Jersey and New York. Why the hell did I want to go to jail in Boston, where I didn't know anybody? So I said "No". Get somebody else to fight the law. But they pleaded with me and said, look, we really need your help.

So I said, OK, but you've got to promise you'll help me. Of course, I didn't realize they could only help until they graduated, which was the next term. When this particular group left BU, I was left to face the onslaught.

But if you decide to fight a law you have to plan how to do it and where to do it. Remember, the law said anyone who, printed, published, or exhibited, gave any information, or caused to be written (your writing this story could have put you in jail in 26 states) was libel for punishment. I decided to go to Boston University because I had all those people who were backing me.

On April 6th, at 4:30 in the afternoon, I showed up at Boston University and never dreamed what I would see. There were police cars lined up in a row and 2,000 people waiting. They practically had to carry me on their shoulders to get me on the stage.

My first sentence to them was, "Stay calm. History is being made here. Work within the system." (I felt we had the greatest system in the world – we just needed to put better people in it.) I stood before 2,000 people and explained why I felt that women, and only women alone, had the right to make decisions about abortion and why the public had to have the right to privacy in the matter of birth control.

I said, if I'm right, if the Court will hear me – and you have to understand that about 98% of cases are rejected – it will provide a right of privacy to repeal the laws on birth control, abortion, fornication, and oral sex. That was my battle plan.

"We are told by our lawyers, experts in constitutional law, that there is no violation of constitutional rights in the present case."
Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts
After my speech, I held up Time magazine of April 1967. On the cover was a photograph of "the pill" and taped on the front was an actual pill and a St. Joseph's baby aspirin, which looked like the pill. I said to the police, "Will you arrest me for this?" I figured if they would arrest me for that it would be too unconstitutionally vague, but the police just smirked.

The next thing I did was grab the Bible. The people who come at me were usually Bible-thumpers so I decided to use their weapon against them. Genesis 38, talks about Onan who spilled his seed on the ground to prevent his dead brother's wife from conceiving while Onan was having sex with her. This is also called withdrawal. This could make the Bible in violation of the law.

I thought this was brilliant. It would nail every priest, minister, and rabbi and put them all in court. The police laughed.

Well, I was here to challenge the law so I had to do something. I had also given out the names of abortionists, but they were in other countries, and they wouldn't arrest me for that either. I held up a curette and dilator, but they made no move.

My ace-in-the-hole was that just before I went to the talk, I stopped at a Zayer's department store and from a little 18 year old sales clerk, not a pharmacist, I bought one condom and one package of foam. I attached the sales receipt, which included the tax, and gave it to a young woman. I told the police if they were going to arrest me they should jail the Attorney General for collecting a tax on an illegal sale. That did it. They handcuffed me for violating the law, Crimes Against Chastity. The students became enraged. I said keep calm. You mustn't interfere. James Hamilton of the ACLU stood up and said they would represent me. The audience cheered. I was taken to jail, and the students passed the hat because I had no money. They got me out of jail that day.

Then things got difficult. Planned Parenthood didn't want to support me. I was an "embarrassment". My character was assassinated – I was being supported by the drug industry – paid big dollars. That just wasn't true. Students put me up on their couches because I had no money for a hotel. The law tried to intimidate me, but I wouldn't frighten. I said I will continue to fight and do what has to be done.

Newspaper clippings from 1967 to 1972 illustrate how long and difficult the battle became.

Baird faces 13 years in prison
was the headline in the B.U. News on April 12, 1967. The article by Raymond Mungo, the editor who originally wrote Mr. Baird, said that Baird was arraigned Friday morning in Roxbury Fourth District Court by Judge Charles Taylor, and charged with violating all three sections of the Massachusetts Crimes Against Chastity law. Mr. Baird pleaded not guilty on grounds the laws are unconstitutional because they force a private morality on the general public. Trial was set for May 8.

The next few weeks saw Mr. Baird lionized in student and public newspapers. The B.U. News of April 12th said,

"The University grew up last Thursday as one of the most courageous men in the country strode on our stage, violated a set of discriminatory, inhuman, and outdated laws, and was handcuffed and jailed in a tiny Boston cell."

"We grew up because we asked William Baird to come here, and the proof of our maturity will be the extent to which we are willing to stand by him up to and including an eventual overthrow of the law. That overthrow, when Baird achieves it, will have begun here; and, as he says, we will have made history."

"William Baird stands for freedom and an educated recognition of one of society's most sensitive problems – overpopulation – and he stands almost alone. Even in the six days since he arrived here, he has been bullied, vilified, attacked. Ironically, he is ready to sacrifice his own freedom to ensure ours."

The article went on to solicit donations for the $20,000 it would probably take to move his case to the Supreme Court. A few days later, the editorial staff of the Boston College Heights, the campus student newspaper, was threatened with suspension for inviting Mr. Baird to speak. A Rev. George Drury, Director of Student Personnel Services said there could be disciplinary action including revocation of scholarships and suspension. The staff continued with the lecture. When Mr. Baird spoke, the office was packed and another 300 students listened in the hallway.

By May 3rd, the Boston University News reported that two of Mr. Baird's original charges, "oral violations" – talking about birth control to unmarried students and saying the names of Tokyo abortionist – had been dropped. This may have discouraged the ACLU from taking his case. Now, Mr. Baird had to seek a private attorney.

The article listed what Mr. Baird had gained so far in this battle:

"... an ever increasing debt of $50,000; twenty days in a New Jersey jail; hospital bills for an operation; a mild heart attack; the threat of 10 years in prison; and countless enemies, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Planned Parenthood Organization, the nation's largest birth control group."
At that time, Mr. Baird could not afford to go home before his hearing and hoped that somehow his family would make it to Boston for the 8th. The headline in the Boston Record American for May 9th announced:
Birth Control Law Test Waived

"The way was cleared Monday for a quick test of the constitutionality of the Massachusetts birth control law, as Roxbury District Court Judge Charles Taylor referred to the Superior Court the case of William Baird, charged with distributing and displaying birth control medicine and articles to Boston University students April 6."

Mr. Baird had an offer of service from a local attorney, Joseph Balliro, and the students were outside picketing in support. The judge wasted little time. When Mr. Balliro tried to ask the court a question, the judge said, "I don't want to hear any facts. The question is a test of the constitutionality.... I'm not interested in giving Mr. Baird any publicity. I don't want to hear the facts. Send it right up."

And up it went with headlines foreseeing a "quick test" for the law. However, it went up without the ACLU and without Planned Parenthood. The League in Massachusetts did not even operate their own clinics, as the Executive Director stated in a letter discussing the agency's position in the Baird case:

"We have always had the right of free speech in this state. It has always been legal to use contraceptives and it has always been legal to speak about contraceptives. It was, under the old law, illegal for physicians to prescribe, or pharmacists to fill prescriptions for contraceptives for anyone. Now it is legal for doctors to prescribe and administer, and for pharmacists to fill prescriptions, for married persons."

"We are told by our lawyers, experts in constitutional law, that there is no violation of constitutional rights in the present case. They tell us, and we agree, that the only way to liberalize the current law is through the process of filing a bill in the Legislature and working for its passage."

"The Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts has no official position on abortion which is not part of our program, and it is a non-sectarian organization which deals sympathetically with people of all faiths. From what I have read of Mr. Baird, abortion is part of what he is fighting for, and he is openly critical of the predominant faith in Massachusetts."

The letter suggests that if Mr. Baird and his "young followers" would like to make the law less "archaic" they should file a bill – the only approach that individual members of Planned Parenthood could support. The organization as a whole could not support any reform because of its tax status.
How times have changed. It was a long five years until Baird v. Eisenstadt was finally handed down March 22, 1972.

The rest of this story, including the Supreme Court's initial refusal to hear the case and Bill Baird's brush with death in a Boston jail cell, will be told in next month's Body Politic.


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