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the Body Politic
Vol. 6, No. 3 - March 1996, Page 29
Copyright © 1996, 1997 by the Body Politic Inc.
The Way We Were

Bill Baird: The 30 Year Crusade

Conversations, Clippings and Remembrances

Part II

by Anne Bower

In February, the Body Politic began telling the story of Bill Baird and his landmark Supreme Court case, Eisenstadt v. Baird,, which established the right of the unmarried to use birth control. Eisenstadt, in 1972, followed the Griswold case in 1965, which established the right of privacy in marital situations. Griswold and Eisenstadt were the two foundations that supported Roe v. Wade in 1973.

"My cell is the size of a large closet. Yellow paint flakes from the walls, the floor is blood red. The ceiling exhibits a network of cracks. The bed has an olive-drab frame and a two-inch cotton mattress, dark with rusty brown stains. I ask the guard about the mattress. The last man in the cell attempted suicide."
At the close of our February article, Mr. Baird had been arrested in Boston in April, 1967 for giving a condom and some vaginal foam to a young woman in the audience at a speech he gave at Boston University. He was convicted of this crime and sentenced to three months in prison. The case went on immediate appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court – a process that stretched into 1970.

During the long two and a half year wait for the Supreme Court decision, Mr. Baird was busy fighting, not only for the right to birth control, but the right to an abortion.

Friends and Foes

Clippings from '67 to '70 relate some of Mr. Baird's activities, including speaking on college campuses, especially in Massachusetts. Students rallied and marched before and after his trial. The Boston University News of October 11, 1967 reported Mr. Baird summed up his crusade thus:
"You have the absolute right to determine your own morality. When will our civilization realize that you can't use a child as punishment? We should be past the scarlet letter days."
Sentiments such as these won him wide support. He spoke at Queens College in Flushing, the Washington College of Law, Syracuse University at a Sex and Sexuality Conference, and addressed the Senior class of 1970 at the University of Massachusetts.

Of course, there were detractors. When the state of Massachusetts proposed a change in its abortion law, Mr. Baird was there to testify. So was a Louis Post, father of seven and secretary of a new group called Americans for Public Morality.

According to an account in the Boston Globe, March 14, 1968, Mr. Post said he, "... does not intend to see them (his children) corrupted by every demand for legalized sexual license, legalized murder, and legalized perversion that comes along."

Mr. Baird engaged in a debate with state Senator Wall who interrupted the hearing to shout that, "He (Mr. Baird) had no right to come to our state, enter our colleges, and violate our laws. If you think our lives should be changed, you should become a resident and run for this Legislature."

While all this was going on, Mr. Baird continued his confrontation with the Catholic Church, picketing St. Patrick's Cathedral, arranging meetings with various bishops and cardinal's offices, and speaking out against their lobbying, claiming that the church's tax exempt status should be removed.

Even though Mr. Baird enjoyed support from many organizations, some who should have supported him did not. The Harvard Graduate Bulletin of December 16, 1967 printed quotes from Dr. Alan Guttmacher, President of Planned Parenthood saying that, "he believes that Baird has been over-enthusiastic and that every couple seeking birth control information should go to a doctor."

The paper also quoted an unnamed prominent member of the Massachusetts Planned Parenthood League as saying, "The League feels it can live with the present law, and Baird's efforts are an embarrassment to our group."

But Mr. Baird persevered in his determination to see a change in the laws and on January 12, 1970 the Supreme Court refused to hear his 3case, letting his three month jail sentence stand. When the decision was handed down, Mr. Baird was in Honolulu, Hawaii supporting abortion reform in that state. He curtailed his trip and returned to the mainland.

The Honolulu Star Bulletin of January 13, 1970 reported on a march for repeal of abortion laws. One of the marchers was a pregnant 14 year old Catholic school girl who said, "I don't have anyone to turn to. I'm scared out of my mind. I seriously considered killing myself. If I could get some money, I would run away some place. But, I really have nowhere I can run to."

This young woman had a mother and step-father and attended Catholic school. No one had ever discussed contraception with her. The father was a 19 year old college student who, when told of the pregnancy, relayed the message that he wanted nothing more to do with her and then fled the scene. Going to a doctor was out of the question because the doctor would have to ask her parent's permission to do an examination. She couldn't talk to her mother because she would be thrown out of the house. A familiar scenario, even today.

Doors Slam Shut

As society showed little compassion for the Hawaiian school girl, there was also little compassion in the law for Mr. Baird. On February 20, 1970, he left his wife and four children and turned himself into the authorities to begin serving his time in the Suffolk County Jail in Massachusetts. The following are a few excerpts from the diary Mr. Baird kept while incarcerated:
"There are 18 upward steps before you come to an electrically-operated door. I wait three or four minutes: time means nothing in jail. Outside they're still chanting. The door opens, creak, creak, creak. I walk through and the door booms shut so fast it makes me jump. (I was to find this the typical rhythm of jail doors at Charles Street: screech, screech, screech, and a sudden iron clang echoing.) I can't hear anyone, no shouts now, no "Free Bill Baird."

"The formalities stretch on endlessly. For three-quarters of an hour I am not officially "accepted". Legal documents are necessary. If I die in Charles Street without the necessary papers I die a non-person: no one can claim the corpse. But the papers arrive: I am mugged, fingerprinted, brought to the shower room, ordered to strip."

"Guards search my clothes for contraband. Dope and weapons, mainly. My money is put into an account. I may draw on the account for candy bars, newspapers, and minor purchases. The efficiency of the guards is impressive. They check every seam. Meanwhile, I stand naked, conscious of ritual dehumanization. I am undergoing group conversion from human values into a thing, an object, a prisoner."

"I receive yellowed bed sheets and a torn woolen blanket."

"They permit me to dress after the search."

"If the right of privacy means anything, 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."
U.S. Supreme Court Eisenstadt v. Baird
March 22, 1972
The sheriff, Thomas Eisenstadt, puts Mr. Baird in a special cell for "celebrity" prisoners. There have been threats of violence against him. The cell is considered a "privilege", but it means that Mr. Baird must remain in the cell 24 hours a day.
"It's going to be worse than I thought.

"The windows – they have these soiled windows in niches, the slots of a medieval fortress – are broken and, under the ceiling, I can hear the bawling of pigeons. There are pigeon droppings everywhere, starring the stone, gray granite splashers. A knot of guards patrols the cellblocks."

"My cell is the size of a large closet. Yellow paint flakes from the walls, the floor is blood red. The ceiling exhibits a network of cracks. The bed has an olive-drab frame and a two-inch cotton mattress, dark with rusty brown stains. I ask the guard about the mattress. The last man in the cell attempted suicide."

"The stench of the place – septic. I hear men on the five tiers; they know of my arrival. Somewhere, drifting in the gloom, a man is screaming. When the guards lock the door, I fix my bunk. I work under a 60-watt bulb. The mattress, I discover, swarms with lice. Tucking in the blanket, I finish the job before the electrical current cuts off. I stand in the dark, lean my burning forehead against the plaster and listen to the screams."
This was Mr. Baird's first day in jail. He was to spend 36 more there. During this time, Mr. Balliro, the Boston lawyer handling Mr. Baird's case, was also in the process of following the step-by-step route of appeal to a lower Federal court. This process would stretch two more years.

Mr. Baird's prison term caused an outcry for parole. Letters, petitions, and telegrams flooded the Governor's office. Only one was against release. However, the release took many days and during that time, Mr. Baird recorded the death of a fellow inmate.

"I wake up around 3 AM, aroused by smoke. There's a commotion from the direction of the women's corridor. Tables crash. At first I think there's a fight going on, but as my mind clears, the guards run past and I realize the jail's on fire."

"The smoke is acrid and gray. Where's my emergency mug, I ask myself, and grope for it before I comprehend what a silly and futile gesture it would be to bang on my cell door with a tin cup as I go up in flames. The trouble cell is now occupied by an alcoholic with delusions of grandeur who calls himself President Jefferson. He's pressed against the bars shouting: 'I'm President Jefferson and how dare you fight that fire without my permission?'"

"The guards act heroically. The cell blaze is brought under control. The cell is that of a Mrs. Mary Bunnell, convicted of alcoholism, who was in solitary serving the 14th day of a 15-day sentence. She died in the fire. During the remainder of the night, I stay awake hearing President Jefferson yell, 'Atten-shun, hup two-three-four, hup two-three-four', but after a while he stops, and in that instant there are scores of pigeons cooing from the darkness and the flutter of wings."


On Good Friday, 1970, Mr. Baird was finally reunited with his wife and children and returned to Long Island to continue the fight for legal birth-control and abortion. During the two years the case that became Eisenstadt v. Baird was on appeal, Mr. Baird intensified his protest activities.

In November 1970, according to the Boston Herald Traveler, he demonstrated at the AMA annual meeting held in Boston at the Statler Hilton. There he railed against the "... callous apathy that borders on criminal negligence of abortion laws in the Commonwealth." Mr. Baird also criticized what he called "medicine by geographical boundaries, meaning that women can obtain legal abortion in some states and not other."

One year after his jailing, in March 1971, Mr. Baird was embroiled in a fight in his hometown of Hempstead. The village board, by 4-0, passed an ordinance forbidding abortions to be performed anywhere but Hempstead General Hospital. Mr. Baird had been offering abortions in his Parent's Aid Society clinic on Main Street. Mr. Baird called a press conference and vowed to fight these restrictions. He had been offering abortions, performed by physicians, for a cost of nothing to $175.

By June 1972, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Mr. Baird. This had an effect on municipalities and women all across New York, because a number of towns were readying ordinances to forbid abortion clinics from opening. The court ruling said that the State has reserved for itself the right to decide where abortions will be performed with the key element being that abortions be performed by a physician.

While that decision was in process, Mr. Baird, in July, 1971, called on New York State University students to press for legislation that would permit abortion by non-medical personnel. Considering the shortage of doctors who will perform abortions today, it is certainly unfortunate that proposal never caught on.

The AMA, the Catholic Church, and legislators were not the only opponents Mr. Baird faced before the Supreme Court ruling in Eisenstadt. Newspaper accounts of those two years show Mr. Baird being snubbed by the radical feminist movement. Headlines such as "Women Snub Male" and "Baird to Crash Gals' Big March" appeared. ` Mr. Baird became embroiled in a confrontation with Betty Freidan, who he called a "sexual racist". He voiced the fear that if the woman's movement is ruled by such as Ms. Freidan, it would set the movement back severely.

It is ironic that during this time, Mr. Baird received a letter of praise from the Nixon White House. Harry S. Dent, special counsel to the President wrote, "The President has asked me to thank you for the file you have sent us regarding your proposals in the interest of birth control.... The President is certainly grateful for the consideration you have shown for healthy improvements throughout this country and he appreciates the time you have taken to send him your proposals."


Eventually, in November 1971, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Eisenstadt v. Baird. Former Senator Joseph Tydings presented for Mr. Baird. The Senator argued that the Massachusetts law was unconstitutional because it prevented Federal statutes authorizing family planning services for welfare recipients to be implemented. The law also violated the Constitution's protection of "due process" by imposing an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

Finally, on March 22, 1972, after five years of frustration the highest court in America ruled that the unmarried, as well as the married, have a right to contraception and privacy as it related to sexual matters. The 6-1 decision produced one of the most quoted sentences in the history of reproductive rights rulings:

"If the right of privacy means anything, 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."

It's been four years since I wrote that story on Bill Baird. There have been many changes. Some good, some not so good. Bill and I have become friends, often sharing stories and cheering each other. My publication now has national circulation.

However, Bill no longer provides abortion services on Long Island. Never a "good man of business", (I think it was too difficult for him to say "no") he lost his clinic and now lives by speaking engagements, many found by his friends and through the Pro-Choice League.

Never a rich man, Bill still lives a Spartan life. A softspoken modest man by nature, Bill becomes a tiger in a debate and remains to this day, one of the most eloquent speakers about the right of sexual and reproductive freedom. His activism and spirit are undiminished and his commitment remains strong.

Mr. Baird may be contacted at:

        PO Box 324
        Huntington, LI 11743

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