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Photo of a man protesting outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in New Haven, Connecticut.
In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court identified a constitutionally protected right to privacy, which the court reasoned prohibited states from denying birth control to married couples. Above, a man protests outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in New Haven, Connecticut.

Reproduction courtesy of Corbis Images
Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Supreme Court ruled that a state's ban on the use of contraceptives violated the right to marital privacy. The case concerned a Connecticut law that criminalized the encouragement or use of birth control. The 1879 law provided that "any person who uses any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purposes of preventing conception shall be fined not less than forty dollars or imprisoned not less than sixty days." The law further provided that "any person who assists, abets, counsels, causes, hires or commands another to commit any offense may be prosecuted and punished as if he were the principle offender."

Estelle Griswold, the executive director of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and Dr. C. Lee Buxton, doctor and professor at Yale Medical School, were arrested and found guilty as accessories to providing illegal contraception. They were fined $100 each. Griswold and Buxton appealed to the Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut, claiming that the law violated the U.S. Constitution. The Connecticut court upheld the conviction, and Griswold and Buxton appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1965.

The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision written by Justice William O. Douglas, ruled that the law violated the "right to marital privacy" and could not be enforced against married people. Justice Douglas contended that the Bill of Right's specific guarantees have "penumbras," created by "emanations from these guarantees that help give them life and opinion." In other words, the "spirit" of the First Amendment (free speech), Third Amendment (prohibition on the forced quartering of troops), Fourth Amendment (freedom from searches and seizures), Fifth Amendment (freedom from self-incrimination), and Ninth Amendment (other rights), as applied against the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, creates a general "right to privacy" that cannot be unduly infringed.

Further, this right to privacy is "fundamental" when it concerns the actions of married couples, because it "is of such a character that it cannot be denied without violating those fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of our civil and political institutions." Because a married couple's use of contraception constitutes a "fundamental" right, Connecticut must prove to the Court that its law is "compelling" and "absolutely necessary" to overcome that right (i.e., the "strict scrutiny test"). Because Connecticut failed to prove this, the law was struck down as applied.

Other justices, while agreeing that marital privacy is a "fundamental right" and that the Connecticut law should be struck down, disagreed with Justice Douglas as to where in the Constitution such a "fundamental right" exists. In his concurrence, Justice Arthur Goldberg argued that the Ninth Amendment, which states that the Bill of Rights does not exhaust all the rights contained by the people, allows the Court to find the "fundamental right to marital privacy" without having to ground it in a specific constitutional amendment. In another concurrence, Justice John Marshall Harlan II maintained that a "fundamental right to marital privacy" exists only because marital privacy has traditionally been protected by American society. Finally, in yet another concurrence, Justice Byron White argued that a fundamental right to marital privacy constitutes a liberty under the Due Process Clause, and is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment against the states.

Yet, for all their differences, the majority in Griswold v. Connecticut agreed that the "right to privacy," in addition to being "fundamental," was "substantive." In West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937), the Court had rejected the idea that the Constitution protects "substantive rights," i.e., protects certain activities from government interference that are not explicitly mentioned in the Bill of Rights. In Griswold, however, it ruled that "substantive rights" do exist in non-economic areas like "the right to privacy," even if they do not in economic activities like the right to contract. Over the next 10 years, the Court expanded this fundamental, substantive "right to privacy" beyond the marital bedroom, ruling that the state could not ban the use of contraceptives by anyone (Eisenstadt v. Baird [1972]), and that the state could not ban most abortions (Roe v. Wade [1973]).

AUTHOR'S BIO
Alex McBride is a third year law student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He is articles editor on the TULANE LAW REVIEW and the 2005 recipient of the Ray Forrester Award in Constitutional Law. In 2007, Alex will be clerking with Judge Susan Braden on the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington.

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