Forty years ago today the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut
-- a landmark day for privacy rights in this country. Griswold, who directed Planned Parenthood in Connecticut, was convicted under a state law that made it a crime to provide counseling and assistance to married couples wishing to use contraception. Yes -- it was illegal in Connecticut to help people gain access to birth control.
Here's a summary of the Supreme Court's opinion in the Griswold
case (from the Oyez project
Though the Constitution does not explicitly protect a general right to privacy, the various guarantees within the Bill of Rights create penumbras, or zones, that establish a right to privacy. Together, the First, Third, Fourth, and Ninth Amendments, create a new constitutional right, the right to privacy in marital relations. The Connecticut statute conflicts with the exercise of this right and is therefore null and void.
Dissenters conceded that the Connecticut law was asinine but insisted it posed no constitutional problems. This is how Justice Potter Stewart opened his dissenting opinion:
I think this is an uncommonly silly law....But we are not asked in this case to say whether we think this law is unwise, or even asinine. We are asked to hold that it violates the United States Constitution. And that I cannot do.
Justice Hugo Black in a separate dissent:
I like my privacy as well as the next one, but I am nevertheless compelled to admit that government has a right to invade it unless prohibited by some specific constitutional provision.
Justice William O. Douglas, who wrote for the Court in Griswold
, made the case for implied rights not necessarily spelled out in the original document:
The association of people is not mentioned in the Constitution nor in the Bill of Rights. The right to educate a child in a school of the parents' choice - whether public or private or parochial - is also not mentioned. Nor is the right to study any particular subject or any foreign language. Yet the First Amendment has been construed to include certain of those rights.
The finding in Griswold
of a right to privacy was part of the analytical basis for the Roe v. Wade
decision eight years later. Anti-abortion conservatives have frequently vilified Griswold
for manufacturing out of whole cloth (under sinister cover of "penumbras") a privacy right that is never mentioned in the constitution, leading justices in Roe
to identify an abortion right that follows from privacy rights. But whatever one thinks of abortion and reproductive choice, the idea that our constitution and its guarantees of liberty and property will tolerate a law like the one thrown out in Griswold
is repugnant, and so it's quite a happy 40th anniversary for civilized society that we observe today.