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Christian Conservatives vs. Sex: The Long War Over Reproductive Freedom

Americans today enjoy access to effective birth control. But it wasn't always this way and religious conservatives are trying to turn back the clock.

On Nov. 1, 1961, Estelle Griswold and Dr. Charles Lee Buxton did something radical: They opened a clinic in New Haven, Conn., to dispense birth control information.

Nine days later, police raided the clinic and arrested Griswold, executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and Buxton, chairman of the obstetrics department at Yale Medical School.

Buxton and Griswold weren’t surprised. In fact, they had been expecting to be arrested all along. Their decision to open a birth control clinic in New Haven was a deliberately provocative act, designed to test a law originally passed in Connecticut in 1879 that banned artificial forms of contraceptives in the state for everyone – even married couples.

Connecticut’s anti-birth control statute was only being sporadically enforced at the time, and some types of birth control were available in drug stores. But Buxton and Griswold believed that as long as the law was in place, access to contraceptives wasn’t secure.

Sure enough, when they opened their facility, conservative religious leaders went on the warpath. The state’s politically powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy demanded action, leading to the raid on the clinic.

Buxton and Griswold went to court. They lost at every level in Connecticut state courts, including before the state supreme court. But in 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the pair’s convictions and ruled 7-2 in Griswold v. Connecticut that the law was unconstitutional.

Citing “the zone of privacy created by several fundamental constitutional guarantees,” Justice William O. Douglas observed, “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship. We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights….”

Five years earlier, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted approval for sale to the public of the first oral contraceptive. Within two years, more than a million American women were on “the pill.” The number escalated as refinements continued in years to come.

Today, most Americans believe access to contraceptives is secure; younger Americans may not even know about the case involving Buxton and Griswold.

But as recent events have shown, birth control – although regarded as non-controversial and indeed necessary by most Americans – remains a political flashpoint. When President Barack Obama announced earlier this year that most employers, including religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals, universities and social service agencies, would have to contract with insurance companies that would make contraceptives available to employees who want them, conservative religious groups were quick to stir up opposition.

The Catholic hierarchy insisted that the mandate to include contraceptives would violate religious liberty – even though under the policy their institutions are not required to directly pay for it.

The bishops then upped their demands and began pressing for federal legislation that would give any employer (even in non-religious settings) the right to exclude birth control coverage in health care plans if it offended his or her religious beliefs – a move, critics said, that could potentially deny or greatly restrict access to millions of Americans.

In the wake of the national controversy, lawmakers in several states began pushing legislation that would have the effect of restricting access to birth control. One of the more extreme measures surfaced in Arizona, where a bill that would have allowed any employer with religious objections to deny contraceptive coverage passed the state House of Representatives.

The measure, which stalled in the state Senate only after a public outcry, would allow a woman access to the pill for medical reasons but only after she proved to her employer that she wasn’t using it for birth control, a provision opponents called patronizing and a violation of medical privacy.

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