Culture wars have roots in Connecticut

If, as legend has it, Lincoln called Harriet Beecher Stowe "the little lady who started the big war" with Uncle Tom's Cabin, I guess New Haven's Estelle Griswold could qualify as the lady who started the big culture war.

Griswold, who died in 1981, gave her name to Griswold vs. Connecticut, the 1965 Supreme Court decision that overturned an 1879 Connecticut law prohibiting the use of "any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception."

More significantly, the Griswold decision was the first to determine that the right to privacy is protected by the Constitution. Griswold thereby begat Roe vs. Wade and the court's ruling that a woman's decision to have an abortion was protected as a private action between her and her doctor.

I interviewed Griswold, the executive director of the Connecticut Planned Parenthood League, 50 years ago when I worked for The Hartford Courant. She and Dr. C. Lee Buxton, chairman of Yale's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, had been charged with violating the old law at their birth control clinic at the corner of Whitney Avenue and Trumbull Street in New Haven. They were found guilty and fined $100 each.

The rarely enforced law prohibited married and unmarried couples from using birth control devices and forbade their dissemination and sale by organizations like Griswold's Planned Parenthood League and drug stores, which sold condoms under the counter.

The law was one of many "Comstock Laws," named for New Canaan native Anthony Comstock, a YMCA worker turned postal inspector, who became a powerful watchdog of what he considered "lewd and lascivious" behavior. His laws, banning birth control and books, were passed by Congress and the states in the 19th century.

Over the years, Connecticut notables like Katharine Hepburn's mother, President Taft's brother and Taft School founder Horace Taft and Dr. Hilda Standish worked unsuccessfully for the law's repeal against the opposition of the then powerful Connecticut Catholic bishops. A 1940 raid on a Waterbury clinic led to the first test case, but the law was upheld by the Connecticut Supreme Court and Connecticut's law remained on the books long after it had been repealed by most states, making Connecticut something of a national joke.

Then, in 1961, Buxton and Griswold got themselves arrested and after their conviction was upheld on appeal, it reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The law was invalidated by the Court by a vote of 7-2 on the grounds that it violated "the right to marital privacy." Although the right to privacy is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, seven justices found it in two amendments. The dissenters, Justices Hugo Black and Potter Stewart, a liberal and a moderate, maintained the right to privacy was not where the others said it was.

Although Republican Stewart argued that the Connecticut law was constitutional, he memorably wrote it was also "an uncommonly silly law."

Eight years later, with Black retired and Stewart voting with the majority, the court ruled abortion was protected as a private decision. The vote was again 7-2, with only Kennedy appointee Byron White and Nixon appointee William Rehnquist dissenting.

Roe launched the culture war that has raged intermittently over the past 40 years and recently enjoyed a revival when President Obama required church run organizations like colleges and hospitals to provide birth control coverage with their health insurance. This historic gaffe divided the public and even found Obama faithful like Connecticut Congressmen Rosa DeLaura and John Larson on opposing sides.

When the president offered a compromise, the Catholic bishops decided it wasn't enough and seemed to divide not only the country, but their own church, with the bishops and priests on one side and nuns, Catholic organizations like hospitals and schools and the laity on the other.

With the number of sexually active American women at some point practicing birth control running about 98 percent by various estimates, this does not appear to be a winning stance for the bishops, whose credibility on sexual matters has suffered in recent years.

But the culture war will continue this election year, at least through the primary season, as Republican candidates have long fooled their social issue-conscious base by promising if nominated and elected, there will be constitutional amendments for all, from banning abortions, flag burning and gay marriages to requiring prayer in schools.

Dick Ahles is a retired journalist from Simsbury.

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