A Brief History
On March 22, 1972, the US Supreme Court decided that unmarried Americans were allowed to have sex!
It is hard to imagine that so recently the commonly referred to as liberal state of Massachusetts had a law against distribution of contraceptives except by pharmacists or doctors and then only to married people!
The Massachusetts law prohibiting “Crimes against Chastity” was on trial after a lecturer and advocate of population control through contraception purposely violated the law in order to mount the court challenge, known as Eisenstadt v. Baird.
At issue was the right of unmarried Americans to engage in sexual intercourse, as well as whether or not to have children. What was not at issue was same sex sexual activity or any of the myriad of activities known collectively as sodomy.
The Supreme Court voted 6 to 1 in favor of striking down the Massachusetts law for reasons of due process and equal protection under the law. Chief Justice Burger disagreed, feeling that the assertion forwarded by the state that the law somehow protected the public health had not been disproven by Baird, apparently feeling the state had no requirement to prove its assertion that health issues were involved.
Today, while we watch television commercials for contraceptives, prescription drugs for erectile dysfunction, and even penis enlargement pills it is hard to believe that on such a recent date a state could have a law against free access to contraception and making extra-marital (or pre-marital) sex a crime. Well, even more recently laws still banned various forms of sodomy, and not until Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 (!) did the Supreme Court decide that consenting adults could engage in the type of sex they wanted to as long as it was not for money (prostitution). This ruling had overturned the 1986 case Bowers v. Hardwick that upheld a state’s right to outlaw homosexual sex (sodomy).
The country and the world has changed a lot since 1972, in many ways and especially with attitudes about sex (Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in 1973).
Question for students (and subscribers): What does the future hold? As rapidly as technology, public norms and mores have changed it is really hard to say. What do you think the next major changes will be? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, see…
Jütte, Prof Robert. Contraception: A History. Polity, 2008.
McLaren, Angus. History of Contraception. Blackwell, 1992.
Noonan Jr., John T. Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Enlarged Edition (Belknap Press). Harvard University Press, 1986.
Riddle, John M. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Harvard University Press, 1999.