Friday, January 23, 2009

An Evening With Bill Baird

Last night, being the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Rochester NOW sponsored an event with reproductive rights activist Bill Baird.

Bill Baird is the founder of the Pro-Choice League and was the defendant in the landmark Baird v. Eisenstadt case that established the right to birth control for unmarried people. Previously, birth control had only been ruled a right for married couples in Griswold v. Connecticut. The majority opinion in the case contains the famous and highly significant line: "If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child." The right to privacy cited in the decision was also referenced in Roe v. Wade itself, as well as the more recent case Lawrence v. Texas, which ruled laws prohibiting same-sex sexual activity unconstitutional.

At the event, Baird spoke extensively of his history in the reproductive rights movement, his relatively unknown status, and the controversy surrounding his name and actions. And he certainly is a compelling speaker, if one who enjoys going off on tangents.

Baird discussed the fact that he has been jailed 8 times in 5 different states for showing contraception to poor women, and how during his landmark Supreme Court case he was refused the help of other progressive and reproductive rights organizations at the time. It's an issue that still clearly upsets him. He reminded us that there was a time when sexual intercourse outside of marriage was illegal, and gave a vivid description of the moment when he decided to begin the work that would get him repeatedly arrested: when he saw a woman work into the hospital where he worked with a coat hanger hanging out of her uterus, and died in front of him -- all because, he said, she didn't have access to birth control to prevent that pregnancy. And he railed against men who believe that they have a right to tell women what to do with their own bodies, and the lives that such "arrogance" costs.

During one particularly compelling moment, he held up an old newspaper with the headline "Mother Begs for Birth Control" and asks the question "why should any woman have to beg for medical care?" The question particularly sticks in one's mind because with high costs and laws restricting access, it's hardly one that's irrelevant today. Baird's talk focused greatly on history, but contained a strong link to the present. The struggles we face now may not be as extreme as they once were, but they are ultimately the same struggles.

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