Margaret Sanger had been dreaming of a “magic pill” for contraception since 1912. In the 1950s, when Sanger was in her seventies, she was tired of waiting for science or industry to turn its attention to the problem. So, characteristically, she took matters into her own hands. She searched for a scientist who was able and willing to create a pill that would provide women with cheap, safe, effective, and female-controlled contraception. She found that character in Gregory Pincus, a medical expert in human reproduction who was willing to take on the project. Soon after, she found a benefactor for the project, heiress Katherine McCormick. The collaboration of these three extraordinary people led to the FDA’s approval of Envoid, the first oral contraceptive, in 1960. Despite this enormous victory, in some states it still remained illegal for doctors to prescribe the pill until the Supreme Court decision of Griswold v. Connecticut in June 1965.
In 1961, Estelle Griswold, the executive director of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut at the time, and Dr. C. Lee Buxton of Yale Medical School founded a birth control clinic and were arrested and fined $100 each. Griswold and Buxton appealed this ruling, and their case ultimately made it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1965. They claimed that the Connecticut law which criminalized the encouragement or use of birth control violated the U.S. Constitution. The 1879 law stated that “any person who uses any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purposes of preventing conception shall be fined not less than forty dollars or imprisoned not less than sixty days.” The law further provided that “any person who assists, abets, counsels, causes, hires or commands another to commit any offense may be prosecuted and punished as if he were the principle offender.”
The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, ruled that the law indeed violated the “right to marital privacy” and could not be enforced against married people. The court contended that the “spirit” of the First Amendment (free speech), Third Amendment (prohibition on the forced quartering of troops), Fourth Amendment (freedom from searches and seizures), Fifth Amendment (freedom from self-incrimination), and Ninth Amendment (other rights), as applied against the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, creates a general “right to privacy” that cannot be unduly infringed.
After the Supreme Court decision was publicized, Sanger’s niece, Olive Byrne, wrote to Justice William O. Douglas, who had written the opinion for the 7-2 majority, “I am sure Mrs. Sanger, who is very ill, would rejoice in this pronouncement which crowns her 50 years of dedication to the liberation of women.”
Margaret Sanger not only got to live to see the realization of her “magic pill” in 1960, but five years later, at the age of 81, she witnessed the effective undoing of the Comstock laws. When she passed away a year later, after over 50 years of fighting for the right of women to control their fertility, it was with a sense that she had the war had been won.