There are genuine heroes in the world, and you can often tell who they are by how much they are vilified. As a matter of course, social justice heroes who actually succeed in their cause usually face death threats, historical rewrites, media blackouts, and loss of income. Bill Baird is a genuine hero who has endured all of that and more.
I was fifteen on March 22, 1972, when Bill Baird won the first of three landmark Supreme Court cases granting rights and freedoms related to birth control and sexuality to single people, teenagers, and gay people. I was not unaware of the firestorm surrounding the issue of abortion (Baird’s New York clinic was literally firebombed) and the controversial Bill Baird. By the time I entered college in 1967—in Boston where Baird got himself arrested in order to argue for single people’s rights to birth control—my access to contraception was unquestioned. I don’t think I even imagined that an unmarried woman would not have had that legal right just a few years prior. Those were heady days for young people with short memories. We were riding the tail of a cultural revolution that had dashed racial barriers, bashed gender roles, and felt close to crashing the glass ceiling. We got the benefits of those fights without getting beat up or worn down. We hadn’t any sense of the reactionary drag that would come to bear on the vessel we expected to sail into the new age.
Fast forward to 2011. I was attending my second national conference of the American Humanist Association and looking over the schedule at breakfast. I had circled Bill Baird’s talk because the name clicked when I read his bio. Here was the legendary man himself.
“Oh, Bill Baird. He’s gotten kind of bitter,” one of my breakfast companions said, naming a different speaker she’d go to instead. I put a big asterisk next to the session I had already circled. It proved to be one of the most enlightening and inspiring ninety minutes of my life.
Was Baird bitter? Well, he certainly had harsh words for the feminists, for Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and our own AHA among others—all the groups he says spurned him while he was fighting an unpopular fight with unpopular tactics. (As an example he held up an enlarged black and white photo of a woman who died on a tiled kitchen floor from a botched home abortion.) The stories poured out of him—beatings, arrests, threats, repudiation. The loss of family, friendships, his professional career, and the personal fortune expended on legal battles fought not for himself—a successful, professional, empowered white male—but for us. For women. For humanity. It was clear that what hurt the most was the questioning of his motives. Why would a man put his life on the line for women, for blacks, and for the poor? Baird was suspect on all fronts—an infiltrator trying to subvert the women’s movement; a commie; an atheist; a racist who wanted to bring birth control to the inner city in order to reduce the black population; a womanizer on the make! In truth, he was only ever a humanist, a humanitarian intent on saving lives, and a patriot dedicated to defending the highest ideals of our country.
Baird is rough, he’s rude, he’s righteous, and he’s still full of fight. But today, at eighty-three, he’s fighting for his record, for respect, and for acknowledgment of the role he played—again, at great personal cost—in laying the groundwork for Roe v. Wade. He’s nearing the end of his hardworking days, a wounded hero whose legacy just happens to be crucially relevant to today’s conversation about women’s health and reproductive rights.
Two years ago, in an article published at the Public Discourse, Patrick Fagan of the Family Research Council condemned the Supreme Court’s decision four decades earlier in Eisenstadt v. Baird, claiming, “the Court played God by redefining the purpose of sexuality. In the process, it unleashed sex’s destructive power detached from marriage.” Fagan concluded: “Future generations may rank this as the single most destructive decision in the history of the Court.”
We caught up with Baird recently and asked him what he thought of Fagan’s claims. Here’s what he had to say:
Dr. Fagan also wrote, “The main architect of the legal strategy to bring this matter to the US Supreme Court and the chief shepherd…was Planned Parenthood.” In fact, it was a humanist, me, who brought the case to the fore by challenging Massachusetts’ Crimes Against Chastity in 1967. Planned Parenthood not only had nothing to do with my case initially but they publicly invalidated my efforts, stating in their 1967 spring newsletter, ‘There is nothing to be gained by court action of this kind.’
As for the idea that my case would be judged the single most destructive decision in the history of the US Supreme Court, apparently the Dred Scott decision, which denied slaves their freedom, was not as destructive to Fagan as allowing millions of women to control their health and their lives.
We also asked Baird about his characterization of the battle over reproductive rights as a religious war, and why we seem to be losing it. His response:
After fifty-two years of fighting for reproductive rights, it saddens me to say we have failed to consistently and aggressively fight the political arm of the Roman Catholic Church, fundamentalists, and others. The Church should be sued and made to register as a foreign lobbyist for using its muscle to impose its dogma on atheists or others not of their faith.
Not enough has been done to educate the public about the true history of reproductive rights and the danger they are in today. We need to motivate people to confront anti-birth control and anti-abortion religious officials and politicians. Forming, so-called “truth squads” to counter anti-abortion propaganda that is swaying young people and others would be effective. Also, inviting leaders such as myself to speak in order to educate the public about these fragile rights.
We can focus attention on eroding birth control rights by celebrating Right to Privacy Day this March 22, the 43rd anniversary of Eisenstadt v. Baird. The AHA and various governors and public officials have, in the past, declared March 22 Right to Privacy Day to focus attention on birth control.
Heroes, by definition, are powerful characters. They can be as unnerving to those they defend as they are to those they battle. I can see how a previous generation of feminists may not have wanted a successful white male—the epitome of the patriarchal establishment—jumping into the fray to act as their champion. But let’s be honest: Who else was going to do it? Who had the resources, the confidence—and, yes, the balls—to do what Bill Baird did? He was our champion. We needed him. And we still need him because, unfortunately, the advancements he fought for are slipping away.
This article was adapted, with Jennifer Bardi, from my earlier article, “”Bill Baird: Wounded Warrior Battles On,” published in the Winter 2012 issue of Free Mind.