Reproductive Rights Pioneer Sheds Light on His Battle Against Anti-Abortion Extremists

Bill Baird is a reproductive rights pioneer, called by some media the “father” of the birth control and abortion-rights movement. (Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

He’s been called “the father of the abortion movement” by the Los Angeles Times and a “promoter of filth” by Catholic and evangelical conservatives, but as reproductive justice pioneer Bill Baird readies himself for his 90th birthday on June 20th, he is not thinking about his reputation. Instead, he’s as impassioned about attacks on abortion and birth control as he has ever been and remains a fierce critic of those who want to restrict access.

Baird’s career began to take shape in 1963 when he became the clinical director at EMKO Pharmaceuticals. His job included the promotion and marketing of contraceptive foam and he took it upon himself to offer public presentations about the product. At that time, contraceptives were illegal in more than 25 states.

Arrests followed and between 1965 and 1972 Baird was incarcerated in five states: Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Virginia and Wisconsin.  

His most extensive imprisonment followed a speech at Boston University. He had been invited to publicly challenge the Massachusetts Chastity, Morality, Decency, and Good Order law that made speaking, publishing, or exhibiting information about contraception or abortion a felony. As expected, his talk led to apprehension. He was ultimately convicted and spent 36 days in the Charles Street Jail. 

Not surprisingly, incarceration did not discourage Baird. In fact, it did the opposite. In response to the Supreme Court’s 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, which allowed married couples access to contraception, Baird sued. His goal? To extend this right to unmarried people. 

He won. 

The majority opinion in Baird v. Eisenstadt was ground-breaking: “If the right to privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwanted government intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child,” it read. The decision was foundational for both legal abortion and marriage equality.

But Baird was far from satisfied and returned to the Supreme Court twice more to challenge parental consent requirements for minors who wished to have an abortion. He was again victorious. 

Baird recently spoke to Ms. reporter Eleanor J. Bader about his career as well as the ongoing struggle for reproductive freedom.

Eleanor Bader: I am sure you were not surprised by the leaked Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. What was your initial reaction?

Bill Baird: I am outraged. At the same time, many of our allies did not begin to organize against our opponents as early as they should have. I remember Planned Parenthood’s Dr. Alan Guttmacher telling the New York Times that the Roe decision meant we could put our feet up on our desks because the fight was over. 

I knew that this was not true. I had been going to the annual convention of the National Right to Life Committee since the early 1970s and saw that members were organizing within both the Catholic church and evangelical community. They were using words like ‘murder’ and arguing that life begins at conception. Over time, these words and ideas have gained traction. The pro-choice movement could have spared the country a lot of pain and suffering if we’d taken these people seriously earlier. We should have realized that our common enemy was dogmatic religion and fundamentalist belief systems.

Bader: What other mistakes do you think the reproductive justice movement has made? 

Baird: Women in the 1970s and 1980s did not think there was a role in the movement for men; we were literally told that we were unwanted. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, denounced me. People called me a spy even though I was imprisoned eight times in five states for pushing for reproductive justice. 

Planned Parenthood did not even support me when I brought Baird v. Eisenstadt to the Supreme Court; when I was arrested at Boston University, the American Civil Liberties Union backed off its promise to represent me when I was arrested. 

I ended up with Joseph Balliro, a prominent Boston criminal defense attorney who had made a name for himself representing people accused of being part of organized crime. He was the only lawyer who would defend me. 

As the case wound through various lower-to-higher courts, I eventually received a call from Senator Ernest Gruening, who represented Alaska from 1959 until 1969. He was a powerful figure at the time and he wanted me to fire Balliro and instead let Joseph Tydings, a Maryland Senator, argue the case at the Supreme Court. I felt terrible about firing Balliro but my friendship and respect for him were less important than the issue, so I let Tydings become my attorney. Had Planned Parenthood and the ACLU stood with me, this might not have happened. 

The pro-choice movement could have spared the country a lot of pain and suffering if we’d taken these people seriously earlier. We should have realized that our common enemy was dogmatic religion and fundamentalist belief systems.

Bader: Do you have other strategic differences in how the fightback has been organized?

Baird: I have several. For example, the Vatican is its own government, but it does not disclose its lobbying work as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act that oversees other non-US influencers. The Catholic church oppresses women and the LGBTQIA+ community by lobbying against abortion, birth control, and gay rights. Furthermore, I believe that the church’s businesses should pay taxes, whether it’s Monk’s Bread, Trappist Preserves, or the Brotherhood Winery. If they had to pay taxes, they’d have less money for political campaigns.

Most reproductive rights activists are not on board with this. Maybe they’re afraid of being seen as sacrilegious.  But I am happy that there has been some pushback against hospital mergers that put facilities under Catholic control. Of course, I support this but I do not understand why so many people are deferential to the church. Jehovah’s Witnesses oppose blood transfusions but they don’t dictate that other people can’t have them. Observant Jews don’t eat pork but they do not impose their dietary restrictions on others. Why do Catholics get to push their beliefs about birth control, abortion, and queer relationships on everyone else?

I also had a different strategy at my clinics. Many activists believe that it is best to avoid engaging the antis. When I had my clinics, I helped many kids whose parents were anti-abortion and the only thing I asked was that they tell me when the antis were going to disrupt at our facilities. We then called our supporters, asking them to show up at 7:00 AM, an hour or so before the antis. This protected the patients. 

Finally, I went to every Right to Life convention from the 1970s until 2014.  Why weren’t other pro-choice groups and individuals there? It is important to know what the antis are saying and planning. Right to Life bills itself as moderate, but it’s not.  They’ve pushed the argument that a fertilized egg is a person. They call abortion genocide. They’ve always posed a threat to sexual agency. But most reproductive health activists refused to see or acknowledge this. It makes no sense. 

Unfortunately, I’ve had some health challenges which is why I had to stop attending these conferences but the antis still fill me with fury. We have to fight these people.      

Baird pickets the National Right to Life Convention in June 2012. (Wikimedia Commons)

Bader: Didn’t you also set up clinics in both Massachusetts and New York, where you were then living? 

Baird: Yes. In 1964, I set up the first above-ground abortion and birth control facility in Hempstead, New York, on Long Island. No matter what the law said, I knew this was the right thing to do. I was a very popular speaker during the 1960s and 1970s and used the fees I collected to fund the clinic. We heard such horror stories from our patients. They used Lysol, bleach, and turpentine douches to end unwanted pregnancies. Some days we worked until 3 AM because that’s how long it took to see the patients who came to our doors.  

I remember one case, a 12-year-old girl who had been raped by her father. She came in holding a teddy bear. I’m still in touch with her; she called me about six months ago.

In addition to the clinic, I purchased a vehicle in 1964 that I called the Plan Van. We used it to disseminate information about birth control.

But I want to make clear that our work was always contentious and difficult. One of my Long Island clinics—at one point I had one in Hauppauge and another in Hempstead—was firebombed. This happened in 1979 and 50 patients and staff were inside. Thankfully, there were no fatalities and we were able to rebuild. I had a third clinic in Boston but I had to close all of them in the mid-1990s because I could not afford to keep them going. I helped lots of people for free but I was unable to get grants or other financial support to subsidize this. It simply became impossible to keep going.

I remember one case, a 12-year-old girl who had been raped by her father. She came in holding a teddy bear. I’m still in touch with her; she called me about six months ago.

Bader: Do you have any regrets?  

Baird: After I was arrested on a morals charge for holding up a diaphragm, IUD, and packet of birth control pills at a talk, I lost my family. My four kids got hate mail from all over the country denouncing me. My wife at the time had to move herself and the kids to a safer location. My kids still fault me for this. They’ve suffered. Right now, my only income for my retirement is Social Security. When I look back, I lost a lot. I have a criminal record and have been told again and again that I’m a bad person.

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Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance journalist from Brooklyn, N.Y., who writes for Truthout, Lilith, the LA Review of Books, RainTaxi, The Indypendent, New Pages, and The Progressive. She tweets at @eleanorjbader1 .