Documentary ‘Yours in Freedom, Bill Baird’ Explores the Fight for Birth Control Access and the Road Ahead

Bill Baird and Jada Portillo in Yours in Freedom, Bill Baird.

Bill Baird, the man who successfully challenged the U.S. law banning the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried people, is the subject of Rebecca Cammisa’s powerful documentary, Yours in Freedom, Bill Baird. While much of the film focuses on Baird’s six-decade career—he is now 91—as a reproductive justice advocate and activist, the narrative juxtaposes his efforts with that of burgeoning Arkansas organizer, Jada Portillo.

Portillo and Baird met in 2019 when she was participating in that year’s National History Day competition, an annual event for high school students. As the then-16-year-old worked to come up with a topic that fit the year’s theme, Breaking Barriers in History, Portillo decided to focus on the political struggle to legalize birth control in the United States. Although she had never heard of Baird before this, after she read an account of his work, she found his website and emailed him. 

For his part, Baird told the filmmakers that he was thrilled by Portillo’s interest and quickly agreed to an interview. Their unfolding relationship—she eager and energetic, he slow and somewhat unsteady—included numerous phone calls as well as a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court where Eisenstadt v. Baird, the landmark birth control case, was argued.

The 7-2 decision that resulted from the litigation was groundbreaking. 

In fact, the Court’s finding, issued a year before Roe, was foundational in the fight for personal privacy and established the government’s limited role in dictating what we can do with our bodies. As Justice William Brennan wrote in the majority opinion, “If the right to privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted government intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”

But why, Portillo wondered, was this idea so contentious? After all, birth control had been legal for married people since Griswold v. Connecticut was decided in 1965. Why did this right not automatically extend to single people?

Yours in Freedom unravels this history. It begins in the early 1960s when Baird became the clinical director of EMKO Pharmaceuticals, a company that manufactured and sold contraceptive foam. He saw a great deal of suffering in the hospitals he visited but was profoundly changed after witnessing a woman die following a botched coat hanger abortion and subsequently committed himself to doing everything he could to promote low-cost birth control and access to safe, legal abortion—healthcare that was available to those with financial means.

In short order, Baird became a whirlwind organizer, creating a group he called the Parents Aid Society and driving a truck, dubbed the Plan Van, into impoverished communities where he distributed condoms and foam to residents regardless of their marital status.

Then, in 1967, Boston University student Ray Mungo invited Baird to deliver a lecture and hand contraceptives to unmarried undergraduates. The event was meant to be a direct challenge to the state’s Chastity, Morality and Good Order law and was highly orchestrated—with several women agreeing beforehand to step forward and take contraceptives from Baird—acts that led to his arrest. He subsequently served 90 days of a possible 10-year prison sentence in Boston’s Charles Street jail. 

Baird is unwavering in his belief that government has no place in anyone’s bedroom. 

And this was not Baird’s only arrest. All told, Baird was apprehended eight times in five states between 1967 and 1972, but it was the BU incident that gave him entry to the Supreme Court.

As the film unfolds, it captures Baird’s frenetic activity, working at EMKO by day and driving the Plan Van at night and on weekends, and is a vivid chronicle of his victories as well as his losses. The fraying of his first marriage and strained relationships with his four children are painfully recounted, and it is clear that he has regrets. At the same time, as he describes the trajectory of his work to both Portillo and the filmmakers, Baird is unwavering in his belief that government has no place in anyone’s bedroom. 

A clip from Yours in Freedom, Bill Baird.

Throughout, Baird comes through as self-sacrificing and heroic, but the film is not hagiographic. In fact, Baird’s single-mindedness and expectation of recognition, maybe even adulation, as a pro-woman pioneer, is highlighted, so it is not surprising that he irked many feminist leaders of the 1960s and ’70s. Several fraught exchanges between him and Betty Friedan and Ti-Grace Atkinson are included in the film, and although I did not find their testy back-and-forth essential to the story, they add perspective to our understanding of both the man and the era. 

In addition, the film sounds a loud and dire warning about the need for reproductive justice advocates to remain vigilant and active if we want to keep the rights we currently have. This, Baird cautions, requires us to pay attention to politics at the local, state and federal levels. 

It’s an important, prescriptive reminder. But Yours in Freedom is also more than this and is an inspiring and deeply felt look at what one person can achieve in the pursuit of justice.

“The world is on fire,” Baird says in the film’s final frame. “Freedom is on fire.”

Nonetheless, he makes clear that he has already done what he could. It’s now our job to drown the flames and continue the fight for bodily autonomy, human rights and liberation.

Yours in Freedom, Bill Baird is directed by Rebecca Cammisa; edited by Sebastian Jones and Sonja Lesowsky-List; cinematographer Claudia Raschke; Terra Mater Studios; 106 minutes.

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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 .