Celebrating Estelle

Chances are you've never heard of Estelle Griswold. But she radically changed the lives of women in America. Forty-six years ago today, her courage secured a basic right that many of us take for granted today: the right to use birth control to plan and time our pregnancies and to keep our families healthy.

As the stiff-spined director of Planned Parenthood in Connecticut, Griswold had spent years challenging an archaic state law that barred anyone, including married couples, from using "drugs or instruments" to prevent pregnancy. Decades of protests and legal challenges had hit solid walls of resistance. So in 1961, Griswold and her medical director, Dr. C. Lee Buxton, defiantly opened a birth control clinic in New Haven. Their goal: to get arrested.

The police obliged, raiding the clinic, arresting the operators, and setting in motion a series of convictions and appeals that ultimately led to the United States Supreme Court. On June 7, 1965, the Court settled the matter -- declaring the Connecticut law unconstitutional and opening a new era in reproductive rights and social progress.

The decision paved the way for subsequent rulings that have legalized birth control for unmarried couples, secured women's right to choose abortion, and overturned myriad restrictions on the sale and marketing of contraceptives. Together, these decisions have transformed women's lives.

As we now know, when women plan their pregnancies, they -- and their children -- are healthier. When the Griswold decision was handed down in 1965, 32 women were dying for every 100,000 live births in this country. Today, the rate is less than half that. Infant mortality has fallen even faster -- from 25 deaths to fewer than seven deaths per 1,000 live births -- as more children are born to parents who planned their births.

Access to birth control has made it possible for generations of women to pursue the education and careers they want. The proportion of women who complete four years of college increased fivefold between 1965 and 2008. So did the proportion of PhDs awarded to women. And the number of women in the workforce surged from 26 million to nearly 72 million.

It's an impressive legacy -- handed down by a brave woman in a local Planned Parenthood health center. But many Americans have yet to share in the dream of Estelle Griswold. Birth control is legal. It is socially accepted and widely used. But, the fact is, too many American women simply cannot access affordable health care, including birth control

More than a third of women voters say they have struggled with the cost of prescription birth control at some point in their lives, and have not used it consistently as a result. Access can be challenging even for people with health insurance, due to co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses. But studies show that when cost barriers are removed, women switch quickly to more effective methods and experience fewer unintended pregnancies as a result.

So, as politicians in states across the country, including Indiana, are trying to cut women off from birth control at Planned Parenthood, we need to remember the courage and fight of revolutionary women like Estelle Griswold. As we celebrate the legacy of the Griswold decision, let's recommit ourselves to building on it. We can improve the nation's health by investing in family planning programs and ensuring that birth control is within reach for all women.