Bill Baird: The Forgotten Pro-Choice Hero

In 1967, a pharmaceutical salesman named Bill Baird gave a single condom and some contraceptive foam to a female  Boston University undergraduate. He was promptly arrested for violating the Crimes Against Chastity law (Chapter 272 Section 21A) which mandated that contraceptive devices could only be distributed by doctors and pharmacists and could only be distributed to married couples.

The arrest was pre-arranged with Suffolk County Sheriff John W. Sears to create a test case for the purpose of getting the Crimes Against Chastity law taken off the books. The arrest took place at the end of a lecture that Baird gave at Boston University on overpopulation and birth control.

The back story on Bill Baird, as he told it to me face to face, is that he was working as a pharmaceutical salesman when, while making sales calls at hospitals in and around New York City, he saw women – most of them women of color – literally dying in the emergency ward waiting rooms from botched back-alley abortions…and decided to do something about it.

When women presented at the emergency room after a botched abortion, a therapeutic abortion was sometimes the only medical choice left available, and some doctors didn’t want to face the following legal controversies that might erupt after such procedures.

Many reading this will be too young to remember when young women would attempt to abort themselves for the specific purpose of creating a medical emergency that would force the attending physicians to complete the abortion…but I remember when that was sometimes what well-meaning friends might counsel a friend in trouble to do. (We were all a lot stupider then than some of us are now.)

Baird’s story has some holes in it. Pharmaceutical sales representatives don’t usually visit hospital emergency rooms on their sales calls because hospital purchasing departments aren’t located in the emergency rooms…but we should give Baird the benefit of the doubt on this issue. Perhaps he was just passing through the emergency department waiting room on his way to the purchasing department.

However, what is not in dispute is that the resulting Supreme Court case, Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), paved the way for all of the subsequent Supreme Court findings that have struck down laws restricting access to birth control and abortion, culminating with Roe v. Wade, which was handed down in 1973, just ten months after Eisenstadt v. Baird. 

(The case was entitled Eisenstadt v. Baird because Stephen Eisenstadt had succeeded John Sears in 1969, after the initial arrest but before the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, so that Eisenstadt, not Sears, was the plaintiff by the time the case was filed on appeal.)

Given the timing, it is obvious that both Eisenstadt v. Baird and Roe v. Wade were wending their ways through the legal system at the same time. It is also evident that Roe v. Wade would have been decided in favor of the right to abortion access with or without Eisenstadt vs. Baird. 

However, it is also obvious that Baird’s tireless advocacy in favor of abortion rights helped to set the stage for the growing public revulsion against anti-abortion laws that encouraged the Court’s decision in favor of abortion rights.

At the time, however, Baird was deeply resented and even hated by the women who were leading the Pro-Choice movement, with Betty Friedan going as far as to claim that Baird was a CIA agent. The Central Intelligence Agency?  The CIA cannot legally conduct operations inside the United States (or at least could not at that time; things have changed). Why the CIA would involve itself in an abortion case was never adequately explained. (Baird, of course, was not a CIA agent.)

The central argument against Baird’s birth control advocacy was that Baird was attempting to strike down anti-abortion laws through the judicial system, but the Pro-Choice movement – as a group – believed that the only way to win the pro-choice debate would be through the appropriate legislation. This doesn’t explain why the same organizations that opposed Baird’s legal advocacy were also behind the Rove v. Wade case. Maybe the prejudice against the judicial approach wasn’t all that widespread.

In the final analysis, however, it appears that Baird was right all along.  Pro-Choice advocates have never succeeded in getting pro-choice legislation passed nationally, leaving it to the states to determine their abortion policies individually. As a result, access to “family planning” resources has been dependent upon Roe v. Wade.

But Baird was also wrong, because – as the Great State of Texas has recently demonstrated to its detriment – the only way we are going to be able to preserve the right to choose for ALL Americans is going to be by passing a federal law to that effect, which is highly unlikely in the current political climate. A constitutional amendment protecting freedom of choice in reproductive rights is also an impossibility since neither political party has the votes to get any amendments through Congress and the subsequent approval process by the states.

My personal involvement with Bill Baird began and ended in 1972. I had just left the New York Post and moved to Boston, where I picked up some work as a stringer for Boston After Dark, a semi-underground weekly which later merged with The Phoenix to become The Boston Phoenix. I had previously spent time as a theatrical press agent in Boston during a leave of absence from the Post, so I knew the town as well as any foreigner can ever know Boston.

I first met Baird when I was trying to get an interview with him for a piece covering the Supreme Court decision. I got the interview but, as soon as it was published, he called me up. I thought he was going to bitch me out about the article, which (after some editorial interference) was not laudatory.  (My name doesn’t appear in the by-line for the article. I declined that honor after I read the edits. It was also the last thing I ever wrote for that rag.)

Instead, he offered me a job as a press agent.

I didn’t last long. Bill Baird may have been a true-life hero but he was also a pain in the ass. I hated his guts, and he hated mine. Well, I know for sure that I hated his guts.

In truth, he was right and I was wrong. I was still a reporter in my head, despite my previous forrays into public relations and I was not yet comfortable with lying for a living, which is what most press agents do most of the time.

Today, however, in retrospect, I understand Baird much better. I understand that he did, indeed, try to do the right thing at the right time. That he is so little remembered and, when remembered, is remembered without much fondness, probably has more to do with his abrasive personality than with his unquestionable bragging rights as one of the few MEN who stepped forward back when advocating for the right to an abortion, or access to birth control, could literally land you in prison for spell.

The reason for this article is simple: It is going to take another round of acts of civil disobedience – and maybe several more rounds – before we can get Texas down off its high horse.  In this case, “acts of civil disobedience” might mean going to Texas, finding a doctor who will go along with you, getting an abortion (if you actually want and need one, of course) and challenging the state to do its worst. It does not mean organizing demonstrations and carrying signs. That’s not going to do anything, especially in Texas.

In Texas, you gotta put your body where your mouth is. You gotta walk the walk so, yeah, we’re going back there again. As anti-abortion laws spread across the country, state by state, people are going to have to get serious about opposing the Republican dictatorship. I’m too old to play a role in that process. Most of you reading this probably are too.

Once again, the kids are going to save us…but we’re not those kids anymore.