Birth control had personal cost - pioneer

2012-04-10 08:25

Cambridge - Taunts of "baby killer" and "butcher" still echo in Bill Baird's ears, nearly five decades after he began fighting for birth control and abortion rights.

Now 79, the Massachusetts man said a Georgetown University law student's recent verbal bashing on a national radio show is evidence that rights he equates with liberty and equality are in jeopardy.

"There will always be those who will try to deny us our freedoms," Baird wrote in a letter to student Sandra Fluke, who testified to Congress about birth control. "As you have seen, it takes eternal vigilance to fight against those forces."

Fluke's testimony - in support of a national health care policy that would compel her school to offer plans that cover birth control - became a hot topic of debate that underscored the country's simmering divisions over the issue. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh called Fluke a "slut", prompting US President Barack Obama to call and reassure her.

Baird's own fight started grabbing headlines around April 1967, when vice squad cops arrested him for showing contraceptive devices to 2 500 students at Boston University.

Constitutional challenge

He left the lecture that day in handcuffs, an arrest he spoke about last week as he marked the 45th anniversary of the event.

Baird told about a dozen Democrats inside a stately home across the Charles River how Boston police helped advance his plan that day.

How his arrest for giving spermicidal foam to an unmarried 19-year-old woman set up a constitutional challenge that propelled his case to the US Supreme Court, which resulted in the court's decision that gave unmarried people the same rights to birth control as married people.

But he also described how that ruling, and others since, came at a personal price.

Decades of activism for birth control and abortion rights cost him a marriage, and the trust of most of his children, Baird said. It also left him with barely enough income to get by.

The lecturer who once netted $3 000 a speech said he poured the money into court cases, and running clinics that gave abortions to poor women.

Baird said he dodged bullets, survived a firebombing at one of his suburban New York abortion clinics; endured death threats along the way.

Parental consent

"My mail runs a hundred to one: People praying for my death," he said.

Baird told the audience he believes opposing political and religious forces are threatening the causes of privacy and freedom he's championed.

In 1979, his name was on a different Supreme Court decision that gave minors the right to abortions without parental consent.

But as a recent cancer survivor, Baird said he also thinks about his mortality. He said he fears that when he's gone, his life's work will be forgotten.

"I say tonight, 'Will you help me?' 'Will you write a letter?' 'Will you get me a speaking engagement?'"

Baird says some people also have called him the devil because of his pro-abortion rights work.

His crusade started in 1963, when a woman who tried to give herself an abortion with a coat hanger died in his arms in a New York City hospital. He was clinical director for a contraception company at the time.

Church leaders

Baird said he opened the country's first abortion counselling centre a year later. The facility on Long Island, New York, referred women to physicians who would perform then-illegal abortions. In decades that followed, Baird operated two clinics on Long Island and another in Boston where women could go for legal abortions.

He often pitted himself against Catholic Church leaders who preached an anti-abortion message.

In 1979, he sued to try to stop a public church service by Pope John Paul II in Boston. In 1985, a Catholic bishop led 3 000 people in a protest at one of Baird's New York clinics.

Baird also claims some feminists and pro-abortion rights forces have tried to discredit him or downplay his contributions.

"There were very few men who came out and championed the women's movement," Joyce Berkman, a history professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, said last week. "And to have him champion their sexuality was suspicious."

Baird totes around a portfolio of old press clippings, meant to convince listeners that the things he talks about really happened. He talks frequently of his arrests in five states. He also likes to display a copy of a pamphlet he says shows that unlike him, Planned Parenthood opposed abortion in the early 1960s.

But both supporters and opponents say Baird already has a place in history.

'Cultural landmark'

The Reverend Frank Pavone, the Catholic priest who heads the anti-abortion organisation Priests for Life, said he respects Baird as a "warrior".

Pavone said the two became friends after years of meeting at Right to Life conventions, where Baird pickets each year. In the past, the two men released a joint statement asking their supporters to avoid inflaming the other side with rhetoric.

"Many people who come to know him well draw strength from his fighting spirit," Pavone said. "... If you can break the law peacefully to advance a cause, both he and I believe in that."

Officials from Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York declined an interview about Baird last week, but said in a statement that his 1972 Supreme Court win was "a cultural landmark that has impacted generations of Americans".

Massachusetts lawyer Thomas Eisenstadt called Baird a "trailblazer". He is the man whose name is on the other side of the 1972 decision, Eisenstadt vs Baird, that gave unmarried people the right to birth control.

Then sheriff of Suffolk County, Eisenstadt was Baird's jailer when the activist spent 36 days in Boston's old Charles Street Jail after the conviction that followed his Boston University arrest.

"That was preposterous, those old, arcane laws," Eisenstadt said of the case. "I think it's made a tremendous impact on society."

'No surrender'

The former sheriff also said Baird had a knack for attracting publicity.

"As he was leaving the jail he said: 'Stick with me sheriff. You'll get a lot of TV coverage.'"

A couple of hours before his Cambridge lecture last week, Baird went back to the old Charles Street Jail.

Squalid conditions led a judge to order the facility to close in 1973. It reopened as a luxury hotel in 2007.

Baird said his memories of rats and lice, of a blood-stained mattress, of screams echoing among the granite cells, still unnerve him.

Later, Baird's words left an impression with the clot of Democrats who listened to him speak for more than an hour.

"He's so right... We forget history and what people like Mr Baird have accomplished," Cambridge resident John Roughan said.

But Baird is determined to make sure people remember, so what he fought for isn't lost.

"I have no money. I have no political power," Baird told his audience. "But I will never surrender. I will never give up. I believe that women and women alone must be free to make these choices."

There were no handcuffs this time when his lecture ended.

  • mario.dippenaar - 2012-04-10 08:58

    Yeah, abortion rights is such a tricky thing to justify. On the one hand, they get to kill unborn babies, which is kinda cool, I guess. But on the other hand, it gives woman a choice, which sucks. To the mod who's going to delete this post and stifle my free speech, maybe you should look at YOUR own website first, which advertises 'safe abortions' (scroll to the bottom, in the adchoices block).

  • Jovan - 2012-04-10 09:02

    Good old Christian values of tolerance and forgiveness.

      Dakey - 2012-04-10 10:45

      Jeesh Jovan, I really would like to think Christians and Atheists aren't so far removed that Atheists think killing their own offspring is acceptable!

  • Dakey - 2012-04-10 10:21

    "There will always be those who will try to deny us our freedoms," My wife is currently expecting. Our unborn child is currently 20 weeks old. In South Africa, I can kill it today if I feel my economic or social situation is going to be adversely affected by this baby (duh!) If I lived in the UK, I have another four weeks to decide if I want to kill it and fortunitely I don't have to be asked silly questions like 'why do you want to kill it'. I can only thank people like Bill Beard for giving me this FREEDOM to kill unwanted babies! And there I was thinking it disgusting when our hamster attacked and killed her newborn babies? Freedom huh? I guess the slave owners that threw 'unwanted cargo' off the Amistad was upset when their 'freedom' was taken away?

  • LindiBleu - 2012-04-10 10:35

    when men go through 9 months for a moment of pleasure, when men pay for false promises with responsibilities they are not ready for, when men are left holding the baby - then please, they are more than welcome to have opinions on abortion and birth control. I did not know of Mr Baird, but I salute him from the bottom of my heart. I do not advocate abortion, I do not use hormonal birth control - but I will defend with my life the right of any woman to have that choice.

      Dakey - 2012-04-10 11:25

      When men go to work every day at a job they don't want, because they need to support their wife and kids. When men walk in the door after a long day at work only to be handed a baby and told their wife needs a break. When men wake up in the middle of the night to bottle feed a screaming baby who actually wants their mommy. When men have to explain to all their single friends why they can't go out on a Saturday because they're looking after their kids. Goodness Lindi, there have been days where I wanted to send all my kids to Joseph Kony, but regardless of how 'difficult' they can be, there is no right to justify killing them! The question isn't why you can't murder your child, the question is why on Earth you can't grasp the very simple concept of BIRTH CONTROL. Are you too drunk/drugged up to remember to use a comdom or take your birth control? Unless you're a victim of rape, it was you, not them that CHOSE to be created and it is YOU that is shirking responsibility by ending their life. Perhaps abortion is a good thing because I can't imagine being raised by a mother that would be willing to kill her own child. PS Lindi, I just want to point out the pretty obvious. It's an institute called marriage and men can't escape from it, they're required by law to provide child support. It's also a pretty good way of determining whether a man actually wants to be with you or just wants you in bed. If a man says he wants a child with you but won't marry you, run.

      Carla - 2012-04-10 12:38

      "When men have to explain to all their single friends why they can't go out on a Saturday because they're looking after their kids." Shame, such a tough life....what a chore, giving up a saturday to look after those pesky children

      Dakey - 2012-04-10 15:53

      @Carla, "Shame, such a tough life" You mean working all day and coming home to look after the kids because "you've not seen them all day", feeding them, bathing them, putting them to bed... and then catching up with some more work from 9pm to midnight because there are threats of layoffs and unlike your single co-workers you can't stay at work until 9pm because your wife expects you home by 6pm to help with the kids and you actually fear she's going to have a breakdown... and this is a normal work day. Then instead of being able to unwind on the weekend you look after the kids on a Saturday because your wife has been 'with them all week' and needs to go see her friends? So yes, it is a tough life Carla but not one that justifies killing your children because you 'made a mistake'. It's called being an adult and dealing with your decisions regardless of how tough life might be. Hats off to every African mother who gets up at 5am to prepare them for school, then takes a taxi to arrive at work at 7am, clean's house all day for minimum wage only to return at 6pm, cook, clean and do their children's homework. Kudos to THESE woman who don't give up on their children and run for the hills because they feel they never should have gotton pregnant in the first place.

      Carla - 2012-04-11 07:57

      @Dakeyras - Oh dear, you really do feel sorry for yourself, don't you? I am the mother that is up at 4:30 every morning to get ready for work, help pack lunches, get on the road at 5:20 to get to work just before 7am, get home at 5:30pm, make dinner, help with homework, bath the children, make sure hubby has a warm meal ready for him when he gets home. And guess what, hubby works on weekends, so my weekends are spent at home, looking after the kids. There's people out there that have it at lot worse than you or I. Think about that when you feel so hard done by because you can't go out on a weekend.

      Dakey - 2012-04-11 10:11

      @Carla, "Think about that when you feel so hard done by because you can't go out on a weekend. " Carla, I don't know why you insist on harping on a particular issue I mention when dealing with looking after kids. Your argument is equivilent to me saying 'think about that when you feel so hard done by having to make dinner!'. It was the least significant of all the points mentioned, but simply highlighted that even after having a particularly bad week, often we still can't find any time to unwind or meet up with friends like some housewives do over coffee. In your life you look after the kids on the weekend, in my life I look after them. I can mention another married couple where the husband looked after the kids every morning and the entire weekend and (not much to my surprise) they're now divorced... We can play 'poor parent' all day, but the fact remains (if you read my original article) in many cases men play just as much a role as parent as woman do and in some cases even more a role than their wives. Thus woman should not have exclusive rights to determine whether their unborn child lives or dies just because they happen to be the one their child is biologically dependant on. Imagine your husband has to be the one carrying your 4th for 9 months and halfway through and he goes 'Neah, this is going to cost too much, I'm killing it'? Does he have the right to kill the child because it is 'his' or should you, the other half of the child also have a say in the matter?

      Carla - 2012-04-11 10:42

      @Dakeyras - Your original comment highlights the plight of men in a relationship. Do you realise that ontop of being pregnant for 9 months, giving birth etc...many women live the life that you seem to imply that only men have? "I can mention another married couple where the husband looked after the kids every morning and the entire weekend and (not much to my surprise) they're now divorced... " Really???? It's a privilege to be a mother/father and in most homes, it generally falls to one parent to do most of the parenting. That's life. In this day and age when in most cases, both parents have to work to make ends meet, that's how it works out. In my case, it falls to me to pay the bills and do most of the parenting. My life is my kids, not just on weekends. I work to be able to provide a roof over their heads, put clothes on their backs, send them to a good school, keep them well fed etc... I dont spend 3 hours a day on the roads because it's fun. I don't stay at home with them on weekends because I have to. They fill our lives with joy and even though there are days when yes, they drive me up the wall, I wouldn't love them any less. I never questioned your view on abortion or in any way implied that there is any justification for killing your child. Personally, I feel that abortion should only be allowed in cases of rape/child abuse. If you're old enough to have sex, then you're old enough to deal with the consequences thereof.

      Dakey - 2012-04-11 12:13

      @Carla Well great Carla, I'm glad we essentially agree. I also take on board that there are many cases where woman have to live very difficult lives, particular single moms, but as we seem to be agree, it is not a valid reason to end the life of your unborn child just as it is not a valid reason to end the life on your 1 year old. As a side note on parenting, my example is one extreme which unfortunately is set in a society (British) where men are 'under the thumb' and woman calls the shots. It is pretty much male chauvinism in reverse and is social behaviour which replicates from mother to daughter (much like spousal abuse by fathers is passed down to sons). My wife and I have attended a few marriage courses to try addressing the situation if only because I don’t want my own daughters thinking this is normal behaviour. Now clearly you don’t fall in that category, but thought it worth mentioning because unfortunately so many of these marriages don’t work out or end up in men seeking love and respect elsewhere and woman having no clue why this happens. No doubt in a male chauvinistic society the opposite will apply as well. Lastly, I just want to throw this out there, food for thought I guess. If you consider making exceptions for rape/child abuse (and I perfectly respect that opinion), would it also be acceptable to kill a newborn produced as a result of rape/abuse if for example abortion wasn't possible?

      Carla - 2012-04-11 12:40

      Again, in my personal opinion, I don't think that abortions should be performed after 16weeks. If, for whatever reason, a pregnancy resulting from rape/abuse is allowed to continue against the wishes of the victim, then the baby should be given up for adoption. That is a living, breathing child. I will never understand how anyone can find it in them to abandon a small helpless baby, but then again, I am fortunate enough in that all my children were made in love and were wanted. I cannot presume to pass judgement on someone who has been subjected to almost daily abuse from a young age and as a result, ends up pregnant and then abandons/kills the baby. I would think that when you are in that frame of mind, there isn't much that makes sense.

      Dakey - 2012-04-11 15:54

      @Carla "ends up pregnant and then abandons/kills the baby. I would think that when you are in that frame of mind, there isn't much that makes sense." I think once you consider a human being 'human', whether that age is a couple of days after conception, 20 weeks into pregnancy or 1 month after birth, there can't be any justification for ending their lives. In much the same way we do in fact judge a mother who murders all of her children (e.g. because she feels the world is a terrible place), the same should apply to any person (man or woman) who supports the murder of an unborn child. All we're effectively arguing is the age at which this is still considered acceptable. There have been supporters that a newborn should not be considered a 'person' because it does not possess the neccesary congnitive reasoning skills to be so (according to their definition). Similarly there is a wide discrepancy between what 'personhood' encompasses, you say 16 weeks, SA law states 20 weeks, UK law 24 weeks. If you say 16 weeks, you're effectively stating that anything after 16 weeks is murder right, yet in SA and the UK that won't be the case. The problem here is that human life is subjective and according to belief we're either doing nothing wrong or we're actually committing murder... a pretty slippery slope. So yes, unfortunitely we do need to judge because lives are at stake. There can't be justification for murdering another.

      Carla - 2012-04-12 08:02

      @Dakeyras - what gives anyone to pass judgment on a 13 year old child that has been sexually abused by her father/uncle etc....ends up pregnant as a result and wants an abortion?? Are you going to tell this CHILD that she is a murderer? After the horrors that poor child has endured, you're going to label her?

  • Denny - 2012-04-10 19:02

    It is indeed a harrowing choice. I guess my main concern with abortion is that it has become an alternative form of birth control which reflects poorly on all of us. It also seems a bit of a double standard that here in SA we are OK with arbitrarily ending an unborn child's life while we prevent the same being done to a convicted murderer. Sadly SA's woeful social and economic climate contributes to me reluctantly being able to go along with our current system. This country will be a lot better once people start accepting their responsibilties and holding themselves accountable for this actions. (Pipe dream, huh?)

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