Constitutional Faces: Bill Baird (Eisenstadt v. Baird)

April 9th, 2012


Baird’s own fight started grabbing headlines around April 1967.

Vice squad cops arrested him after he gave contraceptive foam to a student during a Boston University lecture. He left the lecture in handcuffs, an arrest he spoke about last week as he marked the 45th anniversary of it.

Baird told about a dozen Democrats inside a stately home across the Charles River how Boston police helped advance his plan that day – how giving contraception to an unmarried 19-year-old coed set up a constitutional challenge that propelled his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. It led to the court’s 1972 decision that gave unmarried people the same rights to birth control as married people.

But he also described how activism came at a personal price. Baird said it cost him a marriage and the trust of most of his children. It also left him with little income.

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.

“My mail runs a hundred to one: people praying for my death,” he said.

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

As a recent cancer survivor, Baird thinks about his mortality. He fears that when he’s gone, his life’s work will be forgotten.

Just another constitutional face?
And don’t forget about Thomas Eisenstadt, his jailer:

Massachusetts lawyer Thomas Eisenstadt called Baird a “trailblazer.” He is the man whose name is on the other side of the 1972 decision, known as Eisenstadt vs. Baird.

Then Suffolk County sheriff, 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. He 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.'”

And don’t forget about his jail:

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

He posed for photos by the bars of an old cell, when a stranger who walked by tried to joke with him – before Baird quipped he’d actually once been an inmate.

“Wow,” the man said then, “there’s a prisoner here.”