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The Perils of the Pill
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IN APRIL 1967, WILLIAM BAiRD, a boyish
looking thirty-four-year-old former
medical student, lectured to 1500 people
at Boston University. His topic was
birth control. During the course of his talk,
he held up a birth control pill for his
predominantly student audience to see.
Later, he handed a female student a can of
Emko contraceptive foam.
As a result of these two dastardly acts,
Baird was arrested almost as soon as he had
stopped speaking and charged with "crimes
against chastity." (Massachusetts law prohibits
disseminating any birth control information,
and giving away or exhibiting "any
drug . . . or article whatever for the prevention
of conception," excepting only a physician
and his married patient.) In October
1967, he was convicted. He now faces ten
years in jail, five for the pill and five for
Baird appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme
Court in December 1968. A decision
is expected momentarily, but Baird is not
optimistic. A majority of the Supreme Court
justices are between sixty and seventy-five
years old, and a majority are Catholic.
The arrest came as no surprise. Baird had
been arrested under similar circumstances
twice before, once in New Jersey and once
in New York. In each case, the trial following
the arrest led to outmoded state laws being
revised or declared unconstitutional. Exactly
one year after his May 1965 arrest in
New York, he was appointed a consultant
to the New York state legislature on birth
control problems. When he went to Massachusetts,
it was partially with a view toward
challenging that state's archaic birth control
and sex laws—one of the reasons the Boston
University students had invited him to
Baird soon found that Massachusetts was
different from New York and New Jersey.
He had difficulty getting a lawyer to take his
case. The Massachusetts Civil Liberties
Union, which at first rushed to involve itself
in such an obvious civil liberties test, later
mysteriously backed off. The MCLU now
acknowledges that it made a mistake.
Planned Parenthood, a "respectable" birth
control organization with a $12 million
annual budget at its disposal, and which dislikes
Baird's confrontations with the law,
continued to bad-mouth him. Many of the
speaking engagements he relied upon to
feed his wife and four children were abruptly
and mysteriously canceled. One of the few
places that was not frightened off was Harvard
University, which invited him for its
Distinguished Lecturer Series. So Baird is
recognized as an authority on birth control
in New York and as a distinguished lecturer
by Harvard, but as a convicted felon in the
rest of Massachusetts.
While his appeal was making its way
through the courts, Baird, in order to show
the total absurdity of the Massachusetts
law, had his administrative assistant, Billie
Jean Blair, buy a tube of Emko foam at each
of three Boston department stores. Like the
student Baird handed the Emko to during
his lecture. Miss Blair was twenty-two and
unmarried. She obtained the foam without a
prescription, which is technically illegal in
Massachusetts. Although members of the
Boston police vice squad witnessed the purchases,
a criminal complaint against the
department stores was denied by a Boston
municipal judge. He gave no reason for
denying the complaint, other than to say it
was not appropriate for his court.
BAIRD IS USUALLY DESCRIBED by t h e
mass media as a "birth control crusader."
The description is not inaccurate.
About five years ago, Baird saw a
twenty-nine-year-old black mother of eight
die after she tried to abort herself with a
coat hanger. The woman was on welfare and
did not want a ninth child. Because she was
unmarried, she was not entitled to receive
birth control information from city or state
Shortly after that experience, Baird set up
the Parents' Aid Society in Hempstead,
Long Island. His aim was to spread birth
control information as widely as possible,
especially in poor areas. He bought an old
moving truck and converted it into a mobile
birth control information center, calling
it the Plan Van. Baird regularly took the
Plan Van into poverty areas in and around
New York City. When he began to test the
New York birth control laws, he was forced
out of his $20,000-a-year job as medical
director at Emko Products. (Baird had attended
medical school for two years, but
had to drop out because of lack of funds.)
In September 1966, he took the Plan Van
to Freehold, New Jersey, where a county
supervisor was threatening to jail unwed
welfare mothers on fornication charges. As
he was talking to a woman in his van, showing
her a diaphragm and describing its use,
he was arrested and charged with being an
"obscene person." This case led to the
liberalization of the New Jersey law.
In the course of his crusade, Baird has
lectured at a multitude of colleges and universities,
including several Catholic institutions.
He recalls with particular satisfaction
a debate with a priest at St. Vincent's College
in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. At the end
of the debate, the students gave Baird a
standing ovation, then booed the priest. At
Boston College, a Catholic school not far
from Boston University, the student body
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