When a draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade leaked from the Supreme Court fortress and into the headlines, at least one abortion rights leader was not surprised. He warned about this before Roe was ever decided. That leader is Bill Baird, the best-known man in the fight for women’s reproductive rights, perhaps the only known man in the fight for women’s reproductive rights.
Baird is an activist—that is what he does and who he is. He has won three cases in the Supreme Court, though he is not a lawyer. He has been jailed in at least three states for displaying, speaking about, and distributing birth-control supplies, though he is not a doctor. The most famous of his court cases, Eisenstadt v. Baird, established nothing less than the right for all Americans, married and unmarried alike, to have access to and use birth control. It was a precursor to Roe, and is seen as one of the most important right-to-privacy decisions in history.
He once bought an old parcel truck and turned it into what he called the Plan Van, which he drove around proselytizing about birth control primarily to low-income women. He ran a reproductive health clinic in Hempstead, Long Island, New York, that was firebombed in 1979 when fifty patients and staff were inside. (All survived.)
Baird was born ninety years ago. He’s seen a lot. But he’s not done fighting.
—As told to Ryan D'Agostino
The same question keeps coming up: Did you expect this—the overturning? And I say, Are you kidding? I’ve been warning about this since day one. March 22 was the 50th anniversary of my case, Eisenstadt v. Baird, when the Supreme Court said these powerful words: “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual to be free to decide whether to bear or beget a child.”
That was the decision that legalized birth control for unmarried people for the first time in history. I predicted in the news stories afterwards that all abortion laws would fall in one year, based on our case. In 1973, Roe v. Wade, all the abortion laws fell across the United States.
My father used to beat up my mother. I remember one day him pushing her, while drunk, through a glass window. I was one of six kids. I was born in 1932 and I grew up in the Great Depression. Two of us died from poverty, my sister died when she was 12 because we didn’t have money for a doctor. She should never have died.
Once a month, a treat was having a chicken. My brother Robert was always the favorite because he was the oldest, 10 years older than me, and he would get the chicken breast or a leg. And I would always be given the gizzard, or the liver, which to this day I hate. We couldn’t afford a refrigerator, we had an ice box, you know what that is? A wooden box with a bunch of cubes of ice in it.
So one day I took a chicken egg out of it, and we had a coal stove, and I put the chicken egg in the coal stove, thinking—I was a little boy—that I could hatch a chicken, and I could eat my own chicken. And my mother said “What’d you do that for?” I said, “Mom, I wanted a chicken breast. I just wanted to know what it tastes like.” And she took my hand, and she pressed it onto the hot stove and burned my hand. I never took a chicken egg again.
I grew up in Brooklyn. My first job was when I was 8 years old. It was called junking. I used to go from garbage can to garbage can, even before school sometimes, and after school. Rats would come out. I would open up the cans and take out the newspapers. You could sell used newspapers in those days for 75 cents for a hundred pounds. I would give that money to my mom, because there was no welfare or anything like that in those days.
Everyone in my family was as right-wing as I’m left-wing. I was the outcast. That’s the family dynamics. They would say something against Blacks or something against Jews and I would take the opposite viewpoint. I always thought we ought to let everyone live their own life.
In 1963 I was clinical director for a drug company called Emko, a birth-control company. They made what was called contraceptive foam, an over-the-counter item. Great product, great concept. It was inexpensive; it reached poor people. I was committed to helping poor people because I was one of them.
One day I was at Harlem Hospital and I heard a scream I’ll never forget as long as I live. I ran into the hallway and I saw this woman stagger down the hall, covered with blood, as though somebody had thrown a can of red paint on her. I caught her. And she says, ‘My babies, my babies.’ That was the last thing she said to me, and she died, with a piece of coat hanger sticking out of her body. And I was so angered that she died not only because she could not get an abortion, but because she could not get birth control.
Acts of Rebellion
You remember those old United Parcel trucks? Twenty-five-foot long? I bought one very inexpensive. I painted it white, painted “Parents Aid Society” on the side, which was the name of the organization I had formed. It was a neutral name—I figured if you called it Parents Aid Society, you’re helping parents, and that couldn’t be too dangerous.
Inside the "Plan Van" we helped women who were pregnant get abortions and helped women get access to birth control who were not married. I drove it into underserved areas like Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Hempstead, Long Island. I would give out free Emko contraceptive foam and condoms that I got from Young’s Rubber—when they heard about me, they gave me cases of their product free.
This was all against the law. Selling, displaying, etc, of contraception materials. Violation of law 1142 of the New York penal code.
A Blunt Truth
Funny thing about me: Either you love me or you hate me. The people who love me love me because, they say, You have balls bigger than an elephant’s. And I say, I’m only doing with I think is the right thing to do, and that’s to help educate poor people.
In 1966, I started to get panicked calls from the town of Freehold, New Jersey. Unwed mothers were being thrown in jail on the charge of fornication.
I called a guy who ran the welfare department. He says to me, Baird, you cannot give out birth control. I said, Well, I’m gonna come there and teach these mothers birth control in my mobile clinic. He said, You do that and your tail is going right into jail.
I drove there with a couple of my supporters in the van, to the courthouse. Big parking spot. All the sudden, when a group of women came into the van and I started explaining to them about birth control, not one, not two, not three, not four: Fifty policemen with shotguns and pistols came out, surrounded the van, dragged me out, charged me with indecent exposure of obscene objects showing birth control, and sent me to jail for 20 days.
A Landmark Decision
Planned Parenthood at the time had literature that said, “Abortion takes the life of a child.” They were anti-abortion, in spite of all their propaganda. What infuriates me is, as late as today, if you watch them on television discussing this new draft decision from the Supreme Court, you will hear them say Griswold v. Connecticut legalized birth control. That’s an absolute lie. Griswold discriminated against unmarried people. They only tested the law for married people, not for unmarried people. Roe v. Wade attorney Roy Lucas wrote in a Roger Williams University law review article that my case Baird v. Eisenstadt "supplanted" Griswold. It gave "individuals" those rights and not only the ""married entity."
I had to figure out how to get arrested. If I didn’t get arrested, I wouldn’t have standing, because I'm married. To challenge the law for single people, I had to have standing. So I read the Bible. That’s where my enemies come from: the Bible. Genesis 38—you can look it up—verses 9-11. God told Onan to have intercourse with his dead brother’s wife. Which he did. And then he “wasted his seed on the ground.”
And I said to the audience, What do you think spilling your seed on the ground means? They didn’t know. So I said: withdrawal. Coitus interrupted. Then I pointed out that the law says, Anyone who prints, publishes, or distributed any means of birth control broke the law. Therefore, every Bible, and every church and every temple is against the law. So you gotta arrest me and you gotta arrest all these guys.
I was poking fun at ‘em. Just to show how stupid this all was. They called me the Lenny Bruce of the movement.
A Breaking Point
At one point, I got a letter that said, “Killing you wouldn’t be enough, because then you’re dead. But if we kill your children, then you’ll suffer all your life.” My first wife said, I’m out of here. She took the four kids. They’ve had very little to do with me to this day.
Doing Hard Time
By 1967, I had two indictments in Massachussetts: exhibiting birth control devices, and giving out a can of contraceptive foam to an unmarried 19-year-old. I’m facing 10 years in jail, 5 on each charge. I was convicted. I was put in a place called the Charles Street Jail. I tell this story because I can’t hide it: I’m scarred badly. I was beaten.
The first day in prison the guards ripped my clothes off, they were brutal. They put their hands on me and said we have to check if you have any drugs inside of you. I said, Look, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs—I’m the most square guy you’ll ever meet. But they humiliated me, and that first day was just part of what they did to me.
A Brush With Death
In 1979, a young man about 21 years of age got through our security at my abortion clinic on Long Island—how, I don’t know. One of the nurses saw smoke under a door that was normally locked, and she thought somebody dropped a cigarette on the mat. So she pulled the door open, he knocked her down and he threw the gasoline against the wall, then he threw the torch. Fortunately I had my staff trained in how to handle emergencies like a fire.
During my drills I’d have them walk on their knees to the front door and to the back door, which was about 150 feet. There were four operating rooms on one side, and four on the other side. So I would say, Count the doorknobs leading to the outside, because if there’s smoke you won’t be able to see, and if you count the doorknobs you’ll know where you are. Make sure you take at least two patients with you. Which they did, and we got everyone out.
Training to Fight
I’ve always kept in tip-top shape, because I was always being threatened physically. My whole life has been these [people] who say, We’re pro-life—but killing Bill Baird is okay. But I still fight, because I’m fighting for the next generation. I only wish our side would have had a little bit more vision.
You’ve got to know how to fight these people. Planned Parenthood are good moneymakers, they make lots of bucks, but they do not know how to fight their way out of a freaking paper bag. I know more about fighting for people’s rights than anyone who’s sitting in a fancy Madison Avenue office. I’m as poor as a church mouse. To this day, I’m living hand-to-mouth.
A Message for Men
This is what I would say to men: Pick up people. Be a driver. Pick up your friends, drive them and protect them, to a place to vote. Contact legislators who you don’t even agree with, and tell them that you’re a man and you’re going to be watching and they’re gonna be run out of office if they don’t vote for people’s freedoms. What would we do if they made vasectomies a crime for men? If men were told their bodies were controlled by women? I have one dream in life: That every man who is opposed to abortion would have one menstrual cramp at the same time. They’d be instant heroes and converts overnight. But men are so brave with somebody else’s body. If they’re so tough and macho, I say: Try to endure a menstrual cramp. Try to endure childbirth.
I’ve had more fights than you have hairs on your head because other poor kids would try to steal the newspapers I’d pick out of the garbage can, and I said no, that belongs to my mom. But I’m really a gentle person.
If we find out who leaked this Supreme Court draft, I’d promote him or her as a hero. They gave us a fighting chance to get people organized. I’ve devoted my life to this because no one else was, the way I thought it should be done. I’ll be 90 in two weeks. I’m still fighting with every bit of strength I have.
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