Supreme Court Decisions on Privacy: Griswold v. Connecticut

Medical Director Dr. C. Lee Buxton, (right) and Executive Director Mrs. Griswold talk with their attorney, Miss Catherine Roraback, (left) during their trial testing Connecticut's 82-year-old birth control law.
Medical Director Dr. C. Lee Buxton, (right) and Executive Director Mrs. Griswold talk with their attorney, Miss Catherine Roraback, (left) during their trial testing Connecticut's 82-year-old birth control law. Bettmann/Getty Images

Should people be allowed access to drugs or devices designed to stop contraception, and thus be able to engage in sex without having to worry as much about pregnancy? There have been many laws in the United States which prohibited the manufacture, distribution, transportation, or advertisement of such drugs and devices. Those laws were challenged and the most successful line or argument stated that such laws interfered with a sphere of privacy which belonged to the individual.

Background Information

Connecticut prohibited the use of drugs or instruments to prevent conception, and the giving of assistance or counsel in their use. The laws in question had been enacted in 1879 (and originally written by P.T. Barnum, of circus fame):

Any person who uses any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception shall be fined not less than fifty dollars or imprisoned not less than sixty days nor more than one year or be both fined and imprisoned.

The Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut and its medical director, a licensed physician, were convicted as accessories for giving married persons information and medical advice on how to prevent conception and, following examination, prescribing a contraceptive device or material for the wife's use.

Court Decision

The Supreme Court ruled that the "statute forbidding use of contraceptives violates the right of marital privacy which is within the penumbra of specific guarantees of the Bill of Rights."

According to Justice Douglas, who wrote the majority opinion, the rights people have are more than what can be read in the literal language of the Constitutional text. Citing a number of earlier cases, he emphasized how the Court had established a justified precedent for protecting the marital and family relationships from government interference without strong justification.

In this case, the Court failed to find any justification for this kind of interference in such relationships. The State failed to demonstrate that couples did not possess a right to make private decisions as to when and how many children they would have.

This law, however, operates directly on an intimate relation of husband and wife and their physician's role in one aspect of that relation. The association of people is not mentioned in the Constitution nor in the Bill of Rights. The right to educate a child in a school of the parents' choice -- whether public or private or parochial -- is also not mentioned. Nor is the right to study any particular subject or any foreign language. Yet the First Amendment has been construed to include certain of those rights.

The right of "association," like the right of belief, is more than the right to attend a meeting; it includes the right to express one's attitudes or philosophies by membership in a group or by affiliation with it or by other lawful means. Association in that context is a form of expression of opinion, and while it is not expressly included in the First Amendment its existence is necessary for making the express guarantees fully meaningful.

The foregoing cases suggest that specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance. ...Various guarantees create zones of privacy. The right of association contained in the penumbra of the First Amendment is one, as we have seen. The Third Amendment in its prohibition against the quartering of soldiers "in any house" in time of peace without the consent of the owner is another facet of that privacy. The Fourth Amendment explicitly affirms the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." The Fifth Amendment in its Self-Incrimination Clause enables the citizen to create a zone of privacy which government may not force him to surrender to his detriment. The Ninth Amendment provides: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights -- older than our political parties, older than our school system. Marriage is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred. It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects. Yet it is an association for as noble a purpose as any involved in our prior decisions.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Goldberg pointed out, with a quote from Madison, that the authors of the Constitution did not intend the first eight amendments to exhaustively list all of the rights which the people had, reserving everything else to the government:

It has been objected also against a bill of fights, that, by enumerating particular exceptions to the grant of power, it would disparage those rights which were not placed in that enumeration; and it might follow by implication, that those rights which were not singled out, were intended to be assigned into the hands of the General Government, and were consequently insecure. This is one of the most plausible arguments I have ever heard urged against the admission of a bill of rights into this system; but, I conceive, that it may be guarded against. I have attempted it, as gentlemen may see by turning to the last clause of the fourth resolution [the Ninth Amendment].


This decision went a long way to establishing a basic sphere of personal privacy to which all people are entitled. If followed, it would place the burden on the government to demonstrate why it is justified in interfering with your life rather than requiring you to demonstrate that the text of the Constitution specifically and narrowly prohibits the government's actions.

This decision also paved the way forĀ Roe v. Wade, which acknowledged that women's privacy included a right to determine whether or not their own pregnancy should be carried to full term.