Bill Baird’s battle for legalized abortion and Roe v. Wade

"This is a religious war,” says Baird of the intense push to make abortion illegal.“

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A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court involving Bill Baird was at the base of its subsequent Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion in the United States. Now, Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned by a court majority.

A draft opinion leaked to Politico written by Justice Samuel Alioto sets the stage for it.And Baird, long a resident of Long Island, New York who, after death threats and the firebombing of one of his two birth control/abortion clinics on Long Island, has lived anonymously in another state, was expressing his outrage to me last week.

The three Trump nominees to the Supreme Court—Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett—should, said Baird, be “removed from office” for testifying that Roe v. Wade was established precedent when they underwent confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“They lied,” said Baird. “All they wanted to do was to get into office and prevent women from getting abortions.”

Baird began battling for legalized abortion after, in 1963, as the clinical director of EMKO, a manufacturer of birth control products, he was at Harlem Hospital in New York City “coordinating research, and “I heard the scream of a young African-American woman covered with blood” from the waist down. She was bleeding caused by “a piece of coat hanger” used in a self-inflicted abortion. The unmarried woman, who already had nine children, “died in my arms.”

He was to establish the Parents Aid Society, and later the Pro-Choice League, and be jailed eight times in five states for advocating birth control and legal abortion.

In 1967, students at Boston University sent Baird a petition asking him to challenge the Massachusetts’ “Crimes Against Chastity, Decency, Morality and Good Order” law. He made a presentation at the university attended by 1,500 students in which he gave a female student a condom and a package of contraceptive foam. Police immediately “swooped in” and he was arrested as a felon, convicted and sentenced to three months in jail.

Thomas Eisenstadt was to become the sheriff of Suffolk County, Massachusetts so Baird’s challenge of the Massachusetts law was titled Baird v. Eisenstadt. In 1972, Supreme Court Justice John J. Brennan, Jr. wrote the decision in that case stating it was legal for an unmarried person to be provided contraception. It declared: “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as to whether to bear or beget a child.”

That decision—and its emphasis on the “right of privacy”—would be the basis the following year for the Roe v. Wade decision in which the Supreme Court ruled it was legal for a woman to have an abortion.

Other arrests of Baird included one 1971 in Huntington, Long Island, a town in which he then lived, in 1971 at a presentation attended by 300 people, he related. He showed a birth control pill and a diaphragm, and on the basis of a mother being in the audience who was “holding a 14-month baby,” he was handcuffed by the Suffolk County, New York Police Department, “spent the night in jail” and charged along with the infant’s mother with “endangering the welfare of a child.”

There would be other legal challenges including two more cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Further, Baird “every year for 30 years” went to an anti-abortion gathering called the “National Right to Life Convention”—he says the term “right to life” was devised as part of the anti-abortion PR strategy post-Roe v. Wade. At the conventions he conducted a “dangerous noontime picket” bearing a cross written on it “Free Women From The Cross of Oppression.” 

His clinics, in Hauppauge and Hempstead, Long Island —the Hempstead clinic was struck by a man who barged into the waiting room wielding a firebomb in 1979—are now gone. But Baird, who will be 90 next month, keeps going. He urges people to translate their support for legal abortion in elections this and coming years making sure “they choose candidates who support a women’s rights to make their own decisions,” and to otherwise take action.“

“This is a religious war,” says Baird of the intense push to make abortion illegal.

“What if,” he comments, “Orthodox Jews said you can’t have ham and egg sandwiches,” because ham isn’t kosher, and sought to make ham and egg sandwiches illegal? “Or if Jehovah’s Witnesses push a law banning blood infusions.”

It is high time for, he says, that “lobbies” of the Catholic Church have their federal tax-exempt status lifted. Meanwhile, the Catholic anti-abortion drive has been joined in by Evangelicals.

Alioto is a devout Catholic. Catholic, too, are Kavanaugh and Barrett as well as Clarence Thomas and John Roberts, the chief justice. “By Overturning Roe, the Supreme Court delivers for the Catholic Church,” was the headline of a piece by Joan Vennochi on May 10 in The Boston Globe. And that’s even though, said the subhead, “polls show that a majority of Catholics believe Roe v. Wade should be upheld.” 

Bill Baird “is tireless and amazing and still out there,” says Marilyn Fitterman, former president of the National Organization for Women–New York State, a grandmother of nine who has worked with Baird for decades and authored the recent book Why I Marched. Moreover, she warned last week: “If the right for reproductive freedom falls, other things are also going to fall.” 

Sandy Rapp, singer and songwriter from Long Island and author of God’s Country: A Case Against Theocracy, calls Baird the “tantamount activist.” 

Rapp in 1996 recorded a song she wrote, “The Ballad of Billy Baird.”

The lyrics:    

Eight times in jail was Billy Baird, that young and gentle pioneer.   

Took to the streets when he saw a woman die from an underground abortion.    What keeps ya goin’ Billy Baird?  What keeps the flowers in your hair?   

You been so long singin’ the good song. 

You keep the sixties rollin’ on.   

He bought a van with all he had, and set about to spread the word,   

When just a mention of prevention was illegal to be heard.    Three times to court was Billy Baird, the highest court in all the land.   

When it was seen as criminally obscene to speak of a parenthood that’s planned.   

If the right to privacy means anything at all,   

It is to choose whether or not to bear a child,   

So spoke the court in seventy-two when Billy Baird’s first case   

Made birth control legal for singles in the USA.

Chorus:   

What keeps ya goin’ Billy Baird?  What keeps the flowers in your hair?   

You been so long singin’ the good song. 

You keep the sixties rollin’ on.   

There was a bomb in seventy-nine. 

No doubt Bill was meant to die.   

Billy escaped but the morning break found they burned his clinic to the ground.   

They see the devil in his face, and shoot the windows from his place.   

They’re for creation not information and they’ve killed nine providers now to date.   

And the court decided twice again for Billy Baird,   

Cited Baird v. Eisenstadt six times in Roe v. Wade.   

Then Bill faced jail again this time for rights of gays.   

For years he was denied the vote for felonies such as these.

FALL FUNDRAISER

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