The United States Constitution

A forum for discussing the meaning of the United States Constitution for our political process.

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Location: Middleton, Massachusetts, United States

I am concerned about the direction of the United States economy and politics, and about our declining influence in the world. I feel we are losing our moral and ethical bearings.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

Does the Constitution guarantee a right to privacy?

Estelle Griswold, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood

If you do a text search for the word "privacy" in the Constitution, you won't find it. There are a number of paragraphs that seem to imply that there is a right to privacy, such as the Fourth Amendment, which states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The people who advocate about Internet privacy and government intrusion into privacy frequently base their argument on the 4th Amendment. They also cite the 14th Amendment, Section 1, which states:

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

This clause is sometimes called the "due process" clause.

Another section of the Constitution cited for supporting the right to privacy is the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press and religion. The First Amendment is sometimes called the "establishment clause" because it forbids the state from establishing a church (although these days one could argue that some people are trying anyway).

What does Griswold v. Connecticut have to do with all of this? In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that, even though there is no explicit Constitutional right to privacy, the combination of the clauses I mentioned earlier establish what Chief Justice Douglas called the "penumbra" of the right. In other words, the right to privacy exists even if not explicitly stated.

From the perspective of 2006, Griswold v. Connecticut sounds like a ludicrous case. Estelle Griswold, the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood of Connecticut, and a doctor affiliated with Planned Parentood, were arrested under a 1879 Connecticut law, for counseling a married couple about birth control. It's hard to believe that in 1965, in such a "liberal" state like Connecticut, this wouldn't be obviously legal, a situation where a doctor can discuss birth control in confidence with his or her patient. But these days, with the anti birth control lobby, prying legal eyes are still trying to interfere with what seems to be a basic right.

The Court decided that the Connecticut law was unconstitutional because there really is a right of marital privacy implied by the combination of all those constitutional guarantees. The justices were not unanimous in their decision. The vote was 7-2, with Justices Black and Stewart dissenting. Their dissents were the foundation for the idea of the "so called right to privacy". Some might call this case an example of judicial activism - the Court making new laws.


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