How Contraception Transformed the American Family

The Supreme Court’s Griswold decision fifty years ago raised women’s incomes and expanded opportunities for their children.

Fifty years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court announced one of its most important decisions of the 1960s. This landmark decision unleashed an era of new opportunities, changing American society and the economy for the better.

Few have heard of it.

That’s because Griswold vs. Connecticut remains one of the Supreme Court’s most underappreciated cases. Griswold’s immediate effect was to legalize the use of contraception for married couples in Connecticut. But it also led to the creation of a national network of family planning clinics and, eventually, near universal legal access to contraceptives for unmarried women. Griswold was more than a legal decision about privacy. It empowered Americans to become more deliberate parents and opened opportunities both to children and adults.

To understand the profound and enduring effects of this case, consider its context. In 1965, 24 states prohibited the sale of contraceptives to any individual. Inconceivable to most Americans today, these prohibitions were passed during the “Comstock era” of the late-19th century to curb the distribution of “obscenities,” of which contraception was just one. These Comstock-era restrictions resulted in significantly lower use of the newly introduced birth-control pill, which was approved for use in 1960. The restrictions persisted despite the fact that, by the early 1960s, over 75 percent of Americans agreed that birth-control information should be available.

In addition, Comstock-era restrictions on contraceptive sales raised birth rates, and in states in which they were in effect, 10 percent more children were reported as unwanted or ill-timed, accidentally conceived by their married parents.

Estelle Griswold standing outside of the Planned Parenthood center in New Haven, Connecticut in April, 1963. (Wikimedia)

Griswold erased these state-level legal differences and gave momentum to a large wave of social change. By 1970, most states and the federal government (which had restricted the inter-state transport of contraceptives under the federal Comstock Act) had repealed the anti-contraception provisions.

But greater access to contraception was just the beginning of the story. The effects of Griswold on children’s opportunities unfolded slowly over the next 50 years.

The Griswold decision created a natural experiment, making it possible to compare changes in states where restrictions were suddenly removed to those in which they had long been absent. The results reveal the remarkable impact of access to contraception. In formerly restrictive states, Griswold reduced birth rates and rates of accidental pregnancy. As more parents raised families under circumstances of their own choosing, children born after Griswold were more likely to finish college and earn higher family incomes.

Griswold also facilitated the creation of a national network of family-planning programs, which today serves roughly 6.7 million women. As this national network expanded, rates of unwanted childbearing fell further. The household income of the average child born after family planning programs started was raised by at least 2 percent.

As a series of legal decisions extended Griswold’s constitutional protections, unmarried women eventually benefited as well. These young women were increasingly likely to delay marriage, complete college, and enter occupations previously dominated by men. Young women between the ages of 18 and 21 gained more labor-force experience and earned 5 to 8 percent higher wages in their prime than women of the same age without access to contraception. The benefits of access to the Pill for unmarried women can explain roughly one-third of the convergence in the gender gap in earnings by the 1990s.

Many legal scholars still regard the Connecticut law that Griswold overturned as only a minor prohibition on contraceptive access. The law in question, though, significantly restricted economic opportunities for American families. As Congress considers revising family planning policies today, it should remember that lifting seemingly minor restrictions (or imposing news ones) on contraceptive access can shape the landscape of parenthood, careers, and children’s opportunities for many years to come.