Eisenstadt v. Baird

405 U.S. 438 (1972)

Quick Summary

Baird (defendant) was prosecuted under a Massachusetts law for distributing contraceptives to an unmarried woman after a lecture. The central issue presented to the Supreme Court was whether this law infringed upon the Equal Protection Clause by treating married and unmarried individuals differently.

The Supreme Court concluded that the law indeed violated the Equal Protection Clause, as it unjustifiably discriminated against unmarried individuals by denying them access to contraceptives, while married couples were allowed such access. Thus, Baird’s conviction was overturned.

Facts of the Case

William Baird (defendant) was charged under a Massachusetts statute after providing contraceptive materials during a lecture at Boston University. Specifically, he gave a woman a package of contraceptive foam following his speech. The law in question made it illegal to distribute any product intended for contraceptive purposes unless given by a registered physician to a married couple.

Baird contended that this law violated constitutional rights and sought to overturn his conviction. Eisenstadt (plaintiff), the sheriff enforcing the statute, was challenged by Baird in the Massachusetts state court system.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld Baird’s conviction for distributing contraceptives but struck down his conviction for exhibiting contraceptives, citing First Amendment protections.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Baird was convicted in a Massachusetts Superior Court for distributing contraceptives.
  2. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld part of the conviction while overturning the conviction related to exhibiting contraceptives.
  3. Baird filed for a federal writ of habeas corpus, which was initially dismissed.
  4. The Court of Appeals vacated the dismissal and directed the lower court to grant the writ.
  5. The Sheriff of Suffolk County appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which led to this case.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the Massachusetts statute that criminalizes the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried individuals violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Rule of Law

The Equal Protection Clause prohibits states from denying equal treatment to individuals placed into different classes based on arbitrary criteria without a reasonable and substantial relation to the legislative goal.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court emphasized that if the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of individuals, whether married or single, to make decisions about childbearing without unwarranted government intrusion. The Court found no reasonable justification for different treatment between married and unmarried individuals regarding access to contraceptives.

The law could not be considered a health measure since it did not apply equally to preventing diseases, and it was not an effective deterrent against premarital sex as unmarried individuals were still able to obtain contraceptives for disease prevention.

Furthermore, the Court determined that if Griswold v. Connecticut protected married couples’ access to contraceptives, then unmarried individuals should also have equal access. The unequal treatment was deemed invidious under the Equal Protection Clause, leading to the affirmation of the Court of Appeals’ decision to grant Baird’s writ of habeas corpus and discharge him.


The Massachusetts statute that prohibited the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried individuals was found unconstitutional, violating the Equal Protection Clause. The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Concurring Opinions

Justice Douglas concurred, emphasizing that Baird’s actions fell under the protection of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and assembly. He argued that providing a contraceptive sample as part of an educational lecture was protected speech and could not be restricted by requiring licenses or other forms of government permission.

Key Takeaways

  1. The right of privacy includes an individual’s right, whether married or single, to make decisions about contraception without government interference.
  2. Discrimination between married and unmarried individuals in access to contraceptives violates the Equal Protection Clause.
  3. Statutes that are neither effective health measures nor reasonable deterrents against prohibited conduct may be considered arbitrary and unconstitutional under equal protection analysis.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What criteria must a state law meet to satisfy the Equal Protection Clause?

Under the Equal Protection Clause, state laws must show that classifications treat similarly situated individuals in the same manner and that any disparate treatment is justified by a legitimate state interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.

  • For example: A law offering certain tax benefits to married individuals must also justify why unmarried individuals do not receive the same benefit to meet equal protection standards.

How do individual privacy rights affect state regulations on reproductive health matters?

Individual privacy rights limit state intervention in reproductive choices, requiring that regulations on reproductive health matters serve a compelling state interest and are not more intrusive than necessary.

  • For example: A law requiring prescription for all contraceptives must be justified by public health concerns and cannot arbitrarily exclude over-the-counter options if they pose no significant risk.

In what situations can a law be struck down as arbitrary under the Equal Protection Clause?

A law can be deemed arbitrary and thus unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause when it results in discriminatory treatment without a substantial relation to an appropriate government objective or when it relies on irrelevant factors that do not reflect actual distinctions among different groups.

  • For example: A statute prohibiting only individuals under 25 from operating commercial trucks may be struck down if age is not shown to be significantly related to safe driving ability.


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