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Andrea Haas Hubbell Roe uprooted?

September 3, 2018

The American debate over reproductive rights began in colonial Connecticut with a surgical abortion case 31 years before the Declaration of Independence.

Other watershed events, most famously the arrests that led to the landmark case Griswold v. Connecticut, also unfolded in our state. Today, Connecticut is so liberal when it comes to abortion and reproductive rights that even most conservative Republicans stay mum on the topic.

But ardent and historic campaigners on both sides of this fiery question have called Connecticut home. In fact, Connecticut has experienced some extreme swings of the reproductive rights pendulum.

As we approach what might be another shift for the nation, a look at our state’s central role in the fight over this still unsettled — and, for many, unsettling — issue might help us understand where we’ve been and where we might be going.

That first documented surgical abortion case in North America took place in Pomfret, Connecticut in 1745. At that time, abortion was legal until the time of quickening, defined then, as now, as the time the woman first feels the fetus move within her.

The first statute regulating abortion was passed in Connecticut in 1821. The statute, which was more about protecting the life of the mother than the fetus, made illegal the use of poisons to induce a woman quick with child.

In 1844, Anthony Comstock was born in New Canaan. Comstock became a zealous crusader against abortion, contraception, and many others matters related to sexuality. Starting in 1873, the U.S. Congress passed several “Comstock laws,” which criminalized the delivery and publication of information pertaining to the procurement of abortion, the prevention of conception and the avoidance of venereal disease. Some states — including, emphatically, Connecticut — effectively codified the Comstock laws as state law.

In 1860, Connecticut became the first state to outlaw all abortion. The Connecticut law became a model for the rest of the nation.

Starting in 1935, state Comstock laws notwithstanding, the Connecticut Birth Control League opened clinics in Hartford, Greenwich, New Haven, Stamford and Waterbury. Eventually, police raided the clinics and all birth control centers across the state were compelled to close.

In 1961, in direct defiance of a longstanding Comstock law, Estelle Griswold, president of Connecticut Planned Parenthood, decided it was time once again to defy the state’s anti-birth control law. Planned Parenthood ostentatiously opened a new clinic in New Haven. Griswold and Dr. Lee Buxton, head of OB/GYN at Yale Medical School, were quickly arrested, as they had planned. The headline in the New Haven Register of Nov. 11, 1961 read: “ARREST OF 2 OFFICIALS CAUSES SHUTDOWN OF BIRTH CONTROL CLINIC; TEST OF LAW SEEN CERTAIN IN NEW CASE.” Ultimately, in 1965, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Griswold (Griswold v. Connecticut), overturning the Comstock law, and establishing a constitutional “right to privacy” for American citizens.

In 1973, Texas attorney Sarah Weddington used the Griswold decision, notably its establishment of a right to privacy, as a cornerstone of her argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade.

In 1990, Connecticut became the first state to set the guarantees of Roe in statutes. Eight other states have followed. So, if the Court overturned Roe, women in Connecticut would still be able to get abortions.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin hearings Tuesday on the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, named by President Donald Trump to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the United States Supreme Court. In 1992, Justice Kennedy cast the determining vote in Casey v. Planned Parenthood , in which the Supreme Court affirmed the basic ruling of Roe v. Wade that prohibits individual states from banning most abortions. It is widely assumed that should (Connecticut educated) Judge Kavanaugh become Justice Kavanaugh, he might well cast the deciding vote to overturn Roe on future cases, which are, by design, already in the pipeline.

We might also pause to consider that if this newly constituted court decides to abnegate Roe, could Griswold be far behind? Roe limits states’ rights to ban abortion and Griswold limits states’ rights to intrude on personal privacy — but both, of course, are part of the broader culture war unfolding over reproductive rights.

And that raises the question about how Connecticut would respond. Hard as it seems to imagine, might the pendulum someday swing again, even here?

Andrea Haas Hubbell is the writer/producer/director of the Emmy-winning documentary feature “The Roots of Roe.” She lives in Washington, Conn. Follow her on twitter @AndieHaas

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