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Time Runs Out for William Baird

State May Be Winning Birth Control Battle

By John Killilea

Bill Baird himself answered when I knocked at his door. Dressed in black shirt and pants, pale and haggard, he invited me into his single motel room. Open suitcases and stray newspaper articles lay on the floor and beds. Until last week he had been sleeping on floors in the rooms of BU students. Then his lawyer, Joseph Balliro, who's defending him without fee, grew exasperated with communications problems, since Baird was moving around so much, and put up the $100 for a week's lease. When I spoke to Baird, the lease had expired three days ago, but he was hoping he could stay until his trial.

Baird feels intensely alone these days. He has few active supporters now--two young New Yorkers, Mike Luckman and Billie Blair, and a couple BU students. His wife and four children have had to stay behind in New York, and he is deeply in debt and has no money. But more important, until his trial last week, he has been going unnoticed.

"I'm a bum in Massachusetts and a hero in New York," he said while we sifted through his myriad news clippings. He showed me letters of congratulations from John Lindsay and Jacob Javits after his successful challenge of New York's birth control laws, and his copies of letters from EMKO Pharmaceutical Company, manufacturer of a contraceptive foam, which showed he was their "Eastern clinical director."

Impressive Credentials

Baird's credentials are impressive. Ten years ago, after four years of college and one of medical school, he joined a drug firm and became a consultant and specialist on contraceptive products. In 1964 he was hired by EMKO as a clinical director, which meant that he lectured to medical associations and hospital staffs on the use of the EMKO contraceptive for married couples.

One day in 1965 he chanced to be in a hospital emergency room when a twenty-nine-year-old Negro woman died after trying to abort herself with a coat-hanger. "I realized that somebody had to go into the slums and help these people," Baird recalls. He started making trips into poor neighborhoods on his own time, lecturing on methods of contraception to the unmarried and married alike. As a direct result, he says, EMKO fired him.

Undaunted, he equipped a mobile birth control clinic in Long Island, and started his campaign in earnest. On May 15, 1965, he was arrested, charged with violating New York law on two counts, exhibiting and publicly teaching methods of contraception, and his career in the courts began. Before the New York Supreme Court could rule on whether or not the two statutes were violations of Constitutional rights, the state legislature voted to liberalize the laws anyway, and Baird had triumphed. John Lindsay wrote him, "I certainly agree with you that the statute under which you were arrested is an obsolete and archaic law. I respect your courage and your concern in forcing a test of the statute." And on May 15, 1966, a year to the day after he had been arrested, the New York Senate appointed him to the joint legislative committee on Health and Mental Hygiene, the body responsible for drawing up new birth control regulations!

In early 1967, Ray Mungo, Editor of the B.U. News, contacted Baird, presented him with a petition signed by 679 Boston University students, and invited him to wage his next battle in Massachusetts. He came here in April, and promptly set his sights on the "Crimes Against Chastity" passage in the State Constitution, which he calls "among the most archaic, reactionary, and dangerous of any state law in the country."

At BU last April, he described and exhibited contraceptives to a packed student audience and distributed tubes of EMKO foam to three coeds. That led to his conviction last week in Suffolk Superior Court on two counts--of showing and of disseminating contraceptive devices. The case is being appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and though it may not come up until next spring, Baird already has a plan for his defense ready.

"We're going to bring out the hypocrisy and dishonesty with which birth control matters are handled in this state," Baird says. Among his exhibits will be a paperback book he claims was purchased at the Coop entitled The Handbook of Birth Control, published by the Harvard Medical Research Association. He also may show a Time magazine with a cascade of multi-colored contraceptive pills on the cover. "The Massachusetts laws specifically forbid discussing or illustrating birth control methods," says Baird, "and yet the law was broken without punishment until I came along."

Baird's vision of his own dramatic plight is strong: he sees himself romantically as a man of high dsetiny. "Six million people are watching Bill Baird as he's fed to the lions . . . I could do so much for this country . . . Twenty years from now the American people will thank me."

He refers bitterly to those who won't fight with him. "The ACLU copped out on me. James Hamilton, of their staff, assured me that they would provide for my defense, then he told me the executive committee had reservations. They finally said they would take my case only if I remained silent and didn't break the remained silent and didn't break the law all the while appeals were going on. I couldn't agree to do it though; the public must be educated during my trial, and I can't compromise my principles."

Planned Parenthood is another favorite target. "They have tried to stop me every inch of the way; they tell the poor to come to them; I go to the poor. They help only married people and they don't have the guts to challenge the unjust laws in this state. They're not helping me because they are a big corporate concern and they had a monopoly on birth control matters until I entered the picture."

Both the ACLU and Planned Parenthood have defenses. Though the ACLU refused to take on Baird's case, the organization still plans to submit an "amicus curiae," a legal expression of support, when Baird's appeal comes before the State Supreme Court. A spokesman for the ACLU argues that Baird's insistence on "educating the public" would only make sense if he were trying to change the law through the legislature. Since he decided on a court challenge instead, the ACLU felt that pre-trial publicity could only hurt his cause.

Planned Parenthood thinks even less of Baird's recent tactics and his chances in court. In New York he was charged with distributing information and exhibiting contraceptives, and both of those actions can be interpreted as extensions of the right of free speech. But here he has been outflanked by the Massachusetts District Attorney. The charge that he gave out information on birth control, which would probably be declared a constitutional right, was dropped, and the charge that he actually distributed contraceptives was added. Planned Parenthood thinks this question lies in the gray area between individual rights and legitimate state power, and that Baird has little hope of overturning state laws.

Another problem for Planned Parenthood is Baird's own willingness to give contraceptive to the unmarried. "We would waive this consideration," says Stephen J. Plank, assistant professor of population studies and president of the state chapter of Planned Parenthood, "if we thought Baird had a better chance to win his point. It doesn't make sense to violate our charter to support such a risky case as his, though." Planned Parenthood prefers to handle the problem of unmarrieds, Plank says, by "not investigating the marital status of those who come to us for advice. We recommend all such individuals to physicians who can help them."

Baird's resentment of those who haven't rallied to his cause keeps coming back to his sense of his own obscurity. And he talks of his frustrations with Harvard students with the same air: "Harvard represents to me the hypocrisy of society. They all have their noses in the air over there. They are so impressed with themselves they forget that there are poor people who are suffering because of this law."

"That isn't to say, though, that many Harvard and Radcliffe students have not come to me for help. The day I spoke at Harvard last spring two couples approached me and I helped them. I have a clinic in New York that deals with birth control problems. Anyone who calls me I'll send to physicians. If you can read between the lines, you'll know I send them for abortions. If I didn't do this, they would get involved with quacks."

Baird stutters and often acts defensively on a rostrum, he is emotional and self-defensive on a radio interview, and he strikes many Harvard students as churlish. Baird knows this. Despite his manner, it's hard not to admire what Baird has done and what he hopes to do. At one point, he handed me a letter from a poor mother in Rochester who had just learned of her daughter's pregnancy:

"I became so desperate at this news," one paragraph read, "that I decided to try the hot water and turpentine method someone had told me about. We poured one-half gallon of turpentine in a pail and added scalding water over this. Priscilla sat on the paid and I wrapped a blanket around her. The fumes were supposed to make her abort. This was done three times a day for three days. The only thing that happened was that I burnt her bottom raw."

"This is what people can't see," Baird said. "Until I challenged that law in New York this woman's daughter could not have received help except from a quack." He went on to future goals. "I want to see the day when no child will be unwanted and unloved. I want to see welfare costs go down. Birth control clinics ought to be set up in poor neighborhoods. These places should be in pleasant, helpful surroundings -- no cold clinical atmosphere. They should operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so that people don't have to miss work. And all services should be free."

"I'm going to stay in Massachusetts whether I go to jail or not," he added. "My mobile clinic is coming down from New York in a few weeks and I'm going to set it up in Roxbury."

Baird was interrupted by the phone. "OK now, one thing at a time. Is it your wife or your girlfriend -- your girlfriend. I can't help you by phone. Where are you calling from? Western Reserve University in Cleveland. And your girl? She's in Portland. Can you get down here in the next few days? No, I must see the girl in person. I want to make sure this is what she wants. Now get her down to Boston by Tuesday, then. I'll give you my number. Tell her to call when she arrives here. Bye now, and don't worry, my friend."

That was the first of three such calls to come through while I was with Baird. "I'm not enthusiastic about abortions." Baird told me. "What I would like to do is make sure abortions don't have to happen, by making contraceptives available to those who want them. In the meantime, I can refer people who ask my help to competent doctors. Of course, what I'm doing is a serious state offense, but these folks need someone."

He got up and paced across the room. "You see, here I am helping others and no one is helping me. Sure, I know these people are behind me, but they're so far behind I can't see them. And you know, many folks think I'll get ten years in prison for what I have done. I'm trying to help humanity and I'm getting crucified."

The melodramatic tone never disappears from Baird's harsh complaints, but it is understandable. This time he might really get thrown to the wolves. So he is scared of the ten year jail sentence, of course, but you can also sense an extra measure of fright and incredulity in his voice, because to his mind, at least, nobody is even watching.

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