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The Springfield Republican

Abortion rights activist presses on

Monday, June 19, 2006
By LORI STABILE

Bill Baird was at a New York City hospital in 1963 when he saw a young mother covered with blood from the waist down.

The woman had died trying to give herself an abortion, in a time when they were illegal and back-alley abortions were common.

What Baird saw that day put him on a life mission, one that he is still passionate about more than 40 years later.

The landmark 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision - Baird v. Eisenstadt - paved the way for unmarried people to have access to birth control, and is seen as a precursor to Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion.

Baird is still fighting for women's rights, and the rights of all people. He said his critics are waiting for him to die. An intense man, he looks much younger than his 73 years.

"I'm still fighting with every bit of passion I have, and I'm losing," Baird said. "The public doesn't seem to give a damn. When I saw the woman die, my life changed. I said, 'Somebody's got to fight.'"

Baird - known as a father of the birth control and abortion movement - now lives in Western Massachusetts. He did not want his town to be named, out of fear for his life. He's been shot at and had death threats. His former abortion and birth control clinic - the first in the country - in Hempstead, N.Y., was firebombed in 1979.

Jailed eight times in five different states for lecturing, Baird has been called everything from a crusader for women's rights to the devil and a "sexual pied piper." The late feminist Betty Friedan once called him a "CIA agent."

He came here a year ago, to be closer to his family - two of his five children live in Western Massachusetts.

Baird grabbed headlines recently for chastising Gov. W. Mitt Romney for failing to issue a "Right to Privacy Day" proclamation to recognize his March 22, 1972, case, Baird v. Eisenstadt.

He accused Romney of flip-flopping on women's rights due to presidential ambitions. Baird said the proclamation has been issued every year since 1996.

"Had I not challenged Massachusetts' archaic birth control laws (something that the Legislature at that time would not do), it would still be a felony in this state. I was sentenced to prison for three months for giving a speech to 2,500 Boston University students in a deliberate challenge of that law," Baird wrote in a March 28 letter to Romney.

Last year's proclamation removed the Roe v. Wade reference, which had read, "It is appropriate that all Massachusetts citizens recognize the importance of the Supreme Court's ruling in Baird v. Eisenstadt, a decision that was quoted six times in subsequent cases including Roe v. Wade."

In an e-mail, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom wrote: "Issuing proclamations is a completely discretionary act by the governor. No one should automatically feel entitled to a proclamation. These proclamations are usually treated by the recipient with appreciation and respect. But that was not the case with Mr. Baird. He was unhappy and critical of the proclamation that was issued last year, and so we decided that things were best left alone."

The old proclamation quotes Justice William Brennan, who wrote for the majority in the case, "if the right to privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted government intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child."

He also has an issue with Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, who the Associated Press reported, changed her stance on the age of consent for abortions. Healey said that she agrees with the current age of consent of 18 for women seeking abortions - despite her comments four years ago on a rehearsal videotape suggesting that she would be open to lowering the age.

Baird worries abortion rights will be taken away. While many people tell him "no one's going to take away these rights," he points to South Dakota.

"South Dakota was a wake-up call," Baird said. "Women alone must be free under the right of privacy to make their own decisions. How dare do I as a male tell you what to do?"

He doesn't understand why people aren't in the streets protesting about South Dakota, where the governor recently signed legislation banning most abortions, making it a crime for doctors to perform an abortion unless necessary to save a woman's life.

Over the years, Baird said he has been marginalized by some feminists, and his contributions to the birth control and abortion movements overlooked.

"I'm quite convinced he's right," said University of Massachusetts history professor Joyce Avrech Berkman. When this movement is discussed, his contribution is often skipped over, she said.

"There is a tendency to abbreviate history," Berkman said.

Berkman said Baird was able to challenge the laws by taking the risks he did. Another case, Baird v. Bellotti in 1979, gave minors the right to abortions without parental veto. Francis X. Bellotti was Massachusetts' attorney general at the time.

Not everyone approves of what Baird has done over the years.

"The legacy he has left is not a positive one, that women are now looked at more than ever as sex objects," said Marie H. Sturgis, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, a group with 23,000 members and more than 35 chapters statewide.

Sturgis said she has seen Baird at the National Right to Life Convention each year. She said he seems to have a "savior mentality" and also seems to suffer from "misplaced compassion."

Abortion creates a "culture of death," Sturgis said. Since abortions became legal, Sturgis said, "over 45 million babies have been sacrificed on the altar of the abortion proponents." Abortions have become a multibillion dollar industry, Sturgis added.

Baird pickets the anti-abortion rally every year. He still has a poster that displays the materials women used to give themselves abortions before they were legal - wires, soap, coat-hangers.

The abortion laws prior to 1973's Roe v. Wade discriminated against the poor, he said. Rich women could fly to England or Puerto Rico to get abortions, he said. Baird had a mobile clinic that he would take into impoverished areas to show women forms of birth control.

In 1967, he was invited by Boston University students to challenge the Massachusetts Law "Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency and Good Order." Back then, a violation of the law could mean 10 years in jail.

"I thought I could challenge the law and wipe out all the (birth control) laws, but I could also risk spending a decade in jail," he said.

He was arrested at the university after he gave a package of contraceptive foam to an unmarried 19-year-old woman - a crime at that time. Only married couples could obtain birth control.

Sentenced to three months in jail, Baird said he endured bugs in his food, rats in his cell, threats of beatings and rape, and a prison fire in which one inmate was killed.

"I wouldn't let them break me," Baird said.

The experience became the basis for the lawsuit Baird v. Eisenstadt. Thomas S. Eisenstadt was the sheriff of Suffolk County.

He became part of an underground network helping women get abortions and access to birth control before both became legal. He eventually ran abortion and birth control clinics in New York and Boston. To protect his family, he moved his then-wife and five children to a farmhouse in Hampden County in 1971. He would see them on weekends. But they became like the people he battled against - deeply religious and conservative.

"I didn't do a good job with my children," Baird said.

While he said he is trying to "heal" with his children, he said he cannot compromise what he believes. Only one son - who lives in New York - understands him, he said. His granddaughter accused him of murdering babies.

"The only reason I'm up here is to be with them. But they don't appreciate what their father has done," Baird said. "I love them, but they don't understand their grandpa. I can't even talk to them about it," he added.

Baird married his third wife - Joni - on Christmas. She will carry on the cause, he said.

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(c) 2006 MassLive.com All Rights Reserved.

(C)2006-2012 Bill Baird