Women vs. Connecticut Organizing Pamphlet

(Circa November 1970)

Women versus Connecticut, as the group came to be called, presented a new model of abortion activism. Abortion reform during the 1960s initially sought to protect women; Women versus Connecticut sought to empower them. Once the group decided to mount a challenge to Connecticut's law, only women, and as many as possible, were to be the plaintiffs, lawyers, organizers, and experts.
What follows is an organizing pamphlet used by Women versus Connecticut to recruit plaintiffs for the lawsuit. The signatories to the document included members of the New Haven women's liberation group, which drew on the students of Yale Law School and the surrounding community. The organizing pamphlet sets forth the group's arguments, explains the process of bringing a lawsuit, and then sets out the grounds of the group's constitutional arguments. Once the group had decided to sue, it was determined to make clear that Women versus Connecticut's effort to legalize abortion was part of a larger struggle for equal voice and equal citizenship. As in New York, the movement recruited hundreds of women as plaintiffs in the case. When filed, there were 858 women named in the complaint; as the suit progressed, that number reached 1,700. Lawyers for the group included Nancy Stearns of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who played a key role in the Abramowicz case in New York, and Catherine Roraback (1920-2007), a graduate of Yale Law School who had worked with Professor Thomas Emerson in challenging Connecticut's ban on birth control, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in the Griswold case.

About fifteen women came together in February, 1970 because we wanted to do something about abortion. Most of us were also in Women's Liberation; about half had had abortions; most of us had been contacted by women desperate to obtain abortions. As we talked, we began to discover that "the abortion issue" is inseparable from many other dimensions of our lives as women—we just think of it as separate because society has isolated it by making it a crime. In our meetings we began to understand that it was important for us to figure out how abortion connected to the rest of our lives and couch our action in those terms.

At the end of eight months of discussion of our experiences, and research we did on abortion and health care, we decided to try to reach all the women in Connecticut who wanted to work with us to abolish Connecticut's law against abortion. We decided that bringing a lawsuit against Connecticut's anti-abortion law was an important first step toward a decent health care system and women's control over their bodies.

We wrote the statement which follows to summarize for ourselves and new people our thoughts about the relationships we came to see after long discussion and struggle. Newer members need not agree with all of what we now believe, and we expect that the newly expanded group which has decided to call itself Women versus Connecticut will probably evolve its own position. We present it as an introduction because it is the basic stance from which the suit was initiated.

As women in this society, we lack control over our own bodies.

For years women have been under constant pressure to have children. Our culture teaches us that we are not complete women unless we have children. Our husbands and boyfriends encourage us to bear children as proof of their masculinity. Contraception is almost always our responsibility. Contraceptives that are known to be safe are not always effective; contraceptives that are known to be effective are not always safe. Abortion is illegal, and women who get abortions often risk their lives.

Other pressures compel some of us not to have children. If we are unmarried, we become social outcasts by bearing children. Those of us who are poor and live on welfare know that opponents of welfare want to limit the size of our families. We are pressured to use contraceptives or be sterilized; each time we have another child the meager allowance per child gets even smaller. Population control advocates tell us that overpopulation is the reason our environment is polluted. They imply that unless women everywhere stop having babies, thousands of children in underdeveloped countries will starve, and all people will be deprived of clean air, pure water, and space in which to live.

We want control over our own bodies. We are tired of being pressured to have children or not to have children. It's our decision.

But control over our bodies is meaningless without control over our lives. Women must not be forced into personal and economic dependence on men or on degrading jobs in order to assure adequate care for the children they bear. Our decisions to bear children cannot be freely made if we know that aid in child care is not forthcoming and that we will be solely responsible for the daily care of our children.

We are a group of women associated with Women's Liberation who want to bring suit to challenge Connecticut's abortion law. For the past several months we have been meeting regularly to talk about abortion, population control, health care, and our lives as women. We have decided to act to change some of the oppressive realities of our lives.

We believe that women must unite to free themselves from a culture that defines them only as daughters, wives, and mothers. We must be free to be human whether or not we choose to marry or bear children.

We believe it is wrong for this society to put the economic needs of corporations first and human needs second. These corporations rob Third World countries of resources with which their populations could be fed. At home, they make their profits by exploiting workers and polluting the environment. We think the issue is not control of the world's population but control of the world's resources. The question is not how many children but what proportion of the world's resources each child receives.

We believe all people have a right to meaningful work, an adequate income, access to good health care, and parent-controlled child care. We believe children have a right to be born into a world where many adults will be able to love and care for them according to their needs.

We don't expect these things to be given to us; we will have to fight for them. The abortion suit is just a beginning. If we succeed in changing the law, we will still have to fight to make abortions cheap enough so all women can afford them. We will have to struggle to prevent abortion from being used as a weapon against women who want to have children. We will have to fight to create a health care system controlled by those who use and work in it. And we know there are many other struggles ahead.

We are women committed to working together for these changes. Join us!

Betsy Gilbertson Wilhelm, Gretchen Goodenow,
Michele Fletcher, Ann Freedman, Sasha Harmon,
Marione Cobb, Jill Hultin, Harriet Katz, Ann Hill,
Gail Falk, Joan Gombos, Nancy Greep

Women versus Connecticut

We are initiating a suit to try to get Connecticut's abortion law declared unconstitutional.

Under present Connecticut law, abortions are only legal if they are necessary to preserve the life of the mother. Women who have abortions as well as anyone who either performs them or helps women arrange to get them can be imprisoned and/or fined. The abortionist can be fined $1000 and imprisoned up to five years; the woman who had the abortion can be fined $500 and imprisoned up to two years; anyone who helped her arrange the abortion can be fined $500 and imprisoned for up to one year.

The law is used. Dr. Morris Sullman, a doctor in New London, was recently convicted of performing an abortion. There have been a number of arrests of those suspected of performing and arranging illegal abortions in the New Haven area in the past few months. (The woman who had the abortion rarely gets arrested. The usual pattern is for police or medical personnel to threaten women who are desperately ill following botched abortions with prosecution unless they agree to reveal the name of their abortionist.)

Women vs. Connecticut has not chosen to try and change the law because we believe in the power of the law to bring about the liberation of women, or even because we are convinced that once the law is declared unconstitutional all women who need them will be able to get abortions in Connecticut.

We see changing the law only as a necessary first step toward making those things possible.

As long as the law is on the books, doctors and hospitals can always hide behind it. Hospitals which choose not to do abortions have an iron-clad defense; hospitals like Yale-New Haven which do some abortions are protected from community pressure to do more by the argument that if their current practices are publicized they will be forced to stop doing any.

And as long as the law makes obtaining an abortion a criminal act, we will continue to be forced to behave like—and thus to feel like—criminals.

We doubt that our troubles will be over once the law is changed. We suspect that hospitals will be reluctant to reallocate their priorities to make giving abortions to thousands of women possible; that doctors will not want to spend much of their valuable time doing this brief, uninteresting (and possibly unlucrative) procedure. But we will never get to this stage without first getting rid of the law.

Connecticut's abortion law was enacted in 1821 and amended in 1860. Many states have laws similar to Connecticut's, although in the past few years nine states have enacted "reform" laws which make abortion legal under several categories of circumstances: if the mother's mental health is threatened, if there is evidence indicating the child will be born with a deformity, if the child is the product of rape or incest, etc. However, a recent study indicates that only 15% of all women who have abortions do so for reasons covered by "reform" laws—and expense prevents many eligible women from getting them.

During the past year there have been some important legal changes. A Federal court in Washington, D.C. has declared the abortion law there unconstitutional because it is too vague (it specifies that abortions are legal to preserve the life and health of the mother). The Wisconsin abortion law, which is similar to Connecticut's, has been found unconstitutional by a Federal three-judge panel which found that the police power of the state did not entitle it to deny to women the right to decide for themselves whether or not to bear a child. Hawaii (which has a 90-day residency requirement) and New York (no residency requirement) have passed new laws which make abortion legal when performed in a hospital by a doctor. The New York legislature appears to have been favorably influenced by four suits—one brought by several hundred women, the others by a minister, a group of doctors, and several women for whom childbearing presented special burdens—which were pending before a Federal three-judge panel in New York at the time of passage of the new law.

These changes in other states create a favorable climate for change in Connecticut. There are a couple of ways the Connecticut law could be changed: by getting a new law—like New York's for example—passed by the legislature, or by bringing a suit which asks the courts to find Connecticut's abortion law unconstitutional.

Getting a new law that we would approve of through Connecticut's heavily Catholic legislature seems unlikely. Previous efforts to introduce even moderate reform measures have been unsuccessful. Asking the courts to find Connecticut's abortion law unconstitutional seems more apt to succeed. What it means to "ask the courts to find Connecticut's abortion law unconstitutional:"

  1. In every state there are two sets of courts—state courts and Federal courts. State courts make decisions about cases that result from violation of state law. Federal courts make decisions about cases that arise from violations of Federal law and about conflicts between state law and the Federal Constitution.
  2. There are two ways we could go about asking the courts to make a decision on the constitutionality of the Connecticut abortion law.
    1. We could get arrested under the law—one way to do this might be to set up a flagrantly public referral service—and if we were convicted we could appeal through the state courts, hoping eventually to win in the U.S. Supreme Court. The problems with this approach are these: we would be unlikely to get the law declared unconstitutional by Connecticut courts since they are subject to the same political pressures as the legislature; it takes a long time and a lot of money to go from the lowest state court to the U.S. Supreme Court; some of us would have to get arrested and might go to jail.
    2. We could go into Federal court and ask for a declaratory judgment. This means that we would ask the U.S. District Court of Connecticut to analyze the Connecticut abortion law in terms of the U.S. Constitution and find the law unconstitutional. This amounts to asking the Federal court to use its power as interpreter of the Constitution to make a ruling on a state law which is ordinarily the territory of the state courts. To do this, no one has to get arrested. Those of us who want the law declared unconstitutional become plaintiffs in a civil action. The attorney general of Connecticut, who represents the state judicial system, is the defendant.

Advantages of this approach are that it takes less time and costs less than bringing a test case by getting arrested; no one has to risk jail; the suit is a positive statement of our position, instead of a defense to criminal charges.

Any group or combination of groups that feel themselves "irreparably harmed" by the law can be plaintiffs in this type of suit. All women fit in this category. We have planned in terms of a women's suit, in which the plaintiffs would be as many women as possible single, married, professional, laywomen—all those who feel the law denies them their constitutional rights. Twelve hundred New Jersey women are bringing such a suit there. In New York, where a group of women brought a similar suit, the plaintiffs included professionals—like doctors and ministers who are frequently asked to give abortions or information about abortion. Any woman who feels she might be in the position to advise another woman about abortion is welcome to join our suit.

Since the constitutionality of abortion laws is being challenged in a number of states, many of the legal arguments we are apt to use have already been set forth in briefs written for other states. The legal arguments we plan to use are outlined in the next section of this pamphlet.

Because the legal system is so chauvinist—only 4% of lawyers are women, less than 1% of judges, and the law has been slow to recognize the rights of women— the idea of bringing a women's suit which demands that the legal system recognize women's rights is particularly appealing.

Legal Arguments

The legal arguments we are making to show that Connecticut's abortion law violates women's rights under the United States Constitution are summarized as follows:

1. Right to Privacy
The Connecticut abortion law violates a woman's right to privacy, because it denies her the right to control over her own body and the right to make her own decisions in intimate personal matters related to marriage, family, and sex. It is every woman's decision, not the State's decision, as to whether she wants to bear a child. It is a personal decision, made in privacy and not to be interfered with by the State.

2. Right to Life, Liberty, and Property
A woman's right to life is jeopardized by the abortion law in that childbirth carries with it a risk to the life and health of the woman. This risk is higher than the risk involved in getting an abortion in the early stages of pregnancy.

In Connecticut, the actuality of an unwanted pregnancy, or the possibility of such a pregnancy, severely limits a woman's liberty and freedom to engage in the political process, to choose her own profession, and to fulfill herself in any way which does not relate to the bearing and raising of children. Unmarried women who become pregnant and are forced to bear children against their will suffer an extreme deprivation of liberty and human dignity by the social stigma placed on them as unwed mothers.

Women also suffer loss of property in that they are denied jobs solely on the basis of possible pregnancy, or motherhood. Pregnant women are forced to leave their jobs without compensation and without any guarantee of returning to work after they give birth.

Women who are forced to bear children they cannot support suffer extreme economic hardship. Because there are few facilities for child care outside the home, these women are effectively excluded from seeking employment and are forced to rely on welfare or charities to help in raising their children, at a loss to their liberty and independence in economic matters.

3. Right to Equal Protection
(Right of Rich and Poor Alike to Get Abortions)
Rich women in Connecticut can afford to travel to London or Puerto Rico for abortions. They also have greater opportunity to learn of private New York hospitals that perform abortions for out-of-state women at fees of $500–600. Thus, Connecticut's abortion law places a much heavier burden on poor women, who cannot afford the prices charged by hospitals in New York for therapeutic abortions, nor can they afford a trip out of the country.

4. The Abortion Law Imposes a Cruel and Unusual Punishment on Women by Forcing Them to Bear Children
Forcing a person to give up his citizenship and to leave the country has been called a cruel and unusual punishment by the U.S. Supreme Court. We are arguing that forcing a woman, who does not want a child, to carry a pregnancy to term imposes on her the highest form of mental cruelty, as well as the physical hardship of pregnancy and childbirth and the economic burden of supporting a child for 21 years. Obviously, women who want children do not see pregnancy and childbirth as punishment. But for women who are forced to have children against their will, the abortion law creates a devastating torture of body and mind and often turns a woman's life into hell.

5. Connecticut's Abortion Law Is Unconstitutionally Vague
A criminal law, like the abortion law, must be worded so that the people affected by it know what is being forbidden. The words, "necessary to preserve the life of the mother," which are used in the state abortion law do not meet the standard, because the terms "necessary," "preserve" and "life" are ambiguous. They could mean that an abortion is not permitted unless the woman will die in pregnancy or childbirth or if she attempts suicide during her pregnancy; it could also mean that a woman's health will be injured in childbirth so that her life span will be shortened; it could also mean that a woman's quality of life will be changed for the worse, if she has a child. If no one is clear about the meaning of the law, how can it be enforced?

6. Right to Freedom of Religion
The Connecticut abortion law is kept on the books by people who hold the religious belief that human life begins at the moment of conception and that abortion means killing a person. They are imposing their religious views on all the other people who do not think abortion is murder, and who have the constitutional right to hold their beliefs without interference by state laws, such as the abortion law.

7. Right to Free Speech
People who want to help women get abortions can be prosecuted under the Connecticut abortion law. This violates their right to freedom of expression, to give out information on how to do abortions, who will do abortions and where they can be obtained.

8. The State Has No Justification for Its Abortion Law
When the abortion law was passed in the nineteenth century, the State was worried about the health hazards of performing abortions. At that time, even the most minor operation was dangerous. The State also showed an interest in protecting the morals of women, and keeping them out of the hands of scurrilous men, who would force them to risk their lives getting abortions. Times have changed—medically, abortion under proper conditions is now a safe minor operation, and the law intended to protect women now forces them to depend on racketeers and profiteers for dangerous illegal abortions.

9. Women's Rights
Two other arguments we have yet to develop are:

  1. The abortion law violates the Nineteenth Amendment, which women fought for to give them equal footing with men in the public sphere. As long as women are forced to have and raise children, they are denied that equal footing guaranteed by the Nineteenth Amendment.
  2. The Thirteenth Amendment forbids involuntary servitude. We think forced pregnancies are definitely a form of slavery against a woman's will.
Legal information for plaintiffs—

Who can be plaintiffs:
  1. Any woman who is living in Connecticut and is of childbearing age and who does not wish to bear a child at this time.
  2. Women medical workers, such as doctors or nurses, who have been or may be asked to perform or help perform an abortion.
  3. Women, especially in a professional position of counselor, clergywoman, social worker, or doctor, who have been asked or may be asked to advise or refer persons about abortions.

Named plaintiffs will be representing all other persons in Connecticut in similar situations. The decision that the Court makes about the validity of the abortion statute will affect everyone in the state. The list of hundreds of named plaintiffs, plus their personal participation in various public activities and the hearings could have an important influence on the outcome.

Responsibilities and opportunities of plaintiffs

In this type of lawsuit you will not face any kind of fines or sentence, or be restricted from leaving the state.

Plaintiffs may have to answer written or oral questions about the subject matter or the suit. This is a formal procedure available to the defendants (who will be the state's attorneys representing Connecticut). To present such questions would be costly and time-consuming for them and it seems unlikely that they will do so. Attendance in court at the preliminary hearings and eventually at the trial will not be compelled, but is strongly urged. A packed courtroom will be important and it is your right to know what is happening.

A brief questionnaire will be given each plaintiff. Your answers will help establish particular reasons needed to claim the right to be in court at all. This material will only be for the use of your lawyers and their assistants and it will not be turned into the court.

You will need to sign a statement authorizing your attorney to represent you.

Women under 21 may be plaintiffs if one of their parents is willing to sign as guardian. If not, we are hoping to make arrangements for one of the over 21 plaintiffs to act as "guardian ad litem" (guardian for the purpose of this suit).

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