WATERBURY – A forced closure 75 years ago of an illegal birth control clinic was commemorated June 21 with a Mass and procession attended by about 100 people.
Organizers say the June 19, 1939, raid on the Henry Sabin Chase Memorial Dispensary was the start of the pro-life movement in America.
Following a Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, marchers recited the rosary during the short walk to the former Chase Dispensary at 43 Field St.
Father Joseph E. Looney, pastor of Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, was principal celebrant at the Mass and also spoke on the steps of the former clinic. Concelebrants included Father John J. Bevins, pastor of the Basilica; Father Dennis P. Connell, assistant pastor at the Basilica; and newly ordained Father James M. Sullivan, assistant pastor at the Torrington Cluster of Parishes.
In his homily, Father Bevins said that a loving marriage cannot include artificial contraception. “If you can separate love from responsibility, then anything goes,” he said.
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He outlined the events leading up to the 1939 raid that also led to the closing of eight other birth control clinics in the state. Contraception had been illegal in Connecticut since 1879, but the law was lightly enforced. When newspapers in Waterbury blared the news that the Chase Dispensary, a Waterbury Hospital clinic, was distributing contraceptive devices, 20 Catholic pastors in Waterbury met and decided to speak against the clinic in their homilies. They also called on local police to raid the clinic, which they did on June 19, 1939.
At the steps of the former clinic, Robert E. Muckle Sr., vice president of the Connecticut Right to Life Corp., said that a 1965 United States Supreme Court decision, Griswold v. Connecticut, ruled that citizens have a right to privacy, even though such a right is not specified in the Constitution. This right extends into the bedroom, the court ruled.
Father Looney said the court decided the right to privacy was in the “penumbra,” the shadows, of the Constitution – an implied right. Concurring justices cited different constitutional protections, including the fifth, ninth and 14th amendments. But Justice Hugo Black, one of two dissenters, said that privacy is nowhere protected in the Constitution.
Nevertheless, the right to privacy is now an accepted legal protection, and Griswold was an important precedent to the 1973 ruling Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion as a private decision between a woman and her doctor.
Joseph O’Neill, who, with his son Joseph O’Neill Jr., joined Mr. Muckle as banner bearers in the procession, said, “Everybody has to realize that if their mothers did this to them, it would be wrong.”
Mr. O’Neill Jr. said, “It’s important for people to understand that life begins at conception, and all life is sacred.”
John Waite, one of the organizers of the event, said that a few years ago, “It occurred to all of us that [the pro-life movement] began right here, because it’s the first time that anyone had ever said no. We rightfully think that Waterbury is the place where it all began, where we started to fight back.”
Mr. Waite, who is also treasurer of Connecticut Right to Life and a member of the Life and Family Committee at the Basilica, added, “It’s a very peaceful and prayerful movement ... The laws that were enacted in 1879 ultimately were the ones they used to close the clinic. [Those laws] were pretty much ignored in 1939.”
After the procession, a luncheon was held at the Father Michael J. McGivney Hall, adjacent to the Basilica. Dr. Paul Carpentier of Gardener, Mass., spoke about natural family planning (NFP), which adheres to Catholic teaching. Anne Hendershott, professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. spoke about the history of the pro-life movement.
Demonstrations commemorating the raid on the Chase Dispensary have been sponsored by Connecticut Right to Life every five years since 1999. Mr. Waite said that the organization is considering having the event every year from now on.