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Reproductive Justice Helped Deliver Supreme Court’s Historic Marriage Decision

Celebrating in Washington, D.C. after the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage at the end of June.

Last month’s historic Supreme Court ruling was a decisive win for the LGBTQ community — but we also have our friends in the reproductive rights community to thank for the decision.

The legal foundation for the decision — the right to privacy articulated in the landmark case Griswold v. Connecticut, which held that a Connecticut law that prohibited the sale of birth control to married couples was unconstitutional — comes from decades of advocacy from the reproductive rights and justice movement.

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges relies heavily on the concept of due process, the idea from the 14th Amendment that states cannot take away life, liberty or property without due process, nor can state law infringe upon fundamental rights. The Reagan appointee’s interpretation of liberty includes the rights of same-sex couples to marry in any state and to have their marriage recognized by every other state. The Supreme Court has long held that marriage is profound and protected, finding that the Constitution allows fathers who owed child support to marry in Zablocki v. Redhail, prisoners to marry in Turner v. Safley, and interracial couples to marry in Loving v. Virginia. Kennedy also cites the pivotal previous LGBTQ victories in the Supreme Court: Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas, and United States v. Windsor. 

Kennedy’s concept of liberty is also deeply rooted in the landmark cases of the reproductive rights and justice movement. The same right to privacy that protects a couple or a single woman’s right to access birth control — from Griswold v. Connecticut and Eisenstadt v. Baird — that struck down an Oklahoma statute allowing the state to sterilize someone convicted of more than three felonies involving “moral turpitude” — Skinner v. Oklahoma — and that gives the ability of families to choose how to educate their children — from Meyer v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters — protects the rights of same-sex couples to marry. At their core, these reproductive rights and justice victories are about the ability to make autonomous intimate decisions — a concept rooted in the right to privacy. In the majority decision, the court powerfully aligns the decision to marry with decisions about one’s body, reproductive healthcare and autonomy, merging autonomy with notions of liberty and dignity. 


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Obergefell now joins the canon of privacy decisions that protect autonomy and dignity. In the future, these ideas can help a bisexual woman who needs access to birth control, a same-sex couple protecting their parenting rights, and a transgender person who requires access to culturally competent medical care. After all, what is more intimate than what happens to your body, your spouse and your children? 

In its broadest form, the Obergefell decision views the concept of liberty to include “certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.” Those expressions of identity include family, healthcare and relationships. Kennedy quotes Griswold, noting that marriage “is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects.” In some ways, the ruling described what so many couples across the country have known: love is love. We take joy in their ability to choose to get married and to live their lives openly and honestly.

But the work of both movements does not stop here. We look forward to many more successes with the reproductive rights and justice movement, using the legal landmarks from both movements to ensure all people and families have liberty, dignity, and autonomy — three of the essential paving stones on the road to lived freedom, justice and equality.

Rea Carey

Rea Carey is executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force.

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