Our Common Quest for Autonomy and Dignity: Reproductive Rights and LGBTQ Equality

By Julianna S. Gonen, National Center for Lesbian Rights

Many in the LGBTQ community are watching in horror as state after state enacts draconian bans on abortion in what seems like a competition with one another to see which can go farthest in its legislative assault on reproductive freedom. But if any of us have been tempted to feel relieved that at least they’re not attacking us, we should think again. Because the right to end a pregnancy is very much an LGBTQ concern.

The reasons for this are many. First, many queer-identified and transgender people can and do become pregnant, and some will need abortion care if they face an unwanted pregnancy.

Second, abortion and family planning clinics have become trusted providers of care to the LGBTQ community. Many queer people, and especially those who are transgender, avoid medical care based on legitimate fears of being turned away or facing discrimination and ignorance. In response, many abortion clinics have opened their doors to offer affirming, judgment-free care, providing critical medical services for those who would otherwise golg without.

Third, the movements for reproductive freedom and LGBTQ equality share deeply linked interests and concerns. We are all seeking control over our own bodies – the freedom to decide whether to become or remain pregnant, whether and with whom to have intimate relationships, and whether to seek medical care to help our bodies align with our gender identities.  We seek the freedom to form our families on our own terms – to partner with and marry whom we love, to have children or not, and to live as our true selves as determined by us, not by someone else.

We also challenge traditional gender norms. We do this as LGBTQ people when we partner romantically with someone of the same sex, or when we live our lives based on the gender we know ourselves to be, rather than the gender assigned to us at birth. Similarly, women who choose to end a pregnancy also defy stereotypical expectations that women must elevate childbirth over all else. In bucking these gendered expectations, we affirm our right to autonomy and independence, which is threatening to those who would tether us to the past.

Finally, reproductive and LGBTQ rights share similar legal grounding. The cases recognizing the constitutional right to privacy that struck down bans on birth control and abortion formed the foundation for subsequent cases affirming essential rights for LGBTQ people. Starting with Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, the Supreme Court found that state laws criminalizing consensual sex between same-sex adults violated the Constitution’s guarantee of personal liberty, including privacy. From there, the Court went on to hold that federal and state laws barring same-sex marriage were also unconstitutional, infringing on the liberty and autonomy rights of individuals to marry the person of their choosing.

This of course underscores the critical importance of fair courts in securing rights and equality. As Justice Kennedy said in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision affirming nationwide marriage equality: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.” That identity encompasses fundamental decisions around family, including intimacy, marriage, childbearing and parenting.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights understands the undeniably intersecting nature of reproductive and LGBTQ rights. And so on the heels of the marriage fight (our cases representing several couples from Tennessee were among those decided along with Obergefell), we led an amicus brief for more than a dozen LGBTQ organizations in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a pivotal 2016 case that re-affirmed the right to abortion and required that states seeking to place limits on the right prove they have legitimate reasons for doing so. Pointing to the substantial history in the United States of science and medicine being coopted and misused to oppress minorities, NCLR and our amici illustrated the critical role of courts in scrutinizing specious health and safety rationales when they are proffered to justify infringing on fundamental rights.

We weighed in because we know that if women and others who may become pregnant are stripped of the ability to decide whether they wish to give birth, it will not only be abortion rights that have been lost. As noted above, reproductive health care providers are increasingly becoming sites of choice for LGBTQ people seeking dignified, affirming health care. If hostile policymakers succeed in shutting them down, our community will suffer in myriad ways. As the Ninth Circuit takes up a host of challenges to the administration’s draconian domestic gag rule that would decimate the Title X federal family planning program in an effort to punish abortion providers, we will again step in as amicus curiae to ensure that the court understands the scope of the harm the rule would cause if it is ultimately allowed to take effect.

We opened NCLR’s doors more than four decades ago as an LGBTQ legal organization with a proudly feminist agenda – to stand up for lesbians who were having their parental rights stripped away based on homophobia. We have kept our focus on families while expanding our reach to ensure that those on the margins of our community and our society always have a voice. And we know that the struggle for reproductive rights is our struggle too. We will continue going to court to secure the fundamental liberties that are essential for all people to live as their true selves, in families of their choosing, with the dignity they deserve.

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