July 4th came and went. I enjoyed the day off, but I could not help but wonder whose liberty we were celebrating. The recent decisions of the Supreme Court have me worried – for myself, for my children, for all of the people without political power, whose liberty has been tossed to state legislatures to control. Liberty rings hollow to me now, and I know I am in good company. This is not the time to feel defeated however. A different word has inspired my resolution: Liberation.
The National Health Law Program (NHeLP) articulated a vision of liberation in our Equity Stance, which our Board of Directors unanimously approved in 2019:
Our equity vision is one of collective liberation, where individuals of all identities and backgrounds are valued and where we can all achieve our full potential as individuals and as a society, as well as live with dignity.
This vision is even more resonant now.
Liberty has always been elusive in our country. Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence about the “self-evident” truth of the right to liberty reflected his enlightenment perspective, that the right to liberty, along with the rights to property and the pursuit of happiness, were natural human rights. But Jefferson only accorded those natural rights to white men. Building a nation on a principle of liberty that countenanced slavery and subjugation embedded a disease in our foundation.
We fought a war to cut out that disease. The Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee in 1868 that no state may deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law or deny any person the equal protection of the laws, was an assertion that we were making a new start. From our vantage point 150 years later, however, we know that the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of liberty and equal protection was a promise, an intention. We had to continue the fight in order to fulfill the promise, to make the intention into a reality. We had to have a civil rights movement to spur progress, and we still have much work to do to complete the reckoning with our history.
We also had to have a Supreme Court willing to acknowledge that liberty and equality are promises we must grow into. Before Brown v. Board of Education, the fiction of “separate but equal” had sufficed as equality. Before Loving v. Virginia, liberty and equality had not guaranteed a right to marry a person of a different race. Before Griswold v. Connecticut, liberty and equality had not guaranteed an individual’s right to use contraception. Before Lawrence v. Texas, liberty and equality had not guaranteed the right of two people of the same sex to engage in private, consensual sexual activity. Before Obergefell v. Hodges, liberty and equality had not guaranteed the right of two people of the same sex to marry. In rendering those decisions, the Supreme Court – with different compositions over the years – understood that the ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment likely did not have those rights in mind when they thought about liberty and equality.
The Court understood, however, that the Constitution and Bill of Rights were meant to be our country’s compass for generations, not limited by our eighteenth century view that we could tout our commitment to liberty at the same time that we held Black people as property, or our nineteenth century view that women were not persons entitled to any rights or status independent of men. In this long line of cases, the Supreme Court lived up to its obligation to continue to breathe life into liberty and equality. The Court understood that liberty and equality mean protection against actions of those in power, not just a right to a process that those in power provide. Liberty and equality mean that certain intimate and personal decisions are off limits to majority rule.
Our current Supreme Court has flipped liberty on its head. Instead of a concept that grows alongside our vision and capacity for empathy, the Court insists the definition remains stuck somewhere between 1787 and 1868, depending on what rights you are asserting. Thus, individuals may not be denied the liberty to carry guns, even though the modern assault rifle was not imagined by the musket-carrying ratifiers of the Second Amendment, while the right of women to control their own bodies is snuffed out.
As disheartening as it is to witness our country backsliding, now is not the time to mourn. NHeLP is doubling down on our efforts. We know that our advocacy at the state and federal government levels makes a difference. Our creative litigation in state and federal courts makes a difference. Our strategic communications about these issues makes a difference. We are linking arms with people and organizations that share the same vision but have different areas of expertise and calling out and resisting discrimination where we see it – against women, people with disabilities, Black, Indigenous and other people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and immigrants.
We unequivocally believe that all people, not just the wealthy, are entitled to comprehensive and quality reproductive health care, delivered with dignity, where cost is not a barrier. As we have done for more than fifty years, we prioritize access to quality health care and services for low-income people because we believe that poverty is not a personal shortcoming but a collective national failure to change the systems that produce and reproduce inequalities.
The concept of liberation has shaped a number of movements, the common denominators of which include a focus on the needs of those least powerful, a commitment to changing systems that cause inequality, and an understanding that liberation work has to happen on multiple fronts, including lifting up the voices of the people most impacted and giving them a say in the political process.
NHeLP is doubling down on our vision. That’s our equity commitment. It’s also our liberation statement.