Today is the 40th anniversary of the landmark case Loving v. Virginia, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an anti-miscegenation law that prohibited people of different races from marrying. Finding that the law violated the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection and due process, the Court wrote that “[m]arriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man’” and that “the freedom of choice to marry [may] not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations.”
In the four decades since this decision, our society has undergone significant social changes. In 1960, seven years before the decision, there were 157,000 interracial couples in the United States; the 2000 census counted over 3 million interracial marriages. In a similar vein, a 1958 Gallup poll found only 4 percent of Americans approved of marriage between African Americans and whites; that number now reaches an 83 percent approval rating. Some scholars think this case was as influential as Brown v. Board of Education in reducing racial discrimination in our society,
The case illustrates the way in which the Court’s decisions often provide both a reflection of society’s current norms and a predictor of future social mores. With the contemporary debate over same-sex marriage, one must ask whether there are other invidious discriminations that should no longer stand in the way of the freedom to marry. Countries around the world—from Spain to South Africa to Israel—already have recognized same-sex marriage.
At the same time, we must be cognizant that in many parts of the world women and girls are sometimes forced into marriages against their will. Young girls are often married off under the belief that it will prevent them from having sex before marriage and that it will reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. Early marriage is also common in areas plagued by armed conflicts or natural disasters, where girls are forced to serve as concubines in military bases or where the “bride price” will help the rest of the family survive.
Pre-adolescent marriage is linked to high rates of maternal mortality, domestic violence, and early, repeated, and unplanned childbearing. The marriage rate for 15-year-old to 19-year-old girls ranges from 26 percent to 72 percent throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Forced marriage also occurs in parts of Asia and the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, in western countries as well.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” While we work to achieve full equality for the opportunity to marry at home, we must also ensure that marriage around the world is voluntary, equitable, safe—and loving.
Jessica Arons is the Director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress.