8 Supreme Court decisions that changed US families

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The U.S. Supreme Court said on May 17 that it would review a Mississippi law that would ban nearly all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The state is one of several to pass abortion restrictions that clash with the Supreme Court's decision in 1973, in Roe v. Wade, to allow a woman to seek an abortion, with some caveats, before fetal viability. 

"In an unbroken line dating to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's abortion cases have established (and affirmed, and reaffirmed) a woman's right to choose an abortion before viability," Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote in the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2014. "States may regulate abortion procedures prior to viability so long as they do not impose an undue burden on the woman's right but they may not ban abortions," The Washington Post reported.

But Roe. v. Wade is not the only Supreme Court decision to impact families. Live Science digs into historic decisions concerning families, including rulings on marriage, contraception, mental illness in family members, police search of a home without a warrant and right-to-die cases. Here's a look at Supreme Court rulings that changed life for U.S. families.

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

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The active ingredient in most birth control pills winds up in rivers, lakes and estuaries, where it can harm wildlife. (Image credit: Tomas Daliman, Shutterstock)

Estelle Griswold and C. Lee Buxton were directors of a Planned Parenthood Center in New Haven, Conn., in 1961 when they were arrested as accessories to the crime of providing contraceptives.

The law that allowed their arrest dated back to the 1873 federal Comstock Act, which banned mailing or distributing explicit material, including information about contraceptives.

Griswold and Buxton appealed their convictions and in 1965, the Supreme Court ruled that Connecticut's law "violates the right of marital privacy which is within the penumbra of specific guarantees of the Bill of Rights." Unmarried women gained access to contraception in every state after another ruling, Eisenstadt vs. Baird, in 1972.

But more than 40 years later, contraception controversies still flare.

"We just had these issues of Obamacare requiring employers to pay for contraception," said Gloria Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of constitutional law at John Jay College, in New York City and author of the book "Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present" (Taylor & Francis, 2007). 

The administration was also fighting against making the emergency contraceptive Plan B, which can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex, available to teens under 17 without a prescription. But earlier this month it dropped the fight.

Loving v. Virginia (1967)

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A couple embraces on a beach. (Image credit: Couple photo via Shutterstock)

In the summer of 1958, newlyweds Mildred and Richard Loving faced a choice: spend one year in jail, or face 25 years in exile from the state of Virginia. The couple married legally in Washington, D.C., but Judge Leone M. Bazile ruled their new marriage a crime against a Virginia state law that forbid miscegenation, or interracial marriage, because Mildred, then 17, was black and Native American, and Richard, 23, was white.

In issuing the ruling, Bazile wrote, "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents... The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

The Lovings chose to live in exile until they and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the constitutionality of the Virginia law in 1964.

"After Brown v Board of Education in 1954, that was a big turning point. A lot of states repealed their anti-miscegenation laws... and there were a few that didn't," Gloria Browne-Marshall said.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lovings, thereby voiding existing anti-miscegenation laws in 16 states.

"I don't think there was a big backlash against that decision," said Daniel Feldman, an associate professor at John Jay College. But a lack of backlash didn't mean automatic public support. A Gallup poll in 1968 showed 73 percent of Americans opposed interracial marriage. Opposition dropped to 42 percent in 1991 and to 17 percent by 2007.

Today, "Most of the arguments ... used Loving v Virginia as the core argument for repealing DOMA and Proposition 8," Browne-Marshall said.

Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp. (1971)

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The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited employment discrimination by sex, but plenty of companies at the time loosely interpreted the law. Newspapers still listed separate want ads for men and women in 1970

When Ida Phillips applied for a job as an aircraft assembler in 1966,  the Martin Marietta Corp. said it would not consider her because she had preschool-age children. The Supreme Court ruled against Martin Marietta, but sent the case back for retrial to see if the company could find enough proof that women with young children were unable to perform in the position as well as men with young children.

In his decision, Justice Thurgood Marshall added, "I fear that in this case, where the issue is not squarely before us, the Court has fallen into the trap of assuming that the Act permits ancient canards about the proper role of women to be a basis for discrimination."

Still, Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp. laid the foundation for future cases based on sex stereotypes.  

Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)

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Freedom of religion and the importance of education came head-to-head in the 1972 case of Wisconsin v. Yoder.

Wisconsin state law required minors to stay in school until age 16.  But Adin Yutzy, Jonas Yoder and Wallace Miller — all members of the Amish community — pulled their children out of school at 14 and 16. Other states with large Amish populations, such as Pennsylvania, compromised with Amish communities by creating part-time vocational schools run by Amish teachers.

But Wisconsin prosecuted the families and fined them $5 each. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the families, who argued the conviction violated their First and 14th amendment rights.

Roe v. Wade (1973)

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Jane Roe is a pseudonym for the woman who brought a class-action suit against Henry Wade, a district attorney in Texas in 1970. Roe was pregnant, unmarried and denied an abortion at the time.

In 1973, the Supreme Court found that the right to privacy, as implied by the Bill of Rights, allowed a woman to legally seek an abortion without interference from the state. But the court gave states the right to regulate abortion after the first trimester, and the right to restrict abortions in some cases after viability, often deemed to be 20 to 23 weeks into the pregnancy.

Forty years later, states are still passing new abortion laws. The Guttmacher Institute counted 43 new state provisions restricting abortions in 2012. There were more than 90 new provisions in 2011.

Legal abortions after Roe v. Wade climbed to a peak in 1980, when 1.6 million were performed, but the number has been on the decline. In 2008, 1.21 million abortions were performed in the U.S.

Roe eventually came forward as Norma McCorvey. By the time the 1973 decision was issued, she had given the baby up for adoption.

McCorvey worked in an abortion clinic years after the ruling, but then said she regretted her part in Roe v. Wade, and became an anti-abortion advocate. She lived with a lesbian partner for decades until converting to Catholicism.

O'Conner v. Donaldson (1975)

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Kenneth Donaldson was committed to a Florida State mental hospital in 1957 at the request of his father, who said he was suffering from delusions. Donaldson was kept there for close to 15 years against his will, despite evidence showing he wasn't violent, and was capable of living outside the hospital.

The Supreme Court ruled the hospital had violated Donaldson's rights under the 14th Amendment. It found, "In short, a State cannot constitutionally confine, without more [evidence], a nondangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by himself or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends."

The decision protected against the nightmarish scenario of a reasonably sane person trapped indefinitely in a mental hospital. But some mental health advocates say some interpretations of the case made it difficult for families to help their loved ones. [5 Controversial Mental Health Treatments]

The National Alliance on Mental Illness policy on involuntary commitment contends, "Current interpretations of laws that require proof of dangerousness often produce unsatisfactory outcomes because individuals are allowed to deteriorate needlessly before involuntary commitment and/or court-ordered treatment can be instituted."

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Cruzan v. Director of the Missouri Department of Health (1990)


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The case of Nancy Cruzan was an early case in right-to-die controversies. Cruzan was 25 when a car crash left her in a persistent vegetative state.

Her parents fought to remove the feeding tube keeping her alive, but were denied by Missouri courts.  In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a state's right to demand evidence of an incapacitated person's wishes before removing life support.

The court wrote, "It is assumed that a competent person would have a constitutionally protected right to refuse lifesaving hydration and nutrition. This does not mean that an incompetent person should possess the same right, since such a person is unable to make an informed and voluntary choice to exercise that hypothetical right or any other right."

Despite the ruling, the Cruzans won the right to remove the feeding tube six months later. Nancy Cruzan died at age 33, eight years after the car crash.

Georgia v. Randolph (2006)

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The Fourth Amendment requires police to gain permission from a person before they search a home without a warrant. But in 2005 the Supreme Court faced the situation where one person at the home says yes, and another says no.

Janet Randolph called police complaining that her estranged husband, Scott Randolph, had taken their son. After police arrived, Janet Randolph accused her husband of using cocaine and gave police permission to search their home. But Scott Randolph adamantly refused.

The Supreme Court found in favor of Scott Randolph in 2006, ruling, "Thus a disputed invitation, without more, gives an officer no better claim to reasonableness in entering than the officer would have absent any consent."

Originally published on Live Science.

Lauren Cox
Live Science Contributor
Lauren Cox is a contributing writer for Live Science. She writes health and technology features, covers emerging science and specializes in news of the weird. Her work has previously appeared online at ABC News, Technology Review and Popular Mechanics. Lauren loves molecules, literature, black coffee, big dogs and climbing up mountains in her spare time. She earned a bachelor of arts degree from Smith College and a master of science degree in science journalism from Boston University.