Issue LXIV: American Hypothesis -Prohibitionism and the Pro-Life Movement

28 Mar

On my flight to Kansas City, a Kansan explained to me some of the essential differences between Kansas and Missouri.  “You see, all the bars are on the Missouri side because Kansas for years did not allow liquor by the drink.  Also, all the beer had be diluted three-two beer until recently.  There will be old signs right on the Missouri side of the street advertising full-strength beer.  And the Attorney General of Kansas used to fine airlines serving alcohol over Kansas air space,” she said. 

Given that Missouri’s most famous export is Budweiser and a corrupt bootlegger made Harry S. Truman into a U.S. senator, the contrast strikes any driver going down State Line Road. 

But is alcohol Prohibition just a strange relic from the 1920s that does not have any relevance to the present?  Americans think of it as this weird experiment that failed but made cool clothes, jazz music, Al Capone, and the FBI.  As a historical antecedent, it has no meaning for today’s politics.

I think the politics and morality of Prohibition have continued in a different form in the United States; after a few decades dormant they erupted into the pro-life abortion prohibition movement.  In the process of exploring these prohibitions, I will come across some hypotheses as to why we are in the present moment and how to fix it. 

From anti-drink to anti-choice to the politics of women

The first woman elected mayor in the United States was in Kansas.  It was a joke, but it still counts.  In fact, the states that have had women governors you notice that most of the states are in the western United States (especially if you exclude acting governors that were never elected in Massachusetts and Ohio).  Women also got the right to vote in western states before many eastern states.

But what did women want the right to vote for?  Anyone who has watched Boardwalk Empire would notice that many of the suffragettes are pushing for Prohibition as well.  More women voting would make the nation more Christian because men did not think of the home and God in the voting booth.

More explicitly, Kansas-Missouri prohibitionist Carry A. Nation used to chop up saloons with her axe and fight for the women’s voting rights.  She also complained about women wearing tight clothing for a good measure as well.

A ban on alcohol was seen as a national good in and off itself.  All social problems like family violence, child abandonment, education problems, unemployment, vice and sin all stemmed from alcohol.  Evidence for or against this idea did not matter.  Directly funding or attacking these social problems did not matter either.  This single policy would erase these problems.  It is a very narrow morality that focuses on the sin while doing nothing concrete about the (often alleged) consequences.

The point is that the link between women’s suffrage and liberalism or feminism is actually quite tenuous in most of the nation.  The link between elected women politicians and progressive politics is probably thin as well.  Are most elected Republican women legislators any more pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-sex education, or even pro-public education than the men today?  A different sort of women’s leadership developed with very different politics in most of the United States.  Why else did white women overwhelmingly vote for Trump instead of Hillary Clinton?  It is not something that happened by accident with no historical roots.

A fascinating article in Kansas History explored how certain fundamentalist churches in Wichita fought modernization of Christianity in the region (aka accepting evolution and science).  Monkey-baiting preachers fought for Biblical literalism and against the trend of northern churches accepting evolution.

The churches were mostly peopled by migrants from Southern states who came to work in the airplane factories that popped up during World War II.  They also fought against alcohol legalization in Kansas which did not end Prohibition until an election in 1948, long after the rest of the nation ended Prohibition.  These churches went on to become backbones of the pro-life movement which in 1991 erupted in Operation Rescue’s “Summer of Mercy” in Wichita.  2,600 people were arrested over 6 weeks during blockades of abortion clinics.  These activists went on to seize control of the Republican Party from the moderate, pro-choice wing of Kansas Republican Party and turn it almost uniformly into a pro-life party by the end of the decade.

Again, the narrow moralism of pro-life politics is just as narrow as the old prohibition politics were for alcohol.  It focuses entirely on the act of abortion and not at all about making a society which is good for children and families.  Unlike the Catholic pro-life worldview which encompasses anti-capital punishment principles and concern for the poor and families, the American Protestant pro-life seems to focus on the sin of abortion only.  Last year, Kansas Governor Brownback (a pro-life hero) had a major scandal when the privatized foster care system lost 74 children.  The idea that a pro-life governor had a privatized foster care system that lost children left and right is proof positive that pro-life politics is not really about the life of children.

The Way Out

This article may have been going out on a limb to mark the connections and continuities between  Prohibition and the pro-life movement.  But the solution to this problem will have a much greater evidence base.

Alcohol Prohibition died when the voters decided to democratically destroy it. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed when 36 states amended their constitutions with the same repeal amendment, bypassing Congress.  Some states carried on for longer like Kansas and Mississippi but eventually even they by vote or by law ended the policy.  Why can’t we do the same for abortion?

Abortion has been legalized in many nations of the world by act of Parliament or by referenda.  Catholic nations like Italy, for example, legalized abortion by Parliament (1978) and ratified them in a referendum (1981).  Canada and the United Kingdom legalized abortion by national law in the 1960s.  Ireland, which has a constitutional ban on abortion, will soon have a vote on it and likely will end the ban on abortion according to polling.

The United States is standing more and more alone among developed nations (totally alone among Protestant developed nations) as even Catholic countries start to move legalize abortion (Mexico City, Argentina).  The problem is that the United States Congress never legalized abortion.  It was all decided by the Supreme Court in Roe vs Wade to throw out state abortion restriction laws all at once in 1973.  Some states had like New York and Washington had legalized abortion and many states had some limited right to abortion (see this map) and the rest had complete prohibition.  Had the Supreme Court not ruled on abortion at all, many states would have continued to legalize or liberalize abortion laws over time.  Moving too early to legalize abortion before a consensus had been formed in a majority of states or even the larger states has paralyzed the pro-choice movement to be perpetually be in defense of a policy that was undemocratically decided and unlike abortion legalization anywhere else in the world.

Had the Supreme Court waited more states could have legalized abortion or liberalized it and then they could make a ruling that would have thrown out the laws in the recalcitrant states.  This would be similar to what happened with state sodomy laws (widely considered a joke and rarely a legal threat to anyone in 2003) or gay marriage laws (widely accepted and legal in many states by legislation).  Or like Prohibition laws, they could have slowly died out state by state, extinguished by their own voters and not by a federal court.

The solution?  The pro-choice movement should push for Congress to pass a federal law legalizing abortion and limiting interference and regulations designed to prevent access to abortion.  Until that happens, locally the movement needs to push for every state to pass a law or referendum legalizing abortion and limiting restrictions to access.  That way if Roe v. Wade is ever overturned, state laws will already be ready.  When George W. Bush became president in 2001, California passed a law to do just this.

The costs of this defensive strategy are huge.  By arguing continually about abortion’s basic legality we are ignoring the even larger problem of access and affordability and funding in one of the largest nations in the world.  Harper’s poignant article about the difficulties of getting an abortion in South Dakota shows how this defensive focus forgets how abortion may as well be illegal for the poor and rural women of the nation.  A grassroots mobilization for state legalization the way other nations have decriminalized abortion is the only way forward.

No one thinks any state will bring back alcohol prohibition.  Why can we not do the same for abortion prohibition?  Only if you dream of it can you do it.


Harper’s –  Letter from South Dakota

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