Without political fix, abortion could go the way of Prohibition


July 01, 1992|By Ray Jenkins

THE Supreme Court's strange decision on abortion Monday -- upholding the "core" right of women to terminate pregnancy while at the same time upholding state laws sharply limiting the exercise of that right -- may well have set the stage for a repeat of the prolonged political firestorms generated by Prohibition in the early part of the century.

There is, fortunately, a way to avoid replication of that lamentable experience if voters will only take matters into their own hands.

The most cursory review of the history of Prohibition produces a sense of deju vu when we survey the abortion issue today. Both controversies involved, at bottom, a personal "moral" choice -- to drink, or abstain; to abort, or to give birth.

Just as the anti-alcohol movement claimed that alcohol wrecked the lives of innocent women and children, so today the anti-abortionists claim that abortion kills "innocent unborn children." Just as Carrie Nation and her Anti-Saloon League attacked legal saloons 100 years ago, today Randall Terry and his Operation Rescue attack legal abortion clinics. Just as politicians at every level had to make no-win choices on legalization of alcohol, so today politicians must make no-win choices on access to abortion in a climate where compromise remains illusive.

And just as the federal government threw the alcohol issue to the states in 1933 with the repeal of the failed Prohibition amendment, so the Supreme Court Monday gave great latitude to states in enacting stringent abortion laws.

The state liquor-control laws which followed the repeal of the 18th Amendment 60 years ago created a legal crazy-quilt which, even if greatly tattered, still covers much of the country today. Some states opted for total prohibition on a state level -- even though Mississippi reached the ludicrous point of levying a tax on the sale of illegal liquor.

Even if a state were "wet," many individual counties would opt to remain "dry." Heavy taxes were imposed to discourage drinking. In at least one state, the word "beer" could not be used in advertisements; "cold beverages" became a code word for the popular drink. Regular lectures in "temperance" were required in public schools. Demeaning practices such as "brown-bagging" became common in order to get around laws prohibiting restaurants from serving liquor-by-the-drink. Liquor commerce between counties became commonplace, greatly increasing drunk driving.

Most insidious of all, the controls simply didn't work. The incidence of alcohol-related social problems were just as high, maybe even higher, in states with the stiffest controls.

And of course, the stronger the controls, the greater the prevalence of bootleg liquor manufactured by "moonshiners" who often brewed their concoctions in old car radiators made of toxic metals or, worse yet, laced their products with deadly methyl alcohol which would kill, blind or paralyze hapless imbibers.

Prohibition also produced a farcical political party which was regularly fielding presidential candidates as recently as the 1970s, more than four decades after repeal.

In light of this week's Supreme Court decision, the nation could well be on the verge of a similar chaotic and confusing patchwork of control laws which will seek to make abortion difficult, expensive and shameful. And there is every reason to believe that the illegal abortionist would become as much a community feature in the 1990s as the illegal bootlegger was in the 1920s.

But there is a way to avoid this potential nightmare, and that is for Congress to promptly pass the Freedom of Choice Act, which would create by federal statute the right granted in Roe vs. Wade when that decision was handed down 19 years ago. President Bush almost certainly would veto the bill, and Congress would be unable to override the veto.

But this result would set the stage for a national referendum on the abortion issue. In such a charged atmosphere no candidate for Congress could escape taking a firm position on how he or she would vote on the Freedom of Choice Act when it is submitted, as surely it will be, in the next Congress.

If we are to have a political rather than a legal resolution to the intractable problem of abortion, then the Freedom of Choice Act offers the best opportunity. And this is the year to put the issue to a vote.

Ray Jenkins is the retired editor of The Evening Sun editorial pages. He writes from Baltimore.

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