I have been thinking a lot lately about the Prohibition Era in the United States and the fiery, brook-no-argument crusaders who pushed for it.
Like Carrie Nation, the “hatchet granny,” who lent her bar-splintering axe to the temperance movement in the first decades of the 20th Century to spur the federal government to impose an outright ban that would outlaw the manufacture, sale, distribution and consumption of alcohol in the United States.
Nation, who was typically dressed in black-and-white clothing, would march into a saloon and begin to sing, pray, and shout biblical-sounding vituperations, and smash the bar fixtures and stock with a hatchet.
In July 1919, eight years after Nation’s death, Congress passed the Volstead Act and Prohibition become the law of the land. Washington, already a dry state, was not affected. It remained the law of the land until its repeal in 1933 with the adoption of the 21st Amendment.
I have no doubt that Nation and her fellow crusaders acted for sincere laudable reasons. They had seen too many homes wrecked, too many hopes dashed, too many lives destroyed.
But human nature being what it is, outright Prohibition was a failure. The Volstead Act didn’t stop people from making, selling or drinking alcohol; it only pushed the booze business underground, where people, more than willing to supply the stuff, were waiting. One thing it did do was make a fortune for bootleggers like Chicago’s notorious Al Capone and criminals like Lucky Luciano.
Prohibition was key to the growth of modern organized crime. As the primary concern of the criminal element — indeed, the only concern of the criminal element — was to make as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time, safety was not a great concern.
There are take-aways.
For one thing, as if the message needed reinforcement, wherever people can make money by supplying the illegal, a criminal element will spring up, ready with a handshake and an open palm.
And no conscience.
Prohibition failed spectacularly. I have never heard of anyone keen to have another go at it.
Have we learned any lessons? I suspect not.
I write as one of those Americans conflicted about the potential end to Roe v. Wade. I will not argue here the virtue, or lack thereof, of either side’s positions. Neither side listened to the other, or credited its thinking. Both dealt in absolutes.
All I want to say is that we have been down a road like this before.
Of course, the analogy only goes so far. The times and the situations are different.
Striking down Roe v. Wade would leave the decision to the states, many of which are poised to outright ban the procedure should the high court proceed.
That is a very blunt instrument.
There is also talk about criminalizing the actions of women who travel to other states, where abortion is legal, to get one, and on anyone who assists them. Even on Uber drivers who get them there.
The misconception is that by ending Roe v. Wade, we will end abortions in the United States. We won’t. All we’ll accomplish is to bar women in 26 states at this time from access to safe abortions performed under trained medical care.
Without a doubt, abortions will continue to occur. The wealthy will find a way, if not here, then by traveling to another state, like Washington, or a country where abortion is legal.
The poor who can’t afford to travel will be left to their own devices. My mother, a nurse for many years, told me with genuine horror what she had seen of the after-effects of self-performed abortions.
This disparity of means is bound to create one system for the well-to-do, another for the poor, some of whom even now cannot afford to travel elsewhere in their own states for the procedure. And the pain will hit poor women of color especially hard.
Wherever there is money to be made, a criminal element will spring up. Plenty of people will be willing to perform the procedure for enough money. As their primary concern will be greenbacks, as I said above, many will act without scruples and in many cases without care for proper sanitation.
The state of Texas recently adopted a law that allows private citizens to sue anyone who aids in the process after six weeks of pregnancy, with the allure of a $10,000 reward.
Neighbor squealing on neighbor. Where are we going?
We have reached a point in our national life when we can no longer speak to each other, much less reach across the aisle. The, “I’m right, you’re the devil,” mentality from either side makes for blunt instruments of governance. What’s worse, it makes bad laws.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.