Prohibition, 'personhood,' and the perils of overreach

The NY Times has a story today on the push for a "Personhood Amendment" in Mississippi. Such amendments, which would define a fertilized egg as a legal person, have been pushed in other states, and failed twice in Colorado. They have often divided pro-lifers, with more pragmatic campaigners like the Catholic bishops arguing that the "all-or-nothing" roll of the dice could leave abortion opponents with less than nothing.But the amendment apparently has a good chance of succeeding in Mississippi.Could this lead us on the arc of Prohibition?That's the argument Michael Kazin made earlier this month in The New Republic, when he cited the new Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary on Prohibition and its eventual failure to make the "overreach" argument to abortion rights supporters -- or the "wets" of our day:

"As the history of prohibition instructs, the surest way to defeat the right-to-life movement would be to make abortion illegal. Not solely because it would give the movement what it wants, but also because a firm majority of Americans still support the right to choose in all or most circumstances-just as a majority back in the 1920s probably thought it was all right to buy a drink (the polling business did not yet exist).""A reversal of Roe (much less a "pro-life" amendment) would quickly make heroes and heroines out of health workers who violated the law-much as this film, and most histories of the period, glamorize tipsy flappers and gangsters wielding submachine guns. The long history of prohibition unmistakably demonstrates that a divided public will quickly turn hostile when protestors with decent motives elect officials who carry out indecent assaults on individual freedom. In America, a movement of moralists is never so vulnerable as when it succeeds."

David Frum also uses that Prohibition analogy, jumping off from Herman Cain's confusing answer on abortion, and Andrew Sullivan expands.Pro-lifers have generally struck me as in fact less dogmatic, as it were, in their political efforts to limit abortion, allowing all sorts of exceptions when they have to, going for small victories where they can get them, whereas pro-choicers have tended to be more all-or-nothing in their approach.Is that changing?

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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