What could happen if two fervently held, opposing rights become irreconcilable
Come with me for a moment while I spin a historical fable about a country being torn apart.
It’s the 2050s. An issue bitterly divides the United States. It could be anything — racism, inequity, injustice, immigration, incarceration, environment, climate, health care, taxes, sexual abuse, gender, guns, censorship, the financial system, language, jobs, culture, or others. — We’ll focus on abortion.
Let’s say that abortion is legal in all 50 states, but many citizens remain fiercely divided about it. That sounds like a place to start our tale.
Much of U.S. history continues as it always has — as a struggle between competing rights.
That means: To those who support abortion, a woman has the right to govern her own body — without interference from government.
To those who oppose abortion, a fetus is a person with the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and full protection under the law.
In abortion, those rights come into conflict, and, without government intervention, those on one side argue with passionate conviction, the mother holds all the power and can violate the rights of the fetus at will, by killing it. The pro-life group wants government to protect the rights and the life of the fetus.
Those on the other side argue with equal fervor that government must protect the most fundamental right in a democracy — the mother’s self-determination — and guarantee her freedom to choose whether to bear children or not, and when, and with whom.
This is a story about what could happen if two fervently held, opposing rights become irreconcilable. And that could be almost any rights, not just the one we have picked here.
In our tale, conflict over abortion grows, spreads, inflames debate, till the shouting becomes so loud that Congress withdraws completely and abandons the issue to the states. The Supreme Court sustains this change, and, one by one, legislatures vote to declare abortion legal or illegal in each state.
The country divides into two camps. The pro-abortion states occupy the North and northern Midwest, with outliers on the West Coast. The states forbidding abortion arise in the South and the southern Midwest. A few Western states remain undecided. For a time, state control holds this irreconcilable issue in suspension. There is a peace.
But not for long.
New problems tear at the peace. Women in Southern states who want an abortion need only travel to a Northern state to get one. Northern women who move to a Southern state suddenly lose the right to have an abortion.
After traveling North to have an abortion, Southern women may return to find themselves arrested and even prosecuted for infanticide.
Some women who have an abortion while living in the North, then move South, are also arrested and prosecuted.
Women who go North, get an abortion, and settle there, are sometimes hunted by Southern authorities as criminals to be returned and imprisoned.
Pro-life states wangle a law through Congress requiring pro-abortion states to arrest women who travel there for an abortion and extradite them to their home states for the birth, and for trial on a charge of attempted abortion. This law creates riots in opposition, but the Supreme Court upholds it, and it becomes known as the Fugitive Fetus Law.
Outraged citizens in the pro-abortion North set up a network modeled on the Underground Railroad, to sneak women out of anti-abortion states for the procedure, then sneak them back again. Sarcastically at first, then as a badge of honor, such activists become known as Probolitionists, after the Abolitionists 200 years earlier who worked to end slavery.
Throughout the North, outrage grows over those places where women are enslaved to a fetus and denied the freedom of their own bodies. Throughout the South, outrage grows over those places that allow women to own citizens as yet unborn and murder them with impunity.
On issue after issue, each side becomes an “us” against a “them.” A great grief arises as neighbor turns against neighbor, and, to keep from drowning in that grief, people hide it behind anger. Gradually, no one cares what they are arguing about, only that each side feels in its deepest rage that the other is dead wrong — and “dead” starts to sound like a solution of sorts. Over the rage and terror, the drums of division beat.
But not for everyone.
At a tiny donated plot near Gettysburg, a few women meet, young and old, from North and South, from both sides on abortion. They plant a tree, hold hands, sing, and install a little plaque that reads, “What unites us is greater than what divides us.”
If you look long enough, you can still find that plaque — and sit in the shade of that tree.
To continue: In 2060, the election of Conley A. Hambra as president brings the conflict to a crisis, because Hambra ran on the platform that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” While campaigning, Hambra declared, “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half for abortion and half against abortion. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved, but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
Those who want the “all one thing” to be the right to abortion rally behind Hambra. Those who want the country to be all against abortion, though, take a different route. The South Carolina legislature — concluding that President Hambra will force them to legalize abortion — votes to secede from the Union.
In rapid succession, every other anti-abortion state secedes. “Let us then,” their leaders declare, “reaffirm our rights under the Declaration of Independence, dissolve this tyranny, and live in a separate union of the free!”
Secession leaves the North in a perilous condition. Although the North controls industry, vast riches of agriculture and oil secede with the South — along with vital military bases and most of the top officers — to establish the FSA, the Freedom States of America.
The FSA is poised to barter for alliances with Europe, China, Russia, India, and the Middle East. None of these potential allies oppose the South’s stand on abortion, most are rivals to the North, and some immediately begin to court the South as a way to establish influence on the continent. Division of the U.S. works well for them.
President Hambra is in a quandary. The South is now a separate country, and the North needs the South more than the South needs the North.
The North is squeezed by countries eager to ally with the South. Britain smells a chance to gain control of its long-lost colonies. China obliquely hints at occupying California. Russia reminds Hambra that it used to own Alaska. Mexico starts calling the American Southwest its northernmost state and dances to songs about “Tejas.” Native Americans agitate for the return of ancestral lands. African countries cut off the flow of strategic minerals. Around the world, U.S. bases suffer boycotts and terrorist attacks. A bold new flag ripples over Atlanta. There are riots on the streets of New York. Mild, polite Canada suddenly presses down on the North’s border with menacing weight.
Squeezed at home and abroad, Hambra shifts the North’s focus. It’s no longer to free women from enslavement to an unwanted fetus, but to restore the Union.
Speaking before a conference of news editors, Hambra declares this new aim, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union. It is not either to save or to destroy abortion. If I could save the Union without legalizing abortion, I would do it. If I could save the Union by legalizing abortion, I would do it. And if I could save the Union by legalizing abortion in some states and not it in others, I would do that.”
With secession, the Probolitionists found themselves stripped of influence. The anti-abortion states lay beyond their reach; those states mock the Probolitionists as failures. In response, the most radical Probolitionists agitate to destroy the secession, restore the Union, and reunite with the South, so they might gain the power to legalize abortion in all the states, to set women’s bodies free from state control everywhere — and for all time.
Probolitionists are helped by the most widely seen movie in the North, “Thomasina’s Cabin,” an emotional detailing of the squalid life of a young, beautiful, intelligent woman in the South who is bound and ground down by the demands of her abusive husband and endlessly multiplying children.
Antagonism swells toward a climax. In a speech heard by millions, Davis Jeffers, President of the FSA, threatens that “no abortionist must be allowed to be safe in any state. No woman anywhere can take the life of an unborn child without having her own life taken from her.”
In an opposing speech, the Probolitionist leader Douglas Fredericks thunders, “No state can deny a woman’s freedom without at last finding its own freedom denied to it. — But we are beyond persuasion. It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake!”
It is at this point in our fable that — following a confrontation in Charleston Harbor over the last abortion clinic in the South — the Second American Civil War breaks out.
The rest is history.
— Gerald Grow is a retired professor of journalism. Photo by the author. More at www.longleaf.net.