Pill — twoardthesunset, photographer, 6/2011 — Courtesy of Flickr CC

Today’s abortion prohibitions are similar the 1920s Prohibition’s ban on alcohol, and are bound to fail for many of the same reasons it did

Public drunkenness, addiction, crime — the pernicious effects of alcoholism were both rampant and visible in British and American cities throughout the 19th century. So, citizens groups who saw excessive drinking as a key social problem decided to do something about it. From pulpit to pamphlets, they preached the message of temperance — moderation and self-restraint in all things, especially alcohol consumption.

That’s how the Temperance Movement began. But the movement itself didn’t remain temperate for long. Among its founders and activists were Evangelical Christians of a puritanical bent. To them, alcoholism, which we now know is a disease, was not the problem — alcohol itself was. Alcohol was an elixir of Satan sent to trick us into sinning, and anyone who produced or consumed it was, by definition, a sinner bound to end up in Hell and likely to drag others there with him.

Over time, these religious fanatics took over the Temperance Movement and turned it into a teetotaler’s movement that pressed, hard, to make the manufacture, storage, sale, possession and consumption of alcoholic beverages strictly illegal. Their efforts culminated in the 1919 adoption of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, called the “Prohibition Amendment,” banning alcohol in the United States. (They called this the “Noble Experiment.”)

What happened next was predictable to students of history. Whenever a group of authoritarian zealots imposes its concept of morality on a public that doesn’t want it, it creates resistance. In the case of a traditionally free country such as the United States, that resistance subverts both the effect and the intention of the imposed legislation, and almost invariably defeats it — think The Fugitive Slave Act, Prohibition, the War on Drugs and the recent abortion restrictions.

Soon the Roaring Twenties, where underground alcohol consumption became rampant, was underway. Speakeasy’s, which served copious alcohol along with sides of illicit sex and gambling, sprung up everywhere. Unregulated whisky stills produced as much liquor as could be consumed, along with a lot of poisonous “wood alcohol” responsible for thousands of deaths. Organized crime, based on alcohol smuggling, got a strong foothold in America. Tax revenues from legally-produced alcohol were lost, and Prohibition proved prohibitively expensive and ultimately impossible to enforce.

The net result? In 1933, just 14 years after it was ratified, the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment. The teetotaler extremists had succeeded only in doing a great deal of the damage to the country before being defeated legally while losing any moral high ground or popularity they might have claimed had they remained temperate in their demands. A 2014 nationwide poll found that just 18% of Americans “believed that drinking should be illegal.”

About 50 years ago, groups of dogmatic Evangelicals opposed to abortion for their own “religious” reasons, decided that trying to persuade women to eschew abortion wasn’t adequate. They must force women, all women, to do what they believed God told them was right. They began to work, with the dedication of fanatics, to obtain their goal through ceaseless proselytizing to a mostly indifferent public, upfront and backroom legal maneuvering and the intimidation of abortion providers, up to and including murdering them. And now they’ve just about got what they wanted, as Roe vs. Wade will undoubtedly be overturned this summer.

…those who find this current manifestation of Evangelical and right-wing fanaticism menacing and immoral can take heart from the original Prohibition’s demise.

While the similarities between Prohibition and the current (soon to be nation-wide?) abortion bans are legion, those who find this current manifestation of Evangelical and right-wing fanaticism menacing and immoral can take heart from the original Prohibition’s demise. They should know that the bans will never completely succeed and, after a struggle, will most likely go down in flames — taking their phony rationalizations for patriarchal dominance of women with them. For many of the same factors that ended Prohibition will, inevitably, end the prohibitions on abortion.

The pro-choice struggle will occur on many levels: philosophical (moral), legal, political, and, of course, that of the good old-fashioned sabotage of the bans. And here, just as those who fought Prohibition, or just ignored it and did as they pleased, had the unstoppable flow of illegal alcohol, called “moonshine” at their disposal, so does the pro-choice movement have a new weapon: the ubiquitous availability of DIY abortion pills.

These pills have proven to be a safe, effective way to induce an abortion in the privacy of a woman’s home — or even in an adolescent’s bedroom if her parents disapprove. They are available by prescription in much of the U.S. and over-the-counter in many countries, where networks can be formed to procure and send them to the U.S.

How can these pills get into the hands of women who need them, even in states where they are illegal? Let me count just a few of the ways.

First, they can, and already frequently are, delivered by interstate and international mail in unmarked packages from addresses designed to mislead any authorities trying to track them down. Stopping this practice is far easier said than done. Federal mail is protected by the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution, and local authorities would likely require a warrant from a federal judge to intercept what they felt were suspicious packages. Such warrants are time consuming to obtain and expensive to enforce. Meanwhile, volunteers can send false-flag packages filled with jelly beans to individuals and groups who don’t actually need abortion services, but are just helping to undermine the regulations. Try to prove that someone receiving a few jelly beans is breaking the law.

The pills can be hand delivered by visiting friends and relatives who have gotten prescriptions from cooperating doctors and nurses in safe states. (Or, safe countries like Mexico and Canada if it comes to that.) Or handed off by friends and relatives returning from visits to safe states. An entire underground network can, and soon will be set up to give underage and poor women access to the pills, and the internet can help them or their supporters distinguish between real medication and black-market duds or poison.

And on and on. Those in need, and those who care about those in need, will find a million clever ways to circumvent the abortion bans, frustrate their enforcers, cripple state enforcement budgets and, most importantly prevent unwanted births. DIY chemical abortions are virtually unstoppable. Already, women are buying the pills in anticipation of possible future need, and vetted links to legitimate online providers are available

We can’t be glib, of course. Stuff can, and will go wrong. People will be caught smuggling abortion pills and subjected to ridiculous, draconian punishments. The pills don’t always work, and, since their effect mimics that of a miscarriage, some women might find themselves in emergency rooms where they are questioned by representatives of the authorities or, worse, avoid going to an emergency room out of fear of questioning when they need medical services for their induced condition. There will be injuries and death — but there will be nowhere near the suffering and injury that would occur if the bans are obeyed and unwanted pregnancies go to term. For most in need of an abortion, the rewards will greatly outweigh the risks; and for many women joining the struggle out of conviction or necessity, it will be worth any associated risk or sacrifice. The movement will have its heroes.

Ultimately, of course, the pro-choice battle is moral and political, and will only come to its proper conclusion when abortion is legalized, by federal statute and constitutional amendment, throughout the country. That battle will be fought on many fronts. Aided by the internet, a full-on propaganda campaign can tug heartstrings with illegal abortion horror stories (alas, there will be too many), and change minds by explaining the connection between the Constitution’s privacy guarantees and the right of the 50% of the population that happens to be female to control their bodies.

But one front in that war will be the battle to actually procure a needed abortion while simultaneously subverting the immoral bans against it.

For the inevitable victory on that front, we have the ally of modern medicine to thank.

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