A site of satirical musings, commentary and/or rhetorical criticism of the world at large.

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Location: Southeastern, Pennsylvania, United States

Monday, April 22, 2013

Applying Prohibitions Lessons to Today

Anne Marie and I recently ventured down to the National Constitution Center to view a temporary exhibit, “The Rise and Fall of Prohibition”, being that time period in American history between 1920 and 1933 when America was “dry”. Actually, America never went totally dry during this time, which is why the “noble experiment” of Prohibition is usually seen as being a dismal failure. The exhibit went beyond the romanticism of Al Capone’s Chicago and speakeasies; it demonstrated that it was not a total failure and is a cautionary tale for us today nearly 100 years later.

Prohibition happened because late 19th century America had a drinking problem. At that time, Americans consumed an average of 7 gallons of alcohol per year for every man, woman, and child in the country. Believe it or not, this is more than is being consumed today, which may come as a shock to those of us who attended college in the last 40 years where binge drinking nearly became a major all its own. Reformers and Progressives rallied state-by-state, gathering support from a wide variety of Americans who normally would never have given each other the time of day, until finally the 18th Amendment (prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating beverages within US borders) was ratified.
Sound familiar? No? Let’s press on.

Prohibition has become noteworthy for giving birth to modern organized crime and spurring a rise in government corruption. The exhibit didn’t gloss over these details, but it did bring to light facts that are not as well known, such as:

1. The need to get the law passed nationwide led to a key group supporting the temperance movement gaining their right to vote, namely women. Women’s suffrage was accelerated because reformers needed their support for prohibition.

2. The 18th Amendment did not outlaw the consumption of intoxicating beverages; the logic here was based on the idea that prosecuting consumers would not lead authorities to the hooch suppliers, who it was felt were the real criminals.

3. Once Prohibition was enacted, the federal government couldn’t bring itself to adequately fund enforcement of the law. The disparity between thousands of government agents trying to stop booze from being delivered to millions of decidedly thirsty Americans was one reason that the law was set up for failure.

4. The law did not stop Americans from drinking, but it did slow us down. Alcohol consumption per capita decreased during Prohibition and has never returned to its late 19th century levels.

5. The idea of outlawing liquor presented governing authorities with a funding dilemma; booze sales were heavily taxed and taking this away could lead to financial hard times for local, state, and federal governments. Passage of the 16th Amendment giving the federal government the right to levy an income tax on all Americans solved this problem. One hundred years later we still haven’t decided if this was good thing or not.

6. Just as the 16th Amendment removed the economic barrier for prohibition, the dire economic conditions of the Great Depression sealed Prohibition's doom. It was reasoned that repealing the 18th Amendment would bring jobs to thousands of Americans in the brewing and transportation industries. And so it was written, and so it was done!

Why should we bother to be mindful of the lessons which Prohibition taught us?  Because we - and this is where this lesson turns very dark - are about to do it again. This time the target will be women’s reproductive rights.

We are already seeing legislative movements in various states restricting a woman’s access to abortion. Critics of these new laws warn that many clinics will be forced to shut down, taking not only a woman’s right to choose, but also taking away the only affordable venue in many areas to detect breast cancer and other diseases. The state legislators appear to be indifferent to these arguments.

In our area, the horrors of the Kermit Gosnell trial - a physician who operated a women’s clinic in West Philadelphia - has been followed closely here, but is getting scant attention (or so the conservative right would have us believe) elsewhere. Dr. Gosnell is accused of killing a woman while performing an abortion, and murdering seven babies who had survived the late term procedure which his unlicensed facility offered. The clinic had not been inspected in 17 years, a fact that the conservative right has been more than happy to lay on the door step of the last few (coincidentally pro–choice) governor administrations in Pennsylvania. Granted, the inspections should never have lapsed and now the laissez-faire attitude is coming back to haunt the pro-choice movement.

The pro-life movement at the state levels could snowball until we see a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion actually considered for ratification. It would appear that the current crop of reformers is ignorant of history’s lessons. Many may dismiss humans as stupid animals when it comes to learning lessons from its past mistakes, but this a pessimistic oversimplification. Rather, man’s arrogance that mistakes won’t be repeated leads to the mistakes happening anyway.

So what could a constitutional amendment banning abortion bring? The closing of many facilities devoted to diagnosing women’s health; watch for cancer rates to skyrocket in poor and rural communities. Also watch for more unregulated clinics like Gosnell’s to flourish and prosper as the procedure will be driven underground and exploited by those less scrupulous members of our society. Undoubtedly, this may lead to hundreds of thousands of more deaths as happened at the Gosnell Clinic. There could also be an attendant rise in violent crime as those less scrupulous individuals protect their business ventures from hostile take-over or law enforcement closures; more mayhem, more death.

A new amendment would demand more resources for enforcement. This funding is unlikely to happen, particularly in the current legislative mood to cut programs. It would not surprise me if the conservatives adopted a naïve notion that abortion doesn’t exist because it is illegal, therefore why do we need to fund enforcement?

Now does this sound familiar?

We need to learn the lessons from Prohibition quickly, or we will repeat our mistakes at the cost of thousands of lives.

(Thank you for reading. What can I say: sometimes history is dark.)


Blogger David Jeffreys said...

I was wondering where you were going with the lesson on Prohibition. But I certainly did not expect you to go in the direction of women's reproductive rights. I have never heard of the Kermit Gosnell clinic. I remember a particularly gruesome murder of a physician in the Buffalo, NY area years ago, when I was consulting in the area. He had been performing abortions legally, but the conservative right was out to get him and did.
Where I thought you would be going with your Prohibition argument was a discussion of the legalizing Marijuana. By lumping Marijuana in with more dangerous street drugs, we have another case of the criminal element (not unlike the Mafia) being involved. Maybe you would like to discuss that in a future post.

April 22, 2013 at 11:17 PM  
Blogger Harpers Keeper said...

Interesting facts about the context in which the movement came to fruition. I did not know about the level of alcohol consumption prior to Prohibition.

Your points about reproductive choice are well taken and more than a little frightening.

Your item #2 resonates for me regarding the immigration issue as well.

April 23, 2013 at 12:16 AM  
Blogger todd gunther said...

Thanks for your comment, David. Actually, I have had the war on drugs at the back of my mind as blog post subject for awhile, but tghe movements in women's reproduction rights seemed to be more alarming at the moment. The war on drugs is a sequel to Prohibition with the same levels of violence. I'll save the rest for a future post.

Thank you, Harper's Keeper. The lessons can be applied to any one of our issues, and yes the so-called solutions may have unintended, frightful consequences.

April 23, 2013 at 7:19 AM  
Anonymous Janey said...

I too thought you were headed toward an analogy of the outcomes of illegal alcohol and the outcomes of illegal marijuana. But I appreciate the logical connections you've made regarding the potential future of reproductive rights -- well done!

I am shocked -- SHOCKED! -- to hear that binge drinking took place while we were enrolled in college! I don't remember any of that going on during our shared college days -- do you? :-)


April 24, 2013 at 6:54 AM  
Blogger todd gunther said...

Now that you mention it, Janey, I don't recall ever seeing with a cup of beer in your hand. Now caressing a joint and nuzzling a bong...well, you know how your friends talked! :)

April 26, 2013 at 6:12 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

To both aspects of your post, I'd like to leave these tidbits of thought: The Associated Press reported today that there is pressure on Washington to lower the legal BAC (blood alcohol content) from the current .08 to the European standard of .05. This means that an average woman weighing 120 pounds will have to call a cab if she has a glass of wine with dinner. The average man weighing 160 pounds will have to share her cab if he has two beers while eating wings and watching the UFC fights. I'll be the first to say that I do not condone drunk driving, but do we really want to go to the extreme in saying that a person is impaired from one glass of wine or two beers, respectively?

As far as the other side of your post, being female, I tend to be very protective of my reproductive parts. I'm not going to stake a claim on the conservative or liberal side of the fence, but I will say that Ken Cuccinelli (from VA) scares the hell out of me! But, what would scare me more is going to a facility in a desperate time and being treated in an unlicensed facility that didn't have an active inspection for the last 17 years. I don't think anyone has a right to tell a woman what she can and can't do with her body, but as a woman, I can say that there has to be some common sense involved. Look up credentials, make sure you're getting and receiving the best care possible - it's your right as a patient. I'm not saying this to be disrespectful of the woman that died - she didn't deserve it, and that doctor should receive the appropriate penalty for his actions. So, there... that's it. Long enough??

May 14, 2013 at 10:59 PM  

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