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November 8, 2011

Legislating Morals

Roy Meachum

It had to be coincidence. The nation’s 20th Century’s grand experiment in legislating morals wound up in the Great Depression. Being born one year and six days before Wall Street’s historic crash (October 24, 1929), I vaguely remember Prohibition’s last hours. I had an uncle whose hands were permanently crippled from his thirst for canned-heat.


Today people in Mississippi are voting to outlaw abortion, which strikes me as grossly unconstitutional; if the measure passes, I cannot imagine any court upholding it. It’s not that I’m vehemently pro-abortion; I think the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision had it right, enabling the free exercise of religious preferences but not forcing surgery on anyone. I don’t believe the surgery should substitute for failing to take precautionary steps.


The Red Cross expedited my return from Airlift Berlin because my mother suffered what then was called “a nervous breakdown,” caused – the doctor said – because her son was threatened by the Soviets when the Cold War raged. The same physician, whom I never met before or since, announced my surviving parent underwent several abortions, when they were illicit and back alley; I was not particularly surprised considering it took World War II to end the Depression. On the other hand, in the process of delivering four healthy children, my wife had undergone several miscarriages — nature’s way of aborting a baby.


The several women I consulted before writing this piece unanimously supported the Pro-Life position that life begins at the moment of conception. But two conservative Republicans admitted they underwent abortions for compelling causes; both said they remembered their lost children and envisioned how they might grow up. All the ladies still thought the government had no role in the decision to have the surgery performed — even the GOP activists.


Mississippi voters this day are wrestling with the question, which is more theological than political. We live in the age when Thomastic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s observation continues true, long after the 1930s when he expressed: Having lost sight of God, man is the process of destroying himself, trying to find…himself. Catholic priest Maritain spent years at Princeton, originally a Presbyterian seminary. Father Maritain’s dictum has long been a mantra in my life. The current state of malicious national politics proved his point, which is glorified by Tuesday’s Deep South election.


The Mississippi bill’s backers count on elevating the fetus to a legal person, in order to lodge at least manslaughter charges against everyone involved in all future abortions. The legislation comes with no exceptions: rape, incest and the health of woman or baby figure meaninglessly. Of course, this has long been the stance of the Roman Catholic Church. I’ve known several clerics, including archbishops and cardinals, who have disagreed, especially in the wake of the Councils of Vatican II; they’ve either kept quiet on the subject or chosen to laicize — leaving the priesthood.


The next door state to my native Louisiana has long been a sturdy bastion for evangelical Christians, who have their own grounds for condemning abortions. Both neighbors tend to be Catholic to the south; in Mississippi, churches that offer Roman rites are overwhelmingly restricted to the Gulf of Mexico coast. But it is the rage from the northern parts, “person” adherents count on: the same area that nourished the Ku Klux Klan during the Civil Rights movements.


Whatever the result of today’s voting, the battle will rage on in imitation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; they lack chiefly a latter day Carrie Nation who wacked up beer barrels. Abortion clinics’ bombers have not proved adequate.


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