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SCOTUS’s Signposts to a Second Civil War

It's good to rejoice at the overturning of Roe v. Wade—but historical parallels suggest that we’re moving into a period of great danger, verging on calamity.

There’s a saying attributed to Marx: history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. At this moment in history, Americans are seeing Roe v. Wade overturned—not to make abortion illegal, but rather to send the question of its legality to the individual states to figure out.

America experienced the tragedy centuries ago. Now we’re living through the farce . . . but maybe there’s a way to stop this farce before the final act plays out.

First, let’s look at the tragedy: the institution of slavery in the history of our nation’s founding. Setting aside trendy modern alternative theories, let’s stipulate that the United States was consolidated as the nation we recognize today, under the Constitution, in 1788 with that document’s ratification. One of the big sticking points in getting the Constitution signed was the issue of slavery, which persisted in the new nation out of what its founders considered political necessity. (Thomas Jefferson abhorred slavery yet also owned slaves. George Washington would come to hate it, too.)

Over the ensuing decades, slavery would rankle the nation, and legislators would propose fixes. In 1820, there was the Missouri Compromise, which said certain states could have slaves and others wouldn’t. Then there was the Compromise of 1850, wherein Congress tried to cool bubbling resentment by letting the new territories of Utah and New Mexico decide for themselves whether they wanted to be slave or free. That’s federalism: back to the states. The people get to choose.

Well, next came 1854’s Kansas-Nebraska Act, through which a pro-slavery senator hoped to make more slave states, thereby encroaching on what abolitionists considered their territory. The abolitionists despised the new law. The temperature climbed. And then it was Bleeding Kansas in the mid- to late 1850s; John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859; the shelling of Fort Sumter in 1861; and over 600,000 Americans, including the U.S. president, violently killed by 1865.

Now, the farce.

Start with Act One. In 1973, the Supreme Court delivered Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, bad decisions building on other bad decisions like Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Stanley v. Georgia (1969). These formed and reinforced a new doctrine called the “right to privacy,” through which, Justice Harry Blackmun and his cohorts argued, a mother is entitled to have her unborn baby killed. Whatever abortion laws existed in the fifty states were struck down in favor of legal abortion everywhere, for any reason, up to the moment of birth.

So let’s call 1973 our 1788. A ghastly institution, gravely offensive to God and man, is imposed on the United States. From the first, it’s a source of extreme contention and unrest. Decades go by, with the Supreme Court doubling down on bad decisions—you could call Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) the modern parallel to Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), both using frankly idiotic reasoning to cling to the status quo. And the national debate only gets more caustic, more dangerous.

Forty-nine years later, in the present day, as you’re reading this, we’re in Act Two of our farce. Finally, with Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a new crop of Supreme Court justices has struck down Roe and Casey. Many pro-lifers and political conservatives have longed for this move to send abortion back to the states, “where it belongs.” It’s good, they say, to wrench the nation’s most contentious issues from nine black robes in Washington, D.C. and grant them to the people to decide through their elected representatives. Abortion now gets the proper federalist hearing it deserves . . . but maybe you’re starting to see what I’m getting at.

Now it’s the intermission between Acts Two and Three of our historical farce. As we leave the theater to grab some overpriced concessions, let’s determine whether we should return for the finale.

First of all, this is a time to rejoice, because it is worth rejoicing when the United States no longer institutionally condones and encourages the slaughter of the unborn. Many people have devoted heroic effort to reach this milestone moment, and they deserve praise and appreciation. But we must also remember that we’re moving into a period of great danger, verging on calamity.

This is the farce we’re on the edge of revisiting: a new outbreak of nation-rending violence. It’s already starting, and that shouldn’t surprise us. The Union couldn’t endure with divided allegiances on the scourge of slavery; the moral gap was too wide. We don’t stand to do better with “free states” and “kill states.”

How do we nip a Second Civil War in the bud? For one, the people who employ the “back to the states, where it belongs” language need to tread carefully. A good Catholic, who assents to the Church’s teaching that abortion is a heinous evil, must not agree that “sending abortion to the states” is an end in itself. Leaving unborn life in the hands of voters risks, in most states, ending with a compromise solution, in which there’s only as much abortion as the people approve of, rather than all the abortion nine quasi-monarchic judges see fit to impose. This is what we find in the countries of Europe, which some conservatives hold up as the reasonable alternative to the extreme pro-abortion legal structure we had under Roe. They should stop. Legal abortion in any quantity is not something to get comfortable with.

As for the bigger picture, we know there is still much work to be done to liberate the unborn from the grave danger our legal system and culture place them in. We can work in the state houses, but let’s not leave the campaign there. Let’s take on the spirit, and even the tactics, depending on our state in life, of the great change movement successes of history: the Red Rose Rescuers in our day; the civil rights movement of the sixties; and, most inspiringly, the Christians and pre-Christians of antiquity, from the youths in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace to the Paschaltide apostles brought before the high priest. Let’s keep our homes pro-life: shun contraception, fornication, pornography, divorce. Let’s preserve the hatred for sin that sin deserves, while maintaining true Christian love for those closest to us who fall into sin. We have a duty to raise up a generation of faithful, God-fearing Americans who will defend the unborn with more fervor and in greater numbers than what our generation had. The grinding legislative and judicial processes have their place, but the vanguard in toppling America’s abortion regime is personal courage—unheralded, even despised, lived out day by day.

The Compromise of 1850 came sixty-two years after the ratification of the slavery-permitting U.S. Constitution. Dobbs v. Jackson came down forty-nine years after Roe. We’re not numerologists or Nostradamuses here—the Church forbids divination—but you have to admit that the parallels are a little creepy. So let’s give this moment the jubilation it is due, and then sharpen our spiritual arsenal. Let’s do what we can to close the curtain early on the farce of a Second Civil War—and if we fail at that, at least we’ll be prepared for what comes next.

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