The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade and eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion, is prompting allusions to slavery and the antebellum United States. There’s talk of a new “Underground Railroad” that conjures clandestine networks helping people to flee their home states in search of the freedom to end a pregnancy. And some predict Dobbs will result in conflicts among the states of a magnitude not seen since before the Civil War.
Any historical comparison requires considerable care, with attention to differences as well as similarities.***
This history doesn’t provide a blueprint for action in our own time, but it does remind us of the corrosive impact of interstate conflict and of the importance of federal protections for freedom and individual rights.***
The history of the 19th century reminds us that arguments for states’ rights, or for federal power, have no intrinsic political or moral valence. Northerners adopted personal liberty laws to mitigate oppressive aspects of the Constitution and federal law, while enslavers insisted on extending their jurisdiction beyond state lines and put unprecedented federal power in the service of human bondage.
But that doesn’t mean the best option for the country is to leave questions of fundamental rights in the hands of the states. To the contrary, history also shows that the United States has been at its best when, as in the Reconstruction amendments and federal civil rights laws, it offered federal guarantees of freedom, dignity and equality to all people. Federal guarantees not only strengthen democracy, they also tamp down conflicts among the states. Now the Supreme Court has withdrawn the 14th Amendment’s protection of reproductive freedom. No wonder we find ourselves looking for parallels to a period before the amendment existed.