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Stars, Bars & Choice By: Chris Weinkopf
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, January 24, 2000


IF THE DAY'S HEADLINES look familiar, it's because we have read these stories before. Two of America's perennial debates—abortion and the Confederate battle flag—have resurfaced to nag at the public conscience once more. The 27th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, which coincides with the recurring feud about flying the Stars and Bars over South Carolina's statehouse, reminds us that the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" arguments have been at war since long before 1973.

The South's secession from the Union was, Confederate President Jefferson Davis said, "actuated solely by the desire to preserve our own rights and promote our own welfare." Those who support honoring the Confederate experience by flying its standard echo the same arguments. They insist that the flag—and, for that matter, the Civil War—were not about slavery but "states' rights." States' rights to do what? Not just any federalist grievance could have prompted the South to declare and fight for secession. Specifically, it feared the eventual abolition of slavery, an institution that had become fundamental to its very way of life. It cared less about "states' rights" in general than about the "right" to slavery in particular.

Likewise, legalized abortion has become a fixture in American culture. (One in three women voluntarily aborts a baby in her lifetime.) Its proponents have come to value the "freedom" to have an abortion more than freedom itself. Groups like NOW and NARAL speak loftily about the right of women to "control their own bodies," but gladly jettison that right in favor of government-run health care, taxes on tobacco, and other federal intrusions. They insist that abortion is a private matter best left to the individual, but demand that taxpayers subsidize it. "Choice" is not the heart of their agenda, but a veil to conceal it.

In that regard, Jefferson Davis was the great-grandfather of the "pro-choice" position. To protect slavery, the Confederacy made a false god of states' rights—which are important, but not more so than the right of the individual to his set his own destiny. Pro-choicers similarly deify the notion of "reproductive rights," placing it above even the right to life, which logically must come first.

Like today's abortion advocates, Davis understood that to justify an inhumane institution—in his case, slavery—society first had to dehumanize its victims. When he announced Mississippi's secession before the U.S. Senate, he stressed that constitutionally blacks "were not put upon the footing of equality with white men—not even upon that of paupers and convicts."

His intellectual heirs in the abortion-rights movement have employed the same strategy. Proponents of legalized abortion speak of "fetuses" instead of babies, "products of conception" instead of human beings. Sonograms, of course, should put the issue of when life begins to rest, but then, in the antebellum South, everyday observation should have eliminated any doubts as to blacks' humanity. Repeat a lie long enough, and people start to believe it, sometimes disbelieving their own eyes.

The lie of the Confederacy was that it is morally permissible for human beings to buy and sell one another. That lie took a bloody civil war and 620,000 dead to debunk. Unfortunately, the painful lessons of that war did not stick. The annual marches in Washington that accompany Roe v. Wade's anniversary are a sorry reminder that societies are still quite adept at rationalizing barbarity. The adamant refusal of some South Carolinians to remove the Confederate battle flag from their statehouse is evidence that Americans are still capable of turning a blind eye to evil.

It is true that many men of good conscience, most of whom did not own slaves, and some of whom opposed slavery outright, fought for the Confederacy. Noble men, however, have fought under many ignoble banners. Whatever else its cultural accomplishments, the Confederacy's purpose, ultimately, was the defense of slavery. Society can honor the heroism and valor of its soldiers without honoring their cause, or revering the flag that represents it. Some South Carolina legislators have suggested replacing the flag with a statehouse memorial to Confederate veterans—a more dignified and appropriate commemoration.

If nothing else, taking the flag down would retire a seemingly incessant controversy that honors no one except those who use it as an opportunity to grandstand. As for that other perennial debate that has reared its head once more this January, the battle rages on. Abortion takes more lives every six months than the Civil War claimed in four years. No Americans have a greater claim on our sorrow and remembrance than these.


Chris Weinkopf is an editorial writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News. To read his weekly Daily News column, click here. E-mail him at chris.weinkopf@dailynews.com.


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