David Frum's comparison of abortion to alcohol prohibition is really... something


Last night I found myself being drawn into reading a lengthy treatise on the current abortion debate penned by David Frum at The Atlantic. I found it fascinating because of the way he chose two completely separate topics of social debate dealing with entirely different subjects and taking place a century apart and wove them together in some sort of historical parallel. Frum makes the comparison between the abortion debate and the fight to enact prohibition in the early part of the 20th century. He eventually uses this history lesson – specifically the way prohibition ended and why it failed – as a springboard to predict how laws regulating abortion will similarly disappear and be seen as “quaint” by future generations.

Strangely enough, if you skim through Frum’s article quickly, you might find yourself thinking that it sort of makes sense. There definitely are some similarities between the movements involved on each side of both debates. But Frum is also careful to describe the combatants in convenient terms, making clear who are the “good guys” and who is “standing on the wrong side of history.” The author describes the arrival of prohibition as a situation where “the rural and religious side of the culture imposed its will on the urban and secular side.” It was a case of the Christian moralists trying to save the souls of the godless urbanites who had sold their souls to Demon Rum. He then points out how, once prohibition was a reality, support for the movement “declined, then collapsed,” in less than fifteen years. And prohibition never became a popular movement again. Now, Frum predicts, the fight against abortion is preparing to follow the same arc of history.

When Prohibition did finally end, so too did the culture war over alcohol. Emotions that had burned fiercely for more than half a century sputtered out after 1933. Before and during Prohibition, alcohol had seemed a moral issue of absolute right and wrong. Between heaven and hell (as the prohibitionists told it), between liberty and tyranny (as the repealers regarded it), how could there be compromise?

The great debate on alcohol offers, a century later, a fascinating parallel with the contemporary one on abortion. In each instance, the battle commenced with big triumphs in the courts for legalization. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court found a constitutional right to abortion; in 1856, the highest court in the state of New York struck down an early prohibition law as a violation of property rights. Defeat in the courts drove the pro-life and prohibition sides toward mass mobilization. Meanwhile, victory in the courts lulled the original winning sides into complacency. Gradually, the balance of political power shifted. The pro-life/prohibition sides came to control more and more state legislatures. State and federal courts slowly reoriented themselves to the pro-life/prohibition sides. At last came the great moment of reversal for the formerly defeated: national Prohibition in 1919, the Dobbs case in 2022.

As I said above, if you only read Frum’s analysis quickly, it almost makes sense. You can see how it would be compelling, particularly to an audience that is despondent over the end of Roe and wondering where the trail will lead from here. But I would argue that, while the major legislative events involving the two episodes share some similarities, the underlying subjects of debate have some stark differences.

From the moment that prohibition went into effect, as Frum readily admits, it was an abject failure. If anything, drunkenness actually increased. Speakeasies became ubiquitous and people seemed to enjoy the fact that they were “being naughty.” People became incredibly wealthy by defying the law, including figures ranging from Al Capone to Joe Kennedy. And perhaps above all, a lot of people realized that they liked to drink and they didn’t care for the government telling them they couldn’t.

Where are the parallels to the abortion debate? It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the original victory by one side (the advent of Roe) or the victory by the other side half a century later (Dobbs). Roe was hardly a failure. Abortions became more common than fleas on a barn cat. And even in the post-Dobbs world, it’s already been made clear that they will continue in many places. There is no “national trend” in either direction.

Further, as mentioned above, people actually liked drinking alcohol. Who in their right mind wakes up on the morning hoping they’ll have an unplanned pregnancy by the end of the day and go for an abortion?

None of this means that there aren’t some prevailing trends that lend weight to at least part of Frum’s argument. There is more than sufficient polling available showing that neither unlimited abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy nor the complete criminalization of abortion in “all or most” cases comes close to being supported by a majority of Americans. (A slight, but still small plurality favors no restrictions over complete criminalization.) Most fall somewhere in the middle, with a measurable majority of 60% favoring legality in the first trimester. A smaller majority would favor banning it in the second trimester and virtually nobody supports it in the third trimester.

Prohibition represented an issue with a sort of “on-off” switch. Either alcohol would be legal for adults to consume (technically legal to manufacture and distribute, actually) or it would not. If the abortion question continues to evolve (and that seems inevitable) it appears to be destined to settle into a regional dispute with variations from place to place. Some states will impose light regulations, probably only in the later stages of the pregnancy. Others will lock down the practice in most all instances, while others will embrace what amounts to infanticide and offer to pay women to come to visit to have the procedure done.

So in closing, while Frum’s essay was an interesting walk down history lane, I’m simply not seeing the parallels that he’s finding. I do not expect people across the land to simply “get tired” of having abortion restrictions and go back en masse to no regulations whatsoever. And if it were to happen it would take multiple generations in my opinion, not the relative blink of an eye of 14 years as happened with prohibition.