The winter of 1860 … winter of 2010

In the winter of 1860, the country was on the verge of the Civil War. Lincoln had been elected and would take office in March 1861. Amid calls for war, southern states had begun to secede.

That was 150 years ago, but only 79 years from 1939, the year of my birth. It was 54 years from the start of World War I in Europe, and only 40 years from the turn of the century.

Was the carnage of the Civil War necessary to rid the nation of slavery or would the “peculiar institution,” as it was referred to in the South, have died of its own gruesome weight in the four decades leading up to the 20th century?

In all probability, slavery would have succumbed to a combination of moral outrage and economic pressure from our European trading partners. There were voices in the North that called for accommodation while others argued that to tolerate the practice for even one more day was an abomination.

At the time, nobody foresaw the terrible carnage that would accompany emancipation. Most believed one side or the other would back down after a brief but gallant demonstration of the power of their arms. But once started, wars are impossible to control. An estimated 620,000 soldiers, North and South, were killed in that bloody conflict; more than the combined total of all our other wars.

In retrospect, it appears the evil of slavery had to be purged with the blood of those that embraced, tolerated, ignored, or otherwise accepted the view that one human being could own another. The sin of slavery was just too outrageous to be allowed to simply wither away. A brutal price in blood and treasure had to be exacted from a society where men, women, and children were bought and sold like cattle.

Justice demanded that the pain of slavery be visited upon the nation as a whole to atone for such a grievous crime. The idea of divine retribution is proclaimed in the popular Civil War battle hymn: “He is stamping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

God was then seen as having a far more direct role in the lives of human beings. Unlike today, there were fewer obstacles between Maker and man. The distractions, so evident in this age of technology, obscure our vision. In this information age, we confront the paradox of seeing more but knowing less.
Slaves were dehumanized. If their humanity was acknowledged, there would be no way to justify their subjugation. The same thing occurs in war. It is easier to kill a dehumanized enemy. We dehumanize a fetus to justify abortions.

I cannot say at what point in the development of a fetus that human life begins. In my view, the burden of establishing that a fetus is not a human being is on those that would seek to destroy it.

I know a fetus is at least a potential human being. Allowed to develop, it will certainly become a human being. That potential (a child-to-be) is worthy of some protection. Consider, for example, the rights we give persons accused of crimes.

To dismiss a fetus as an appendage, while not the same, is analogous to justifying slavery on the ground that a slave is sub-human. Some 150 years ago, and continuing even to this day, this nation has paid a terrible price for the obvious evil of slavery.

What, if any, will be the consequences of the not-so-obvious evil of terminating what is at least a life-in-waiting?

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law at Dolan Connly.