OPINION: How the Alaska AG’s letter replays the mistakes that led to the Civil War

The United States tried to hold together as a single nation in the years leading up to the Civil War, despite disagreeing on the meaning of freedom and basic human rights.

The southern states sought to expand slavery to new territories and to force the northern states, where slavery was illegal, to recognize southerners’ property rights in human beings. In 1850, as part of a compromise, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, forcing the return of African Americans to slavery who had gained freedom by escaping to the north.

Women crossing state lines for abortions face an eerily similar threat under a legal concept pushed by a group of attorneys general of anti-abortion states. This has become Alaska’s issue because Attorney General Treg Taylor recently signed a letter supporting this scheme on Alaska’s behalf.

Alaska is a free state. The voters amended the Alaska Constitution in 1972 to recognize the right to privacy, which most of us think of as a fundamental right anyway. In those days, before the rise of the religious right, some of Alaska’s most conservative libertarian Republicans and hairiest liberal Democrats agreed on that—that each of us should make our own decisions without government interference or surveillance.

The Legislature had already legalized abortion in 1970, two years before Roe v. Wade.

After Taylor’s letter became public this month, he denied any intent to rat out women who come to Alaska for an abortion. But he signed the letter protesting new federal regulations that would prohibit that.

Federal regulations under a law called HIPAA protect the privacy of health records, but they have an exception for criminal and administrative investigations. New rules from the Biden administration would remove that exception for legal reproductive health procedures, such as having an abortion in a state where it is not against the law.


Anti-abortion attorneys general want access to women’s private health information for investigations to stop their residents from leaving to get legal abortions in other states and to prosecute those who assist them. The letter also contemplates anti-abortion states going after the licenses of doctors who perform legal abortions in another state.

I respect but disagree with people who believe abortion is murder, some of whom see themselves as the equivalent of the abolitionists before the Civil War, not as the slavers.

I think women forced to give birth have more in common with the enslaved.

But this column is not about my opinion regarding abortion. It is about how we hold our rights as Americans and keep the country together.

Taylor’s signature on the letter betrayed the Alaska Constitution he had sworn to defend and led us further into a culture war division. The culture wars are threatening to pull America apart. The duty of a true patriot is to resist that.

The United States adopted the slogan “e pluribus unum” in 1782 — ”out of many, one” — recognizing our nation’s essential challenge. The greatest catastrophe in our history, the Civil War, tested whether we could be a single nation and settled what that would mean for each of us.

Before the Civil War, the exact meaning of being an American was unclear — whether each person was a citizen of a state or the United States. After the Civil War, with the passage of the three constitutional amendments of Reconstruction, Americans became unequivocally citizens of the United States. The federal government became the guarantor of our individual rights, overriding anything else the states might decide.

The Dobbs decision, which took away the right to abortion, attempts to roll back that fundamental change, narrowing the Fourteenth Amendment, in the ignoble tradition of Courts in the 19th century that deleted rights for Black Americans that the Reconstruction Amendments were intended to protect.

But in Alaska, we should know better.

First, we should know that freedoms do not need to be written explicitly in the Constitution in order to be fundamental rights. Being Alaskan is about self-reliance and freedom, as individuals, communities, and tribes. We do not need each freedom written down to know it belongs to us.

Who doesn’t include their own bodily integrity in the meaning of freedom? Or the privacy of their most intimate medical decisions?

Freedom is a great unifier. It belongs to us all, regardless of the state where we live or travel. And if you really believe in it, you also respect the right of others to live their lives freely, too.

These culture warriors have their own reasons for whipping up fear and anger among people with different traditional values, world views, and races — rural against urban, red against blue, straight against gay, and so on. Americans feeling threatened are trying to force others to live as they do.

A country can go to war with itself. It has happened many times around the world.

In the 1990s, civil war ripped through the Balkans region of Europe. From the outside, it seemed weird for these ordinary people suddenly to be killing one another. But when I heard militia members interviewed on the radio, as they prepared for battle, I understood. Their reasons for slaughtering their neighbors didn’t make sense, but, hearing how they had descended so far into their own propaganda, I could tell it made emotional sense to them.

We need to fight that kind of poison. Our country needs us to listen to one another and respect our differences and different lives. We must resist the state invading our privacy, controlling our bodies, or making decisions for us — we should have that in common.

As Americans and Alaskans, we owe freedom and autonomy to one another. If we can’t agree on that, maybe we can’t hold this nation together.


Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.

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Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.