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  • The Rise and Fall of Moral Conflicts in the United States and Canada by Midred A. Schwartz and Raymond Tatalovich
  • Julie Beicken
The Rise and Fall of Moral Conflicts in the United States and Canada
By Midred A. Schwartz and Raymond Tatalovich
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018. 240 pages.

With the recent passage of restrictive abortion laws across the United States, Mildred A. Schwartz and Raymond Tatalovich's The Rise and Fall of Moral Conflicts in the United States and Canada is a timely piece about the trajectories of moral issues in these neighboring but ultimately very different nations. Abortion is one of six moral conflicts the authors address in this volume, where they illuminate the jagged paths these conflicts often take. The authors claim that moral issues pass through five stages: emergence, establishment, decline, resurgence, and resolution. The book is an account of how and why different moral issues pass through these phases differently in the U.S. and Canada. In the U.S., the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade made abortion on demand the law of the land in 1973, but it has remained contentious and seen many challenges over the decades. Recent restrictive abortion laws, such as the Alabama Human Life Protection Act passed in May of 2019, outlaw abortions when a heartbeat can be detected (around six weeks) and make no exceptions for rape or incest (Williams and Blinder 2019). Such new laws indicate that the issue of abortion is far from resolved within the U.S.

The Rise and Fall of Moral Conflicts in the United States and Canada is a comparative history of moral issues in these two nations. The authors take prohibition as their model issue, describing how it passed through the five phases described above in each country. While the history of prohibition differed in each context, most notably because it was resolved in an unprecedented fashion by Constitutional amendment in the United States, the trajectory was similar. For example, the authors note that in both places, the regulation of alcohol through prohibition played a role in the process of nation building (p. 53). Prohibition is an excellent baseline moral issue for their comparative work because it was settled in both countries far enough in the past to enable strong analysis of all five phases, including resolution.

After examining prohibition, the authors apply their five-phase model to six contemporary issues in both countries: abortion, capital punishment, gun control, marijuana, pornography, and same-sex relations. They develop eighteen hypotheses regarding what brings these issues to the forefront of the public imagination and the dynamics of their resolution (or lack thereof). One such hypothesis considers the role of triggering events in generating moral conflicts. The authors predict that such events—such as the widespread use of thalidomide during pregnancy in the mid-twentieth century and its associated birth defects for the issue of abortion—can spark moral conflicts but are not necessary for a moral issue to come into existence. Indeed, triggering events were not a key factor in the emergence of prohibition. Other hypotheses specifically address how issues might fare in the U.S. and Canada differently. For example, the authors contend that the fractious party politics of the U.S. as compared to Canada will lead to more legislative authority on moral issues in the U.S. and more executive authority in Canada. They test these hypotheses by examining media coverage, public opinion polls, and party platforms (p. 24).

It is challenging to summarize the array of findings in the text given the number of moral issues it explores and the number of hypotheses examined for each country. The evidence supports most of the authors' hypotheses. In other words, prohibition can help scholars predict how other moral issues will play out in these contexts. One very interesting claim is that all but the issue of marijuana have been resolved in Canada, while all but pornography and arguably same-sex relations remain unresolved in the U.S. The authors attribute this primarily to the more contentious nature of politics in...


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