Civil War remark draws gasps

Stevenson: Abortion policy "power grab."

Chad Livengood • News-Leader • February 11, 2009

Jefferson City — State Rep. Bryan Stevenson caused a firestorm in the House on Tuesday after suggesting federal efforts to undo state laws restricting abortion would be "the greatest power grab" since the North declared war on the South to end slavery.

"What we are dealing with today is the greatest power grab by the federal government since the War of Northern Aggression," said Stevenson, R-Webb City.

War of Northern Aggression is a term some Southerners use to maintain that the North illegally invaded the South to put an end to slavery.

The remark caused a sudden gasp heard throughout the House chamber, and an immediate rebuke by some black members of the Democratic caucus.

Missouri remained mostly neutral during the Civil War, supplying soldiers and raw materials to both sides. But the state was still considered part of the Union throughout the bloody conflict.

Stevenson, who represents parts of Jasper County, later apologized on the House floor, saying he was sorry "for any offense that my earlier comment made."

Lawmakers were debating a resolution sponsored by Rep. Bob Dixon to oppose the so-called federal Freedom of Choice Act , which Dixon contends could undo many state abortion regulations by making abortion a "fundamental right … on par with the right to vote."

Dixon, R-Springfield, quickly struck down Stevenson’s assertion that FOCA is as aggressive on state’s rights as the Civil War was to the Confederacy.

"I must respectfully disagree and refer to it as the War for Freedom," Dixon said, noting he’s a "card-carrying member" of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People .

Stevenson’s comment came after more than 90 minutes of debate on the resolution, which is non-binding and Congress could ultimately ignore. Stevenson is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

The resolution did not come up for vote. The House is expected to reconsider the resolution today, Dixon said.

Some Democrats who support abortion rights say the resolution will do nothing to prevent unwanted pregnancies or stop abortions.

"Instead of having to discuss economic development or health care or discussing anything that needs to be discussed, we’re discussing abortion — again," said Rep. Beth Low, D-Kansas City.

Others argued the resolution was pointless because FOCA has not yet been introduced by Congress this year, even though President Barack Obama has said he would sign the law as it’s been proposed in previous years.

"This is a meaningless resolution about imaginary legislation," said Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, who called the controversial abortion issue a "decades-old … boogeyman."

During announcements before the morning session adjourned, state Rep. Don Calloway asked Stevenson for a public apology.

Calloway, a St. Louis County Democrat who is black, noted the Civil War helped abolish slavery and was carried out "by the standard bearer for the Republican Party, President Abraham Lincoln…"

"I think it’s inappropriate to refer to that war as the War of Northern Aggression," Calloway said. "I think it’s patently offensive, not only to a particular racial segment, but to our whole state and to this country."

Stevenson, who is considering a bid for Congress in 2010 if the 7th District seat becomes open, said he’s a "card -carrying member of the Cherokee Nation" and that his ancestors walked the Trail of Tears from Virginia to Oklahoma.

Stevenson, an attorney, said he was unaware the term War of Northern Aggression was offensive.

"I am strongly opposed to slavery in any form, whether it is in the Old Testament of the Bible, whether it was in the United States, whether it is active in the United States or around the world today," Stevenson said in a speech from the House floor.

He later added: "I want to clarify that I in no way harbor any racial animosity towards anyone and that I apologize. …"

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