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6 Most Controversial And Debated Laws In U.S. History

The first ever law to be created in the United States of America was ‘An Act to Regulate the Time and Manner of Administering Certain Oaths’, signed by President George Washington on June 1, 1789, and ratified by Congress. Ever since the ink dried on that first piece of legislation, successive governments have passed countless laws, some more popular than others.

However, there are certain subjects that, as soon as they enter the debate, discord quickly follows. And sometimes that discord can lead to violence or sweeping changes in the laws of this country. Here we take a look at some of the most divisive, controversial, and unpopular (certainly from one side) legislation that has ever been signed into law.

Photo by rawf8 from Shutterstock

1. Abortion

When it comes to the subject of abortion, the country, both parties and people, appears split down the middle. Whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice, whichever side you are on, there is undoubtedly blood involved, with the medical professionals who perform abortions have been particularly targeted.

Since 1977, there have been eight murders, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, and 186 arson attacks at abortion clinics and providers across the nation.

On the legislative side, ever since the landmark 1973 case of Roe v. Wade, which stated that a woman’s right to choose is protected by the Constitution, the subject has become even more divisive, as every state in America has at least one abortion clinic.

Over the past year, many states have fought back and tried to either roll back the law entirely or attach certain provisions for when a woman seeks an abortion.

However, abortion laws in the U.S. are not as strict as you might think; in Europe, abortion is much more restricted. Americans also support parental notification laws, waiting periods, and multiple other restrictions, including the partial-birth abortion ban, counseling before an abortion, and keeping women informed about alternatives to abortion before undergoing the procedure.

So, it doesn’t matter if you’re on the “freedom of choice” side or the “right to life” side, the subject of abortion will continue to be a highly debated subject and one that some politicians have used and will continue to use as political capital. With a Democrat President and a Democrat-controlled Congress, the repeal of the current abortion laws is unlikely to happen any time soon.

2. Capital Punishment

Another subject that involves life-or-death situations is the law surrounding the death penalty in the U.S. The issue of the humane nature of the death penalty, in this case by lethal injection, was brought into sharp focus with the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014.

Lockett would be administered an untested mixture of drugs and would die in agony over a 43-minute period.

Aside from the recent botched executions, another factor anti-death penalty advocates point to is the advances in DNA testing. Since 1992, new DNA evidence has led to the exoneration and release of more than 20 death row inmates.

The risk of putting an innocent person to death for a crime they didn’t commit is too much to bear, so a life sentence ensures that if said person was found to be innocent, they would still be alive to receive their freedom.

Capital Punishment (cont.)
However, despite the fire and brimstone rhetoric that always comes from the fundamentally conservative Christian right, the American people’s attitudes towards the death penalty have actually shifted away from prisoners paying the ultimate price for their crimes.

A Gallup death-penalty poll taken in 2019 showed that 60% of respondents chose the life-sentencing option, with 36% choosing capital punishment.

This marked a major shift, as the last time Gallup held such a poll, 50% said the death penalty, while 45% preferred life in prison, reflecting a 15-percentage-point shift in Americans’ views towards capital punishment in just five years.

Support for the death penalty peaked in 1994 when it reached 80%, but it has been at or around 60% in favor of capital punishment every year between 1976 and 2016.

The figures from Gallup can be open to interpretation, as not only do the laws vary from state to state, but the nuanced attitudes of many people towards capital punishment can be equally scrutinized, as many Americans do actually support executions but just don’t trust the government justice system or method of execution.

3. Military Draft

The draft today is more commonly associated with the unpopular Vietnam War draft of December 1, 1969, however, the first real rebellion against military conscription in United States history actually took place 106 years earlier, in 1863.

Known as the New York Draft Riots, a new federal draft law during the Civil War angered New Yorkers so much that they took to the streets for five days of violence, with many hundreds being killed or seriously injured.

Whether you see it as doing your duty to protect your country and spread democracy across the globe or feel railroaded into fighting an unpopular war for equally unpopular elites, surprisingly, the draft has been employed by the federal government in only six conflicts.

One of the main complaints leveled at the drafting of civilians is that not all men seem to be created equal, whereas the working classes are sent to the front line, and the more affluent manage to inextricably get deferment after deferment.

By 1973, active conscription would come to an end, of sorts, as the United States Armed Forces moved to an all-volunteer military. Although today no one can be drafted into the U.S. military against their will, there is still a draft that exists on a contingency basis and could be activated should the U.S. military require extra troops in an emergency situation.

This emergency draft remains in place to this day and would call on all male U.S. citizens, regardless of where they live, and male immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, residing within the United States, who are 18 through 25 to register with the Selective Service System.

4. Income tax

The history of taxation in the United States begins alongside the foundation of the nation itself with the colonial protests against British taxation policy in the 1760s, protests that would directly lead to the American Revolution.

It wouldn’t be until the Civil War that we would briefly impose income taxes in the 1890s, with income taxes being permanently legalized in 1913 through the ratification of the 16th Amendment.

As time went on, the complexities of the tax system would grow exponentially to a point where most, if not all, of the general populous, saw it as some unfathomable and undecipherable puzzle. As the wealth gap continues to grow, those at the top are using increasingly elaborate ‘creative bookkeeping’ to pay less and less.

With current President Biden using tax reform as one of the main pillars of his presidential campaign, change might finally be on the horizon. Republicans, however, will do what Republicans always do and fight tooth and nail against any tax laws that would see any change to the status quo or, more importantly, tackle wealth inequality.

5. Gun Control

With the spate of recent mass shootings, the question of gun control is being discussed yet again in both public and political forums. The statistics make for contradictory reading, as although U.S. gun ownership has sharply risen in the last 20 years, with an estimated five million new gun owners in 2020 alone, shootings and murders themselves have actually steadily decreased in that same time period.

With the recent shootings, the inevitable ‘now is not the time to discuss gun laws’ has been touted again. However, despite repeatedly failing since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut to advance a more progressive approach to gun laws, this time Congress is in the hands of the Democrats, and top Senate Democrat Nancy Pelosi has vowed to push through legislation expanding background checks.

Current estimates indicate that between 35% and 42% of households in the country have at least one gun; that’s about 393 million firearms in the hands of American citizens. As of March 22, 2021, there have been 108 mass shootings in the U.S., which is higher than it was during the same time period in 2018, 2019, and 2020. This sad statistic means the country has seen more than one such shooting a day on average.

Gun control has always been and will always be a hot-button issue with the American legislature and the public alike. While gun rights advocacy groups like the NRA and Second Amendment people claim to just want to protect themselves or overthrow some tyrannical government, most law-abiding citizens just don’t want to see another mass shooting.

Photo by Cameron Whitman from Shutterstock

6. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

The question of how one’s sexual orientation should affect a person’s ability to be an effective soldier has been around for some time, as engaging in homosexual activity has been grounds for discharge from the American military since the Revolutionary War. However, it wouldn’t be until 1993 that it would become a true policy debate after then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton made the promise to allow all citizens to serve in the military regardless of sexual orientation as part of his 1992 presidential campaign.

During the 1993 debate, a study conducted for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and published as Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy: Options and Assessment would argue “circumstances could exist under which the ban on homosexuals could be lifted with little or no adverse consequences for recruitment and retention.”

The policy would initially earn the longer title “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” before being referred to as just “Don’t Ask”. That same year, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network was founded to advocate an end to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the U.S. Armed Forces.

From 1993 to 2011, the policy of servicemen and servicewomen not overtly having to tell or communicate their sexual preference or have commanding officers ask would remain on military books.

However, this issue remained largely contentious on both sides until finally being repealed when former President Obama signed the repeal into law on December 22, 2010, ready for its implementation in January 2011.

You should also read: Jeans, Broccoli, and 6 Other Things FORBIDDEN at the White House

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