Magazine | March 19, 2018, Issue

Life, Death, and Politics

(REUTERS/Michael Laughlin/Pool)
Debates over abortion and guns take a familiar form.

Guns and abortion have been neuralgic issues in American politics for a long time now, and the divisions are pretty familiar. They are so familiar that we don’t often think about the extent to which these two bitter debates are really the same debate, just with the sides reversed.

Both the NRA and NARAL deploy the rhetoric of individualism and libertarianism. They say they want to keep the government from restricting your freedom. Their opponents, on the other hand, think of themselves as fighting to protect innocent life. In their most heated moments, gun controllers and anti-abortionists describe the other side as bloodthirsty. They also contest its ownership of individualist rhetoric, since all they want is for the government to protect individuals from the threat of lethal violence.

There is no reason of logical necessity that the anti-abortion and anti-gun causes should fall on opposite sides of our political divide, but that’s the way American politics has shaken out. People who want to restrict gun ownership tend not to want to restrict abortion, and vice versa. That pattern is even more evident among the most politically active Americans. Peggy Noonan, who closed a recent column in the Wall Street Journal with a call to ban both assault weapons and abortions after 20 weeks, is a rare exception.

The activists on each side of each debate do not speak for most Americans. Most voters aren’t “gun nuts” or “gun grabbers.” The latest Gallup polls show 60 percent agreement with making gun laws more strict, but only 28 percent support for a ban on the civilian possession of handguns. Abortion occasions a similar division of opinion. Again according to Gallup’s latest surveys, 29 percent of Americans think abortion should be “legal under any circumstances” and 18 percent “illegal in all circumstances.”

Having only a minority on one’s side is a bigger problem for those seeking a change in the status quo. For the most part, it’s the pro-regulation side of both debates that has to overcome inertia. The leaders of both the anti-gun and anti-abortion movements understand the challenge. Their common tactic is to highlight the elements of the status quo that have the least public support.

Thus pro-lifers pushed to ban partial-birth abortion and are now seeking a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, while gun controllers seek to ban assault weapons. One purpose of these legislative campaigns is to get ambivalent voters to view the anti-regulation side as extreme and even alien. Democrats say Republicans obstruct the popular, modest measure of an assault-weapons ban because of their fealty to the NRA. Republicans say Democrats obstruct the popular, modest measure of a late-term-abortion ban because of their fealty to Planned Parenthood and NARAL.

The counterattack takes the same shape in each case. Supporters of gun rights say that assault weapons differ in no significant way from other guns, that the very phrase “assault weapons” is a propaganda term rather than a discrete class of guns, and that banning them will put us on a slippery slope at the bottom of which lies a sweeping gun ban. Supporters of abortion rights said that partial-birth abortions differ in no significant way from other abortions, that the very phrase “partial-birth abortions” is a propaganda term rather than a medical category, and that banning them would put us on a slippery slope at the bottom of which lies a sweeping abortion ban.

Both NARAL and the NRA are right to worry about their slippery slopes. The most vocal proponents of the small restrictions do want much bigger ones. If they succeed in enacting the small restrictions, they will get closer to their ultimate goals. That’s one of their motivations for seeking the small restrictions: The bans are designed to expand. When people notice that a legal gun is just as lethal as a prohibited assault weapon, and the differences between the two are cosmetic, the legality of that gun can be presented as a loophole in the ban on assault weapons, a loophole that needs to be closed.

The press tends to view both guns and abortion the way liberals do. That means, among other things, that a lot of journalists don’t notice the parallels. When a ban on assault weapons failed in the Florida legislature after the Parkland shootings, many of them noted that politicians allied with the NRA had defied public sentiment. When a ban on abortions after 20 weeks failed in the Senate earlier this year, not many of them pointed out that politicians allied with Planned Parenthood had blocked a modest and popular measure.

And of course the anti-abortion and anti-gun causes don’t line up in perfect parallel. Public opinion on abortion has been quite stable for a long time, while support for gun rights has increased over the years. The legal status of guns and abortion are also different: The right to abortion that isn’t mentioned in the Constitution has received more judicial protection than the right to guns that is.

The arguments over guns and abortion tend to come into contact with each other in the form of accusations of hypocrisy. Senator Kamala Harris, a liberal Democrat from California, tweeted after the Parkland massacre: “We cannot tolerate a society and live in a country with pride when our babies are being slaughtered.” Conservatives pointed out that she votes in lockstep with NARAL on abortion. Supporters of gun control, meanwhile, frequently jeer at Republicans: If they’re so “pro-life,” why won’t they restrict the guns that are responsible for more than 33,000 deaths in our country each year? These accusations almost never move anyone to change his mind.

A supporter of gun control can support abortion on the ground that unborn children don’t have the same claim to legal protection that the teenagers killed in school shootings do. There’s nothing inconsistent in that argument; it is simply, many of us are convinced, mistaken. We pro-lifers can maintain consistent principles while treating guns and abortion differently because every abortion ends the life of an unborn child, while the vast majority of guns are never used to kill anyone.

The gun debate revolves around whether the use of guns to kill people should lead us to restrict their availability even for other uses. The abortion debate concerns whether we should treat abortion as a kind of killing at all. In an average week, guns kill more than 600 people in America, and everyone agrees it is a terrible thing. In an average week, abortion kills more than 17,000 unborn children in America, and we are bitterly divided over whether it is a terrible thing. And that’s where the parallels end.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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