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Commentary Abortion

Gun Control = Abortion Restrictions? Not by a Long Shot.

Lisa Stern

Even for those who wish for fewer and less dangerous guns in circulation, would we really want our gun laws to mimic abortion laws?

In the wake of the Las Vegas mass shooting on October 1, memes drawing parallels between reproductive rights and gun control flooded social media. Images and infographics juxtaposed the startling ease with which people can obtain guns with the complexity of obtaining an abortion in many U.S. states. Tweets comparing uteruses to guns proliferated. The quotation below, frequently misattributed to Gloria Steinem (who had reposted it on Facebook), went viral.

I want any young men who buy a gun to be treated like young women who seek an abortion. Think about it: a mandatory 48-hours waiting period, written permission from a parent or a judge, a note from a doctor proving that he understands what he is about to do, time spent watching a video on individual and mass murders, traveling hundreds of miles at his own expense to the nearest gun shop, and walking through protestors holding photos of loved ones killed by guns, protester who call him a murderer.

After all, it makes more sense to do this for young men seeking guns than for young women seeking an abortion. No young woman needing reproductive freedom has ever murdered a roomful of strangers.

These memes and quotations carry urgency and rhetorical power. But let’s take a step back. Does it really make sense to compare gun control and abortion restrictions? And what does it mean when we do?

Banner by UC Hastings College of the Law


Of course, the comparison seemed timely given recent events. Last week began with the horrific news of the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Nevada. The very next day, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on HR 36, which would ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation if a Senate version also passes and President Trump signs such a bill. The audacious bill and its timing struck many as insensitive. As Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Yamiche Alcindor wrote in the New York Times, “The contrasting action and inaction—on abortion and gun control—spotlighted the stark politics of ‘life’ in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting.”

Guns and abortions do have a shared basis in the “stark politics of ‘life.’” And they are areas of great polarization in American political culture. Yet despite these apparent similarities, gun ownership and abortion could not be more different.

Guns, the logic goes, should be regulated. But we, as a country, have failed to regulate them, even after the continuing national onslaught of mass shootings and gun-related violence; more than 100 efforts to pass gun-control measures in Congress have failed since 2011.

By contrast, state legislators enacted 288 abortion restrictions between 2011 and 2015, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Though the U.S. Supreme Court unequivocally struck down some provisions of Texas’ targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) law in 2016, at least 23 states still have such laws on the books. Seventeen states have laws in place banning abortion after 20 weeks gestation.

So, clearly, abortion and gun control are treated quite differently by our politicians. But do they deserve equal treatment? Let’s review a few basic differences between abortion rights and gun ownership:

  • Abortion is a fact of life and health care. It has always existed in every era in every culture, but frequent mass shootings are distinctive to the United States.
  • Restricting abortion does not end abortion. While some pregnant people will continue unwanted pregnancies to term, others will pursue abortion outside the medical system or travel to seek care. On the other hand, the very limited evidence on gun restrictions’ impact suggest that restrictions work to decrease both suicide and homicide. Gun violence can likely be lessened by good laws, though regulation may not end gun violence in a culture that is so married to gun ownership and oblivious to gun violence.
  • Abortion takes place (for better or for worse) within the medical system, an arena already highly regulated and held internally to strict standards of science and ethics. Gun sales occur in a variety of formal and informal settings with little oversight. 
  • Perhaps most importantly, abortion is a deeply personal and physical experience, affecting a woman’s bodily integrity. Gun owners often view the right to bear arms as key to identity and freedom, but the potential for mass violence constitutes a pressing need for regulation.

Important distinctions are flattened when we conflate these very different areas of law and life.

Furthermore, even for those who wish for fewer and less dangerous guns in circulation, would we really want our gun laws to mimic abortion laws?

Abortion restrictions are cruel, unscientific, and frequently unconstitutional even if the law has not yet recognized them as such. In the wake of restrictive abortion laws, more women have to travel long distances for abortion care. Such journeys compromise women’s privacy, threaten their financial wellness, reduce the continuity of their care, and negatively affect mental health.

And, as a recent analysis by the National Network of Abortion Funds showed, these effects are compounded for those living in poverty. Limited evidence suggests that more women may be attempting to self-induce abortions. (While self-induced abortion is far safer than it was a generation ago and may be an empowering and private experience for some, concerns about safety, freedom of choice, and legality remain.) The Turnaway Study has documented the effects of being denied a wanted abortion, which include continued exposure to intimate partner violence and diminished aspirational plans compared with women who obtain a wanted abortion.

In comparison, what are the results of legal restrictions on gun ownership? While there is less evidence here due to the dearth of gun control laws and a related lack of studies on gun violence and gun control, public health experts estimate that Connecticut’s handgun permit-to-purchase law reduced homicides in that state by 4o percent during the first ten years after it was enacted. (Following the 2012 shooting deaths of 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut expanded this law to become “the nation’s most comprehensive package of gun control legislation.”) A review of studies of various U.S. state policies similarly found that implementing firearms restrictions is linked to decreases in firearm deaths.

Taken as a whole, these studies suggest that key legislative changes can make us safer, without restricting the liberties of responsible gun owners. We have a profound opportunity—and a responsibility—to use this evidence to shape public policy. And most Americans support limiting gun sales or ownership. Let’s reject the ugly history that shaped abortion restrictions and instead craft sensitive, scientific, and constitutionally-sound gun laws.

Megan Smith / Repeal Hyde Art Project

Both gun control and abortion rights are reproductive justice issues: Everyone deserves to live, love, and parent (if they so choose), unfettered by violence. In my 13 years as a nurse, I have seen scores of patients affected by gun violence, whether in the form of physical wounds or in the form of grief at the loss of loved ones. I have also seen many patients burdened by unjust abortion restrictions—and many benefited by access to safe, compassionate, and timely care.

So, do I “want any young man who buys a gun to be treated like every young woman who wants to get an abortion” to be able to get that weapon? No, I don’t. I want him to be treated with respect and kindness, subject to just and safe laws.

And I want the same for her.

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