Drawing False Moral Equivalence in “Rights” Politics
The irony of our culture is that when it comes to abortion and guns, the exact same political tribes simply change places and shout “Dead children!” “My liberties!” at each other. That’s insane. Both tribes, when riding their particular hobby horses, prioritize “My liberties” over dead children. Me: I think dead children (and all other dead innocents) always take priority over my liberties. – Mark Shea
I saw this cute bit of rhetoric posted on Facebook recently. The author, Mark Shea, is a popular Roman Catholic blogger. This comment is out of step, however, with the teachings of his own church, with the general moral traditions of Christian history and even with basic logic.
We have to be quite clear on these things, because this kind of rhetorical parity can be seductive to those who may not consider such things more deeply than is permitted by the political caricatures of these tribes. There is no moral equivalence between arguing for the right to bear arms and arguing for the right to kill unborn children. Only one side is actually arguing for the right to commit murder. The other side is not remotely arguing for that. On the contrary, gun rights folks actually make the claim that responsible gun ownership helps to save lives.
The right to bear arms is a constitutional right in the United States enshrined in the Second Amendment. It is not explicitly found in the Christian tradition, though there really is nothing within it that would contradict self-defense, target shooting or hunting, which are all legitimate uses of weapons in the Anglo-American legal tradition. There is of course a respectable tradition of pacifism within historic Christianity, but we also see plenty of saints, both within Scripture and afterward, using physical force and even weapons to protect themselves and others. One can be a faithful Christian and be a pacifist or not.
It may be debatable whether the right to bear arms is inherently dangerous. Shea assumes that it is, that insisting on the liberty of gun ownership will necessarily lead to dead children. But the reality is that only a tiny percentage of people who bear arms kill people with them, and there is no direct causative connection between legal gun ownership and dead children.
But abortion kills people every single time. Abortion necessarily leads to dead children (except in those few miraculous cases where the child survives the procedure but isn’t left for dead). And it kills a whole lot more people, too. There were about 9,146 gun homicides in the US in all of 2010. Abortion kills that many in less than three days (averaging at least 3,300 per day in 2008).
Responsible gun ownership is the overwhelming norm. Responsible abortion is an oxymoron. Are these things really comparable?
I’m not arguing the political point here—I do have opinions on this, of course, but those are really not what this weblog is about. (Comments about the political side of all this won’t be published.) But there is a moral theological assertion here, and claiming that Liberties vs. Children applies both for the abortion rights crowd and the gun rights crowd is probably the sloppiest piece of reasoning I’ve yet seen on all this.
The only way that one can oppose liberty to children’s lives on both sides is if both sides are actually arguing for the right to kill children. Both aren’t. Only one is.
The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar Press, 2011), and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.