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.


  1. Since you chose to argue the logic in anothers’ argument, I will challenge the logic in your own as well. You make the issue about the ‘right to bear arms’ which is not the focus of the current debate.

    People who support gun control are not usually suggesting a ban on gun ownership. Usually they agree that having a few guns for defending the home, hunting or target shooting is reasonable. What they are arguing against is the all-or-none approach. Either we can have any gun at any time for anyone for any purpose or else someone is trying to take all the guns. Most gun control advocates that I have heard speaking (both in general conversation and on media interviews) are suggesting that perhaps a reasonable person who wants to shoot at targets or animals or home invaders does not need semi-automatic assault weapons.

    1. That’s not the point here. Even if what was being argued was the right privately to own artillery and F-16s, owning and using such things does not necessarily result in dead children. Abortion always does. Always.

      (This will be the only comment I will publish on this issue of “assault weapons.” I’m publishing it here along with my response to make the point that this post isn’t about weapon type. That doesn’t particularly matter for the point about false moral equivalence.)

    2. Most do not understand the definition of semi-automatic. Nearly ALL of the guns we use to day to hunt, protect the home, and target practice ARE semi-automatic in the true sense of the word (a shot is fired; ammunition is automatically re-loaded). Advocates for stricter gun control laws usually do not make the distinction between the machine guns used in war (and crimes) and the generally used semi-automatics that are locked up in our gun vaults and hunting cases. Both kinds can be considered assault rifles (or for assault prevention, depending on your perspective).

  2. I have noticed recently that far too many lofty rhetorical assertions rely on begged questions. In fact, too often, the more rhetorical weight the assertion carries, the less logically tenable it is.

    I’m not sure why that is (I’m sure it is an older problem than my recent observations of it would suggest), but it makes me sad. People just don’t seem to think through the logical implications of their words before they fling them out at other people like bludgeons. Thank you for taking the time to note the fallacy in this particular argument.

  3. Excellent point & well said FrAndrew. To argue or imply that a: “Right to Bear Arms” = “Right to kill unborn children” is patently absurd. Indeed, the moral reasoning of the former could possibly arise from a desire to oppose the right of the latter, no? Mr. Shea is usually more careful than this sloppiness.

  4. Very thoughtful and well-written Fr. Andrew. Your dad sent this article to me, and I have re-posted on my Facebook page. Thank you.

  5. Fr. Andrew,
    Thanks for the post. As a police officer I am faced with the “gun issue” on a daily basis and as a Christian I see the abortion issue on a daily basis.

    I would suggest the overlap of opinions in these two matters is the lack of faith.

    The secular side of society has totally lost its mind by not accepting the fact the unborn child is a human being at the moment of conception. Due to this lack of understanding they do not treasure the life that is being taken, during an abortion. The secular side of society does however see the children, who have been killed, as human beings.

    I would think this somehow mirrors their inability to live by faith, as they cannot fathom the unseen, but will take a stand for what they can actually see.

    I think this will further perpetuate the problems in the end days as so many people do not believe in God because they “see” no physical evidence (no faith), but during end times they will “see” things happen and be easily lead to follow that person.

  6. Isn’t the point that my liberty must submit to my responsiblity to the ‘other’ in both instances. He is suggesting that both sides are approaching from the opposite direction and saying my liberty is more important than my responsiblity to the ‘other’?
    However, I see what you are saying about how the two examples are not equal.

    1. This is precisely the point, though—it is not established that an insistence on liberty in terms of owning firearms necessarily leads to the death of children. Indeed, violent crime (including gun crime, and yes, including school shootings) has been steadily going down for over 20 years, even while the number of guns in America has been going up (source).

      But it is most assuredly established that kids die when people have abortions. Indeed, it’s not that there’s a risk that they might die if people have abortions. It’s that abortion is actually the killing of kids. Kids die every single time.

      (Remember, we are speaking here from within a Christian framework, which is what Shea is using.)

  7. Excellent article thank you. It can often be quite easy to get caught up in a wise sounding argument without stopping to really analyze it.
    A question (hopefully not to far off topic): would you say there is a moral equivalency between abortion and killing a 3 yr old at a playground or a 7 yr old at an elementary school?
    I ask because while most Christians would say abortion is “murder” (myself included), I think on a practical level we treat it differently than the latter examples of murder in my question above. Should we?

      1. For example if someone were holed up at a daycare center across the street systematically shooting children and the authorities weren’t doing anything about it how would/should we (or more specifically I) respond? Would we think, pray and act differently? Should our response be the same with regards to abortion?
        This is just something I’ve been wrestling with lately.
        Probably 99% of Christians would never support the idea of violence against those who perform abortions (and I would agree). But consider a situation like the Newtown shootings. If an armed private citizen had intervened and stopped the shooter he’d be lauded as a hero. So there does seem to be a difference?

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