The Pro-Life/Pro-Gun Paradox

We’re approaching the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overruled Roe v. Wade and nullified what had been, for over 50 years, a woman’s constitutional right to abort her pregnancy in the first trimester.

Since then, Republican-dominated state legislatures across the country have been busily criminalizing abortion. Thirteen states had trigger laws in effect that banned nearly all abortions immediately upon the reversal of Roe. Another 10 states have enacted laws that either totally ban abortions or severely limit the procedure to the first six or eight weeks of pregnancy. In only about a dozen states is abortion a protected right.[1]

The resulting patchwork of state laws means that more women of reproductive age live in states that severely limit or totally ban abortion access (44%) than live where abortion is a protected right (42%).[2]

But this patchwork also reveals a stunning paradox at the heart of conservative political orthodoxy: almost without exception, the very states that ban or severely restrict abortion are those with the most aggressively pro-gun laws in the nation.

At first blush, this seems merely obvious: of all the litmus tests of cultural and political conservatism in this country, being pro-life and pro-gun head the list, even above being pro-Trump. You check both those boxes, or you’re a flagrant Republican-In-Name-Only.

But conservative Republicans also loudly proclaim that they, unlike the hedonist/nihilist/Democrat left, are value-conscious and value-driven. The universal anti-“woke” consensus among Republicans (a subject for a separate post) is ostensibly about the defense of traditional values in the face of decadent revisionism. Conservative calls to save America before it’s too late and to make it great again are appeals not just to old-school anti-government attitudes, but to traditional values that they believe are under active attack from the left.

So let’s talk values for just a minute.

For some politicians, the vehement, decades-long, and ultimately successful anti-abortion campaign was purely tactical: an effective way to galvanize an overlooked, aging voter base. But for many others, and presumably for the rank-and-file Republican voters who were thus engaged, it was and is a moral stance on a moral issue: the killing of the unborn, the subordination of nascent human life to women’s rights.

The morality of abortion is one of the most complex and nuanced questions that any thoughtful person can confront. When does a human fetus accrue enough of the attributes of personhood to entitle it to the state’s protection against the mother’s interests? From the moment of conception, when it’s a single-celled zygote, not unlike the billions of cells that we slough off daily? When it develops a heart and that heart begins to beat? When it could survive outside the womb, albeit with intensive medical assistance?

Harrowing questions. But for some who claim to be pro-life, these aren’t questions at all. Abortion is an absolute wrong to be dealt with absolutely, such that even bans on abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy (as currently in force or pending in 13 states) are considered a compromise.[3]

Hypocrisy is of course the very air in which our political discourse transpires. But it takes a special kind of moral relativism to, on one hand, enact “pro-life” legislation on absolutist moral grounds, and on the other, to pass law after law designed to insure that more and more guns, some whose only utility is to kill as many people as quickly as possible, will be in more hands in more places without requirement of training, background checks, or even full adulthood.

Yet that policy paradox is precisely what Republican-led state legislatures are pursuing.

Last year, my home state of Ohio (which is basically copying everything the Florida legislature does, and has enacted a ban on abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy) became the 23rd state to allow individuals to carry a gun – virtually any gun[4] — openly or concealed, without a license, permit, training, or background check. The Republican-dominated state legislature also expanded Ohio’s “stand your ground” law (which eliminates the obligation to attempt to retreat before using lethal force –i.e., a gun– in self-defense) to apply to any location, and not just the home. And lest any urban centers, which bear the brunt of gun violence, try to regulate guns more strictly than the state, the legislature has enacted laws banning Ohio cities from doing so.

Meanwhile, the absolute number and per-capita rate of deaths by firearms in the state of Ohio has increased in each of the last three years, increases that are mirrored in the country as a whole. In the last 10 years, deaths by firearms in the state of Ohio increased by almost 50%, and throughout the US in that same time period, by 42%, far more than can be explained by population growth, Covid lockdowns, or an exponential increase in crime. And these increases are greatest in states run by paradoxically pro-life/pro-gun Republicans.[5]

Aside from sheer, cynical hypocrisy, how can one reconcile the absolutist commitment to protect human life that is the avowed motivation for criminalizing abortion with the systematic promotion of the ownership and use of deadly weapons?

The first resort of Republican legislators challenged with this obvious contradiction is, of course, to the US Constitution. We make gun ownership and use easy, they say, because we’re commanded to do so by the Second Amendment.

Except we’re not. The current interpretation of the Second Amendment as a guarantee of an individual right to own and operate firearms is a relatively new one, promulgated by the late Antonin Scalia in the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller. Heller overruled two Supreme Court precedents, and in so doing contradicted the long-established understanding of the Second Amendment as merely preventing the Federal government from limiting the states’ ability to form militias. Ronald Reagan, patron saint of conservatives, supported gun control measures as governor of California. Even Richard Nixon, who famously waged a war on drugs, declared guns “an abomination,” and urged a ban on handguns, saying “I don’t know why any individual should have a right to have a revolver in his house.”[6]

But even if Heller had been correctly decided, why should that end the discussion if you really care about protecting life? Nothing prevented conservative pro-lifers from agitating against Roe for over fifty years, and nothing prevents them now from calling for a constitutional amendment that would repeal the Second Amendment or revise it to make it less deadly. Instead, they invoke it as though it were holy writ.

Another rationale by which the pro-life and pro-gun agendas can conceivably be reconciled is the notion that increased gun ownership means protection for the otherwise unprotected, just as criminalizing abortion protects the defenseless fetus. But this argument falls before the fact that the number of “successful” home or self-defenses with guns is vanishingly small compared with the number of lives lost to guns on an annual basis through accident, murder, and suicide.[7]

Of course, something deeper and more twisted may account for the strange marriage of pro-life and pro-gun interests. Both the Republican opposition to abortion and its embrace of unfettered gun rights can be seen as a backlash against women’s rights and civil progressivism – in historian Jill Lepore’s words, “a rights fight for white men.”

Then there’s the elevation of the fetus to the status of sainthood, the unmentioned but powerful emotional distinction between the innocent unborn, whom we must protect at all costs, and the inevitably corrupted adult, who is perhaps not wholly undeserving of having her rights abrogated or his life ended by a gunshot on some dark night when someone feels threatened.

It’s possible, of course, to legislate limits on both abortion and gun ownership in ways that would be intellectually and morally consistent. Ban abortions in the third trimester, heavily regulate its availability in the second, but allow it in the first (essentially the approach in Roe).  Make gun ownership a privilege, not a right, perhaps no more difficult than obtaining a license to drive a car or operate a beauty salon, but with requirements of training, background checks, and strict limits on the types of firearms that can be owned and where they can be carried and used. Reasonably protect viable life in the womb, and reasonably protect fully human life as it’s lived on the streets of our country.

In the end, there is no reconciling the absolutist pro-life and pro-gun agendas of the modern Republican party. But it’s just barely possible that the scale and cynicism of this hypocrisy will prove too much even for an American electorate that may have grown accustomed to the nonsensical, but is not completely blind to it.


[1] Source: Wall St. Journal, “Where Abortion is Legal” (May 31, 2023).

[2] Ibid.

[3] It’s worth remembering that, contrary to how it’s frequently described, Roe v. Wade limited the unfettered constitutional right to an abortion to the first trimester of pregnancy, only half again as long as the state laws that allow it during the first six weeks.

[4] The only exceptions are “military” weapons, “automatic” firearms, a firearm whose serial number has been removed, and sawed-off shotguns. Source: David Yost, Ohio Attorney General, “Ohio’s Concealed Carry Laws” (June 2022).

[5] Source: Centers for Disease and Prevention. See in particular this map.

[6] J. Lepore, These Truths (2018).

[7] Source: Harvard School of Public Health.

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