Abortion Doesn’t Justify Ignoring Gun Violence

Abortion's legality is not an excuse to curtail common sense gun regulation.

Posted Mar 14, 2018

Every time a mass shooting happens, Facebook and Twitter are flooded with bad arguments against common sense gun regulations (like background checks and assault rifle bans)[i]…arguments like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people, ” “it’s not the guns, it’s society,”  and “we need to put God back in school.” But there is one argument making the rounds this time that, at least to me, is new—and is especially disturbing. It suggests that abortion—the fact that it is legal and occurs—is reason, in and of itself, to do absolutely nothing about gun violence or pass common sense gun regulations.

The argument takes many forms, but the basic idea is this:

“Yeah, kids are killed with guns, but abortion kills kids too—little unborn babies. And it kills far more than guns do! But liberals don’t seem to care about that. So don’t talk to me about gun violence until we do something about abortion.”

In light of the student walkout in protest of our lack of action on gun violence, here on my logic blog I’d like to explain exactly what is wrong, logically, with this argument.  At best, it either commits the “two wrongs make a right” fallacy or a version of the ad hominem (“against the person”) fallacy called “Tu quoque” (“you too”). At worst, it begs the question by drawing a false equivalence. Let me explain each in turn.

“Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right”

The “two wrongs” fallacy occurs when one tries to excuse or ignore the immorality of one action by pointing to the immorality of another. Say, for example, a man gets pulled over for speeding. If he says that the cop shouldn’t give him a ticket because “there are much worse criminals out there,” then he has committed the “two wrongs” fallacy. Yes, there are worse criminals—murders for example—but speeding is still dangerous. There should be laws to protect us against it, and those who break those laws should be punished. The fact that others do worse things isn’t a reason to think what you did isn’t bad.

In the same way, even if we grant that abortion is equivalent to murder and should be illegal, that doesn’t make gun related deaths any less tragic or worthy of our attention. If we can do something to make them less frequent then we should, even if there are other things we should also be trying to make less frequent. 

“You too!”

One commits the “you too” fallacy (a variety of ad hominem called “tu quoque”) when one thinks that a person being a hypocrite is a reason to ignore their advice or a legitimate way to answer their moral critique. Suppose you are a chain smoker, and your doctor evaluates your lung x-rays and tells you that you need to quit smoking—and if you don’t, you’ll be dead within a year. But also suppose that you happen to know that your doctor is a chain smoker herself, who should be following her own advice but doesn’t. This makes her a hypocrite, but it does not follow from this that you don’t need to quit smoking, or that you won’t be dead in a year if you don’t. If you need to quit, then you need to quit…even if your doctor needs to quit more.

In the same way: if we again grant that abortion is tantamount to murder, liberals are hypocritical for being concerned about the death of school children, but not the deaths of unborn babies. But it does not follow from this that we should do nothing about the death of school children. Even if liberals should also be concerned about one thing (abortion), it doesn’t follow that no one should be concerned about the other (gun violence).

Of course, one might argue that “we should take care of the worse problem first.” Indeed, those that make this argument suggest that abortion is the leading cause of death in America. Now, that latter claim all depends on how you categorize causes of death; abortion might still be more frequent than instances of any specific disease, but death from disease itself is much more common.

But even if abortion is more common than, say, heart disease (which is usually classified is the #1 killer of Americans)—if we waited until we did something about abortion before we addressed any lesser problem, we’d never do anything about anything. As hard as legal gun restrictions would be to pass, legal restrictions to abortion would be even harder; pretty much every Republican politician since Roe v. Wade has vowed to ban abortion, and yet nothing has happened. We generally gauge what actions to take based on what actions we can take and how effective they will be. If simple common-sense gun regulations can be passed that will save lives while also preserving gun rights, then they should be passed—even if abortion is a much worse problem.

Begging the Question with a False Equivalence

But, of course, not everyone agrees that abortion is a much worse problem…and that brings us to the most obvious flaw of this argument: it begs the question.

"Begs the question" usually refers to the fallacy that one commits when one assumes the truth of what one is trying to prove. "Everything the Bible says is true because the the Bible says so, and everything it says is true" begs the question in this sense. The main premise of this argument, and it's conclusion, is exactly the same.

But one also begs the question when the most critical assumption one's argument makes is the most controversial and difficult to establish--in this case, the assumption that abortion is tantamount to murder and should be just as illegal as killing and adult or child. Of course that is not what the argument is trying to establish, but that assumption is needed to make the argument work--and yet that is more controversial and contested that the conclusion about gun regulation that the argument is trying to draw. While the vast majority (66%) of Americans are in favor of common sense gun regulations, only 19% of Americans think abortion should be completely illegal; 80% of Americans think it should be legal; 29% think it should be legal in any circumstance.[ii]

By begging the question in this way, one giving the abortion/gun argument we are considering also commits the fallacy of "false equivalence." One commits this fallacy when one compares two things as if they are equivalent or equal when in fact they are not. In politics, people often choose to ignore grandiose flaws in the candidate of their choice based on the fact that the other candidate has minor flaws of their own. For example, one might choose to ignore the fact that their favored candidate is guilty of tax evasion and money laundering because the other guy plagiarized part of a speech once. Yes, they both have flaws—but the flaws are not equally bad.

In the abortion/gun argument we are considering, the arguer falsely equivocates between something on which there is public agreement and that is illegal (the unwanted death of an adult or child with established legal rights) with something on which there is no agreement but that is legal (the medical termination of pregnancy at the request of the mother carrying the fetus).  

To be clear, I am not arguing that the argument doesn’t work because a child is a person but a fetus is not. As I point out in my forthcoming Great Courses course “Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy,” in my lecture on Gattica and reproductive ethics: scholars on both sides of the issue agree that fetus personhood is not something that can be established scientifically or philosophically. Indeed, perhaps ironically, scholars on both sides of the abortion debate agree that the issue of fetus personhood is completely irrelevant to the debate. Don Marquis argues that abortion is wrong even if a fetus is not a person, Judith Thomson argues that it’s morally permissible even if it is.

What I am pointing out is that, since this is a legal issue, and ultimately an argument about what legal action should be taken, the fact that abortion is legal but shooting a child is not, makes the argument that we should do nothing about guns because abortion occurs legally vacuous. This is a legal issue, about what laws would best protect what the law says should be protected. Even if you think abortion should be illegal, the fact is: it isn’t. So when it comes to abortion, a fetus does not have legal protection under the law. Since, when it comes to being shot, children and adults do have legal protections—in the legal sense, comparing children with fetuses is like comparing apples with oranges.

Or, perhaps, it’s more like comparing rape with selling alcohol. The former is illegal, the latter (like abortion) is not but used to be. Even if you think selling alcohol still should be illegal, you have to agree that the fact that selling alcohol is legal is not a compelling reason to think that we should do nothing about rising incidences of rape—even if alcohol consumption affects or kills more people each year.

An Analogy to Bring It Home

Pointing out and explaining fallacies, however, is usually not the best way to win friends and influence people—or, sadly, even the way to convince people that an argument doesn’t work. So to close, I’d like to give you an analogy you can use when you are confronted with this argument in the real world. It exposes the mistakes without naming them.

“You say that abortion kills more people than guns, and until we ban abortion we should ignore the gun problem? Others say that birth control is a bigger killer than abortion. Life begins at conception, they say, and by preventing a zygote from implanting, birth control kills far more people that abortion ever could. Do you think the fact that birth control is legal is a reason to do nothing about abortion…that we should make banning birth control our top priority, and that until we do that we shouldn’t even worry about abortion? Of course not. The fact that some people think that birth control is worse than abortion isn’t a reason to think that it is; and even if it is, since both birth control and abortion are legal, but gun violence is not, both are completely irrelevant to the legal debate about limited gun violence through legal regulations.”

I have not here, settled the gun regulation debate. I have, however, showed why a particular argument against gun regulation doesn't work. The fact that abortion is legal is completely irrelevant to the gun regulation issue...what philosophers would also call a "red herring." 

Copyright 2018, David Kyle Johnson 


[1] For well thought out list and argument for common sense regulations, see DeGrazia’s “The Case For Moderate Gun Control.” https://kiej.georgetown.edu/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/24.1.degrazia.pdf

[2] Gallop: http://news.gallup.com/poll/191834/americans-attitudes-toward-abortion-unchanged.aspx; For the number on approval of gun regulations, see Aaron Blake's article in the Washington Post, "Does Gun Control Suddenly Have Real Momentum?" https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/02/20/poll-a-record-high-number-of-americans-support-stricter-gun-laws/?utm_term=.a5c32c89894a