In a decision handed down on Monday that prevents Alabama from enacting a harsh anti-abortion law, a federal judge compared the right to end a pregnancy to the right to purchase a firearm. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson spent four paragraphs detailing the parallels between the two policies, which are typically championed by people at opposite ends of the political spectrum. It’s a thought experiment that only works if you consider the current landscape of legislation related to each constitutionally protected right.
If Alabama were allowed to implement its law requiring abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges, several of the state’s clinics would likely be forced to close — leaving residents with just two cities in which to exercise their reproductive rights, a serious geographical constraint. The judge pointed out that it’s useful to think about reproductive rights in the context of the Second Amendment — since a policy limiting firearm sales to just two cities probably wouldn’t be very popular among gun enthusiasts.
“Neither right can be fully exercised without the assistance of someone else,” Thompson wrote. “The right to abortion cannot be exercised without a medical professional, and the right to keep and bear arms means little if there is no one from whom to acquire the handgun or ammunition. In the context of both rights, the Supreme Court recognizes that some regulation of the protected activity is appropriate, but that other regulation may tread too heavily on the right.”
Comparing abortion to gun rights perhaps isn’t particularly palatable for firm supporters of the Second Amendment, who tend to be more politically conservative. It could also put more liberal Americans in a tough spot, if they’re left arguing it’s necessary to tighten state-level regulations on guns but not on abortions. But it’s important to remember that restrictions on those two controversial rights aren’t starting out in the same place. Although Americans’ ability to get a gun or an abortion does, to a certain extent, depend on their zip code, the legislative trends are moving in opposite directions.
A wave of state legislation over the past several years has imposed a record-breaking number of restrictions on abortion. Between 2011 and 2013, states enacted more anti-abortion laws than during the entire previous decade, particularly limiting abortion access for the estimated 9 million women of reproductive age who live in the South. The middle ground on the issue has continued to shrink, and the Guttmacher Institute now rates most states in the country as “hostile” to reproductive rights.
On the other hand, over the past year, it’s gotten easier to carry a firearm. Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that put issues of gun violence back into the national conversation, nearly every state has enacted a new gun law — but the majority of those new laws loosened gun restrictions. The sluggish trend holds true on a national level, too, where serious reform is becoming highly unlikely. Since the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, Congress has passed just one major law that tightens regulations on firearms. There are more waiting periods to get an abortion than there are to get a gun; in fact, in some states, it’s arguably easier to buy a deadly weapon than it is to get food stamps or a marriage license.
When the Supreme Court has been asked to consider gun rights and abortion rights, the same divergence has emerged. In 1992, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey effectively narrowed abortion access by allowing states to impose multiple barriers — like waiting periods, mandatory counseling sessions, forced ultrasounds, and harsh clinic regulations — to the medical procedure. In fact, thanks to Casey, abortion is no longer treated like a “fundamental right.” Meanwhile, in 2008, the nation’s highest court broadly upheld the right to keep guns in the home for self-defense, something that gun supporters hailed as a “a landmark victory for Second Amendment freedom.”
There are also significant gender and racial disparities between the two issues. While abortion is typically framed as an issue of women’s reproductive health, gun rights have largely remained a man’s issue. An estimated one in three U.S. women has an abortion before the age of 45, but just one in ten women own guns — making them about five times less likely than men to purchase a firearm — and nearly 60 percent of women support stricter gun control laws. Plus, while gun owners are significantly more likely to be white, the people who have abortions are significantly more likely to be women of color.
Thanks to Judge Thompson, reproductive rights supporters gained a legislative victory in Alabama this week. But if we hold up abortion rights and gun rights in serious contrast, it’s not hard to see whose rights are really winning.