Adam Lanza and Kermit Gosnell each recently became infamous for his gruesome, violent crimes. Lanza's shooting spree in Connecticut left 27 dead, and the graphic testimony of Gosnell's trial revealed horrific practices at his Pennsylvania abortion clinic. Unfortunately, each man's actions have been generalized to the point that they represent the entirety of a political movement. Liberals have seized on Lanza to push for gun control, and conservatives decry Gosnell as further evidence abortion should be restricted. But the fundamental right to arm and defend ourselves is no less important than the fundamental right to the control of our own bodies. Lanza abused the former, Gosnell abused the latter. Why do we think of them so differently?
Opponents of abortion rights will tell you that Gosnell's is the most horrific abortion story ever told. What many pro-lifers won't tell you is that pro-choicers are just as disgusted by Gosnell's actions. "Safe, legal, and rare" is still a rallying cry for many of us. No one, regardless of their political persuasion, wants to see more abortions. But the intensity of the abortion debate leads us to obscure this basic concept of respect. The culture wars have led us to demonize our ideological opponents; the "pro-life" moniker implies pro-choicers are "anti-life." To use Gosnell as a stand-in for the entire pro-choice movement is similarly mendacious.
This tendency to use one prominent example to generalize an entire group is found on both sides of the political spectrum. Proponents of stricter gun control measures thought Newtown was finally the shooting they'd been waiting for (though the same could be said of Aurora or Tucson). The target was soft, the victims were incredibly young, and the rampage happened extremely quickly. Newtown and its victims became the rallying cry of gun control advocates everywhere. By using Newtown to direct the national debate, gun-control advocates attempted to pass new gun regulations on a wave of popular sentiment. But in doing so, they began to paint gun-rights activists as either Lanza supporters or as indifferent to the suffering at Sandy Hook. Lanza was increasingly used to represent the gun rights movement as a whole.
To put it simply: Pro-choicers detest Gosnell just as strongly as gun-rights proponents abhor Lanza. Both men showed total disregard for human life. And to use either to represent an entire movement is patently absurd.
Where are we going wrong? Our errors spring from our tendency to focus on the very worst outcome we can imagine. Instead of writing laws to govern a large population of responsible citizens, we try to make policy that assumes every doctor is Gosnell, and every gun owner is Lanza. But this kind of thinking is not rational in the least; guns and abortion are just two liberties we could abuse. A modern conception of freedom includes thousands — if not millions — of specific liberties we could infringe upon in the name of some sort of "safety," but that doesn't mean we should. In other words, no matter the freedom in question, there will be someone who will find a way to abuse it. But that doesn't mean we should eliminate that right for everyone else.
Instead, we need to focus on preventing individuals from reaching the point where they want to abuse those rights. Mental health treatment might have done wonders for Lanza, though we'll likely never know. And strong sex education, widespread access to health care, and funded, well-regulated family planning services help women everywhere safely manage their reproductive health. These are terrific starts, though they won't prevent every Lanza or every Gosnell. But they are far better options than taking away those rights for everybody.
Both guns and abortion are facts of an imperfect world — one in which our moral convictions must find a balance with our individual freedoms. Just as we should refrain from using Lanza's rampage as the trump card in the gun rights debate, we should not use Gosnell's brutality to describe the pro-choice movement. Both are cases of horrible abuse, but neither case is a fair representation of the exercise of the right by the country as a whole. Instead of treating every gun owner as Lanza and every abortion doctor as Gosnell, we need to realize these two for what they are: exceptions, monsters, and straw men.