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Guns and abortion: two rights, one Constitution, judge says

A decade ago, US District Court Judge Myron Thompson ’69, ’72JD, gave a Yale Law School lecture on “Judging in Alabama: Deciding the Tough Cases.” Back then, Thompson was best-known for ruling that a Ten Commandments monument at the Alabama Supreme Court violated the separation of church and state.

Now Thompson has another tough case under his belt: Planned Parenthood Southeast v. Strange, in which the Yale-educated judge struck down a law requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

The August 4 decision is getting attention not only for its result—which Alabama’s governor says he will appeal—but also for the way Thompson compares abortion rights with gun rights.

“At its core,” he writes, “each protected right is held by the individual: the right to decide to have an abortion and the right to have and use firearms for self-defense.”

Noting that three of Alabama’s five abortion clinics would have to close if the admitting-privilege law were enforced, the judge continues:

[S]uppose the government were to implement a new restriction on who may sell firearms and ammunition, and further, only two vendors in the State of Alabama were capable of complying with the restriction. The defenders of this law would be called upon to do a heck of a lot of explaining—and rightly so in the face of an effect so severe.

Appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Thompson spent 33 years as a federal trial judge before taking senior status last year. Other controversial cases to pass through his courtroom involved voting rights, school segregation, and anti-gay discrimination. Alabama born and raised, Thompson was the state’s first African American employee “who was not a janitor or a teacher,” Wikipedia says (without providing a citation).

Linda Greenhouse ’78MSL, a lecturer and journalist in residence at Yale Law, hails last week’s decision as a “forceful” response to the notion that “there are constitutional rights and then there is abortion.” Thompson’s “delicious” analogy between the right to bear arms and the right not to bear a child is “a pairing no previous judicial opinion has made,” Greenhouse writes in a New York Times op-ed.

Los Angeles Times columnist applauds the ruling as “firmly grounded . . . in the real world,” where “desperate women unable to afford a 150-mile trip to a clinic, would turn to unregulated, illegal Internet sales of abortion-inducing medications.”

A pro-life activist, by contrast, deems it “bizarre” and “a radical expansion of Roe v. Wade” to conclude that “somehow, the US Constitution guarantees not only some kind of right to abortion, but a right to abortion close by to your house.”

Admitting-privilege laws like the one Thompson struck down are "The Next Abortion Battle," a Kaiser Health News analysis says, citing similar cases in Mississippi, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Perhaps the most intriguing commentary comes from Mike Weisser, an NRA life member who blogs under the name Mike the Gun Guy.

“[E]ven though Judge Thompson was educated at Yale, he's Crimson Tide through and through,” Weisser writes. “Abortion might not be a popular issue in an evangelical state, but when explained as a parallel to the 2nd Amendment, all those God-fearing, Bible-thumpin’ gun owners may just agree that what works for one side should work for the other.”

That’s a two-way street, Weisser continues: “The last few pages of Judge Taylor's decision should be required reading for Brady, the NRA and all the advocates for or against guns. Sometimes people who face off on opposite sides of an issue may have more in common than they think.”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Myron Thompson, abortion, guns, Yale Law School
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