Abortion and capital punishment: a modest proposal

There’s a funny thing about most pro-abortion criticisms of pro-lifers: usually they reveal more about the challenger than the challenged.

Take, for example, the old canard about pro-lifers supporting the death penalty. Upon positing that unborn babies don’t deserve to be killed, we are frequently condemned as hypocrites for (allegedly) turning a blind eye to the state-sanctioned killing of another group of people.

Putting aside the minor detail that they often don’t bother to check whether the pro-lifer in question actually does support capital punishment, the comparison fails every major substantive comparison, other than both acts involving killing. To equate the purposes or the characteristics of either is like equating a Radio Flyer with the Mars rover.

Abortion kills an innocent child; capital punishment kills someone convicted of an unthinkable crime. Abortion can be done for virtually any reason; capital punishment is, well, punishment, meant to deter the worst offenses. Abortion is left entirely to the choice of one woman, with no representation of any kind for the baby’s interests (even non-binding informational requirements are too much to ask of the average abortion defender); capital punishment is carried out only after an investigation, a trial with a constitutionally guaranteed legal defense, conviction by a jury of one’s peers, sentencing, and a lengthy appeal process.

For those still unconvinced, Kristen Walker Hatten and Christina Martin have tackled the differences in far greater depth. None of this necessarily means that supporting capital punishment is correct, of course – I personally have mixed feelings about it and am content to leave the policy’s fate to those more passionate on the subject. But it clearly doesn’t contradict opposing abortion. The double-standard charge is an absurdity that all pro-lifers – and all lovers of logic generally – should abhor.

Fortunately, what it lacks in logical force, it more than makes up for in psychological illumination. Back up and re-read the comparisons between abortion and capital punishment. Seeing the two as equal is bad enough, but who can possibly see abortion as the lesser wrong? What kind of mind thinks the unilateral decision to abort is fairer than the criminal justice system (however imperfect the latter may be)? In what universe does a brand-new life full of potential to enrich our world have less value than a life defined by destroying and degrading others? Why wouldn’t whether someone has done something be an obvious factor in determining the relative merit of killing him or her?

How twisted must one’s soul be to have more sympathy for a hardened murderer than for an innocent child?

The implications are troubling, to say the least. But such priorities are exactly what we’d expect from those who are defending an interest, rather than any genuine principle of nonviolence or regard for the dignity of human life.

Consider the abortion crowd’s reaction to a simple deal: we give them a ban on the death penalty in exchange for a ban on elective abortion (we’ll set aside the so-called hard cases for now to simplify matters). I – and, I suspect, the overwhelming majority of pro-life Americans – would gladly accept that trade.

But would our anti-death penalty critics? Somehow, I doubt it. If not, that means a more consistent refusal to take human life isn’t what they’re going for after all (which we already knew), and their sympathy for death row inmates doesn’t run deep enough to outweigh their desire to retain the ability to kill their offspring. Sorry to all those wrongfully condemned victims we keep hearing so much about. Them’s the breaks.

But wait, you say, it’s not fair to make us choose both or neither. The right to choose involves different factors and considerations that make protecting it more important than abolishing capital punishment. We have to judge both policies separately on their unique merits.


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