Death Penalty = Abortion?
Posted on 02. Jul, 2007 by The Gimcracker in Theory & Philosophy
I am no politician and I never will be. I have no idea what the political ramifications are of stating that the death penalty equals abortion. I am coming from a Christian conservative background, but being non-political means you can pretty much remove the “conservative” and say I’m simply coming from a Christian background. I know that being Christian implies a certain level of conservativeness, but I’m trying to remove any elements of politics here, if you can’t tell.
I came across this pro-death penalty quote on prodeathpenalty.com (go figure):
“If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.”
John McAdams – Marquette University/Department of Political Science, on deterrence
Well, John, I don’t know who you are (well actually I guess I do since it says next to your name), but I don’t agree with you at all. This, to me, IS a tough call, and the amount of disagreement on the subject is proof. Instead of convincing people that capital punishment is right or wrong, I’m going to compare it with another subject that is likely opposed by a lot of people in favor the death penalty: abortion.
Let’s take both subjects to the extreme, because if you look at something in the most extreme example and make a statement about it, you can apply your findings to all the other examples under the umbrella of the subject at hand.
I’ll start by taking an extreme example of the death penalty, and I’ll use John’s quote since he does it for me. He gives two contrasting examples and wants the reader to understand two things: 1) The topic is completely black and white, and 2) The first example is clearly the correct one. I agree with the black and white since I’m a Christian and I believe in an ultimate good and evil. However, I don’t believe the first example is the correct one. I don’t even believe the two examples he gives represent the two lines of thinking.
If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers.
In this statement we are extinguishing a human life and then waiting to see what the result is. First we act, and then we wait for a reaction.
If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims.
In this statement we are observing a human life become extinguished and then reacting accordingly. First they act, and then we react. Or, to put it another way, first they act, and then they wait for a reaction. In a Christian point of view, the latter example is a much less perilous one, since it puts you in a state of reaction thus removing a lot of potential for guilt and sin. Basically it causes you to put the fate of human lives in someone else’s hands (God’s) and clears you from having made a grave mistake. This is not to be confused with taking no action in order to avoid sinning, because that is a sin itself. Rather, taking someone’s life and salvation into your own hands is not something that we’re supposed to do.
I wanted to take an extreme example of this. Let’s say that we did a study with two control groups. Group A represents John’s first statement in which we killed all the murderers (the pro-death penalty statement). Group B represents John’s second statement in which we did not kill any murderers (the anti-death penalty statement). Let’s say that in Group A no one was deterred from murdering by the death penalty, and let’s say in Group B there were no murders. What does this leave us with? Simple: Group A contains murdered people and Group B does not. The very possibility of this suggests that John’s principle philosophy is not as simple as he claims.
In an effort to avoid focusing on convincing you whether the death penalty is right or wrong, I’ll continue as I said I would by simply comparing these foundational observances with those of abortion.
Let me make some blanket statements about abortion in order to be able to talk about it in relation to capital punishment. If you disagree with these statements, then the comparison probably will not work for you.
- Christians oppose abortion because it involves extinguishing a human life
- Pro-choice advocates believe it is the mother’s right to choose whether she keeps her child or has an abortion
- Christians believe that life begins at conception
- Pro-choice advocates believe that life begins sometime after (or including) conception and sometime before (or including) birth.
- Christians and pro-choice advocates agree that someone definitely is not alive before conception and someone definitely is alive after birth.
If you’re offended that I made any of these observances about you as a Christian or a pro-choice advocate, suck it up and keep reading and remember that there’s always an exception (however petty) to any rule, and most of us really don’t care about your exception as it causes logic to go out the window in discussions like this, thus making them pointless.
Now that we’ve established that, let’s take an extreme example of abortion and try to figure out why Christians still think it’s wrong. Let’s say a mother is going to have a child but it is known beforehand that the birth will kill the mother and the child. If the mother has an abortion she will live, but if she does not she and her child will both die. The first time I heard this example, I’ll admit, it had me a little confused. I started to question if the abortion would be OK just for this example.
The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that it’s the same issue with capital punishment. If the mother has the abortion, she is doing the same thing as John’s first example above. I’ll retrofit John’s statement to reflect the topic of abortion instead of the death penalty:
If we execute
murderersan unborn child and there is in fact no deterrent effectdeath for the mother, we have killed a bunch of murderersan unborn child.
In this statement we are extinguishing a human life and then waiting to see what the result is. First we act, and then we wait for a reaction.
If we fail to
execute murderersabort an unborn child, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murderssaved the mother’s life, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victimsdeath of a mother and a child.
In this statement we are observing a human life become extinguished and then reacting accordingly. Only there is no reacting when the culprit is mother nature instead of a murderer. Does that change what we should do in the first place?
As you can see, the same principles are reflected in abortion. What if we left it up to God and the mother and child both miraculously lived? Medical miracles such as this have been documented countless times in the past, I’m sure of it.
The point is, you can’t help but notice that the verbiage is different in the two examples. Notice the first example for both the death penalty and abortion contains the word “killed”. This implies action on our part, thus taking life into our own hands. Notice the second example for both the death penalty and abortion contains the words “allowed the death of”. This implies no action on our part, thus putting the life into God’s hands. There is a very fine but significant line between the two.
Death Penalty = Abortion
Here’s where we get down to it. Like I said, I’m not trying to convince anyone that either the death penalty or abortion is right or wrong. What I’m trying to do is get people to open up their minds and starting thinking more consistently about different subjects that they think they are supposed to agree with or disagree with simply because they’re a Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal, Christian, or non-Christian. I want people to apply their reasons for belief about one thing, like abortion, to another thing, like capital punishment. Even though they’re two completely different topics politically or whatever, both involve taking a human life into your own hands and setting yourself up for moral disaster.
If you still disagree with abortion even after the extreme example of the mother and child, but you are still for the death penalty even after the extreme example with the two control groups, I wonder if you are really applying the same moral principles to both topics. I don’t care about all the peripheral politics about prison overcrowding or whatever, I’m simply talking about morals: your view of right and wrong.
Just because you’re affiliated with a certain group of people doesn’t mean they can tell you every single opinion you should have. I’m Orthodox, but I don’t just blindly have the same opinions as my bishop, nor does he expect me to. I’m not going to be excommunicated if I choose to eat breakfast before church on Sunday mornings and think it’s right to do so.
Actually, with the whole abortion thing. If you are giving birth, and the doctor says “there is no way we can save this baby, and if we don’t get it out the mother is going to die” I would say, “crap… well, let’s not kill two people today, get the baby out of there”.
Now, I’m not really sure why this would happen since we have C-sections and all that now, but I sure as hell know that I’m not going to say, “No doc, let’s just wait and see what happens…”.
Let’s take your scenario and apply it to something else:
If we shoot down a plane we think is headed towards the world trade center and there was not going to be a crash into the wtc, we have killed about 300 people.
If we fail to shoot down a plane we think is headed towards the wtc, and doing so would in fact have saved 20,000 people, we have allowed the killing of 20,000 people.
I say shoot down the darn plane.
I guess this makes me a murderer.
So, I still believe in the death penalty. I actually think it is WORSE to keep someone rotting in jail than to give them a swift execution. Especially if you read the book “the innocent man” it illustrates perfectly what jail does to people (especially innocent people).
Now, would I rather hard core criminals be rehabilitated than killed? Yes. Would I rather a murderer be killed or “fixed”? Fixed. Do I think it can always (or even often) happen? Absolutely not.
The problem is that we live in a fallen world, and there is no good solution for what to do to someone who has decided that human life is less important than the drugs/money/whatever they are killing over.
In war, you have to kill. If you take the entire other army (or even 75% of it) prisoner, what the heck are you going to do with them? Eventually you have to let them go, and then they will just invade you again. We are at war with criminals, and we can’t just let them all go. It is cruel to put them in jail forever. The only merciful thing to do (for us and them) is to kill them (or at least a lot of them).
Now, if there were nothing after this life, and this were it… well I guess I might re-evaluate my opinion (actually, I would just kill all murderers and even some non-murderers because they are ruining the only life the good people will ever get). But since this is just a prelude, I don’t see anything wrong with moving them along to the next part of the story.
Also, why let the murderers decide who lives and dies? If you don’t stop the murderers (i.e. either lock them up forever, or execute them) then you are giving your decision to them (not God, God doesn’t even make these decisions in normal every day circumstances. That’s what free will is all about).
All of this I have said, I am sure, is un-Orthodox.
Thanks for the comments. I want to reiterate my original point. I’m just observing the similarities between the death penalty and abortion. I’m not saying one is wrong and the other is right, I just want to know how people can agree with one but not the other. I still haven’t had anyone come close to answering that question for me.
I’ll go ahead and clear a few specific things up that you have touched on in your comments, as well as ask some clarification questions.
That’s not an abortion. That’s a mother giving her life for a child, the opposite of an abortion, and not my example. My example was either they both die, or just the baby dies, in which case the one person that would have say in it, the baby, can’t give his opinion. If it was the mother who had the say, then it would be a whole different story. Instead, an abortion is giving the say to the mother, striping it away from the baby, and letting her play God.
Your example about a plane has to do with an event that is taking place at a certain time, and someone reacting to it by defending others. Shooting down a plane that is in the process of killing thousands of people does not fall in line with my quote:
We aren’t acting first, they are. I don’t believe we would be shooting down that plane to “punish” the terrorists on board. We would be shooting it down to save the lives of the people the terrorists were going to kill, thus reacting to their first action. In the case of someone on death row, their original action was a long time ago and we reacted by putting them in jail. They are now in jail and people are safe from them, so putting them to death would be a seperate set of events, one in which we would be acting first and playing God.
Mentally insane people or very sick people who murder just for fun should be locked up for life in order to save innocent people’s lives. Jail is an alternative to putting them to death. There is no alternative to shooting down that plane.
I am not talking about war. In war people don’t “murder” people, they are commanded to defend their country, and in doing so sometimes are commanded to kill for their country. If I really had to equivocate it to a violation of the law, I would say it’s more manslaughter than murder, although even doing that is stepping across a line that I don’t want to cross.
When referring to war you are referring to the will of a government, a non-human entity, as opposed to when you are referring to someone on death row, a human being who comitted a crime. I believe the topic of war to be beyond the scope of this post.
Who is to decide who moves who along to the next part of the story? How is that not playing God? Does the Bible state that we can kill people if they break a certain law?
We don’t, that’s why they’re in jail.
There is no “giving the decision to someone else” if it was not your decision to make in the first place. God gave you the decision, so you should give it back to Him. You’re not the one that started out with the decision to make.
It is either your decision or not your decision, there is no other way to say it. You are responsible for your own actions, not someone else’s.
You’re absolutely right, but does that mean we can kill the killers just because there’s no good solution? And what about jail as a solution? I still don’t see how that makes capital punishment right.
Why do you think it is worse to keep someone alive than to kill them? Do you know what it’s like to live in jail your whole life? Do you know what it’s like to be put to death? Do you know what happens to that person after they are put to death? How can you make this distinction?
If it’s possible, why not strive for it? Sure it may be a daunting task, but the death penalty seems like a cop out.
Again I state that I am not looking for answers to all of these questions, and I’m not really even arguing your points (except to play Devil’s advocate), I’m just observing the similarities between the death penalty and abortion. I’m not saying one is wrong and the other is right, as that is not the point of my post.
I personally believe that all human life is sacred. This does not exclude convicts, as they obviously fall under “all human life”. This means I believe it is wrong to kill babies and killers alike, so I am against abortions and capital punishment.
However, if you disagree with me and think that we can take matters into our own hands, even if it’s just in the extreme examples I gave, then I’m not arguing with you. I just hope you apply it to both topics, not just one or the other.
Don’t have time to address everything, just wanted to clarify two things. You misunderstood what I was saying with the mother baby thing when you said:
“That’s not an abortion. That’s a mother giving her life for a child”
I was saying kill the baby, save the mother. I thought that was the scenario we were talking about here. If the baby and mother will both die the natural way, or if we abort the baby then the mother will live, then just kill the baby. Now if you are saying I have to choose which one lives… I love my wife.
And then when you said:
“Does the Bible state that we can kill people if they break a certain law?”
Absolutely. Granted it’s all old testament, but still the new testament is all “though shall” instead of “though shall not” so of course it doesn’t say anything about that.
So, does that mean that you think it’s right to sacrifice live animals to God?
Two somewhat related points worth offering here:
1) Abortion differs from capital punishment in that the former kills an innocent person while the latter kills a guilty person. They are categorically different for this reason.
2) No one has the moral obligation to surrender their life for another person. It may be virtuous to do so, but it is not obligatory. And, generally, it is not a matter of giving one life for another; it is all or nothing. Even if it were, the mother does not have any more intrinsic value than the infant, but she has more instrumental value (she has established relationships and responsibilities in the world), which makes her life to be preferred. Pro-life philosophers (Christian or otherwise) normally take the position that abortion is wrong in all cases (including rape & incest) unless the mother’s life is at stake. Fortunately, there are very few situations where this proves to be the case.
I believe that you can make an argument that everything is “categorically” different from something else, but it really only takes effect if the “category” in question is relevant to the point at hand. So, since I’m speaking purely in terms of a human life (no one in particular), be it guilty or innocent, male or female, conscious or unconscious, the two appear to be categorically the same.
There is either (human) life or non-(human) life, and a lot of attempts to define the value of either are done incorrectly, I believe, and without “permission” from God.
You can be sure that if I were speaking in any other terms than generalities, such as politics, ethics, religion, etc. you could argue that they are much different, maybe not even comparable.
I guess I’m attempting to lay down some grassroots theories from which to build upon for my own sake. I definitely see where you’re coming from.
I don’t believe God prefers anyone’s life over another, that we all hold the same value in his eyes, be it intrinsic, instrumental, or other. However, I see where you’re coming from, since we are not God, and sometimes we have to make decisions that may have been chosen from the lesser of two evils. In such cases, evaluating instrumental values may be necessary. Is that what you are referring to?
I would like to note that even in such cases I believe it is dangerous to make assumptions. What about potential value? That’s impossible to evaluate, I know, but it just tells me that there may be things that we’re missing when we start making life and death decisions.
Yes, there is always some category that is different for any two given situations, but for the sake of moral or philosophical comparisons there is generally some particular point of focus where parity must be maintained. And often the answer is to be found in the making of distinctions. For instance, if you ask the question of whether “killing” is bad, then you will not get very far until you start answering questions like: Killing what, and killing under what conditions?
In the issue of abortion there are many distinctions to be made between this and other types of “killing.” For instance, you must first be able to say that the fetus is a “person” just like a criminal in order to have any hope of parity. Next you must be able to say whether motives and moral concerns are relevant. This would put offensive vs. defensive killing into different categories, as well as putting abortion (killing the innocent) and capital punishment (killing the guilty) into different categories. You can then debate over the distinctions vs. debating on particular cases within those distinctions. For instance, you could agree that the guilty are fair game for execution in God’s economy but then debate over whether our current system of capital punishment is a judicious way to put that into practice or whether this is even our responsibility this side of the new covenant.
I would say that issues like abortion, eugenics, and euthanasia are more categorically similar, and indeed they are argued on similar grounds and were found to follow each other heal-to-toe in Nazi Germany (and very nearly here in the States thanks to those like Margaret Sanger).
Regarding the issue of danger to the mother’s life, as I said there are few cases these days where that actually is the concern, especially now that we can do safe C-sections and put an infant on life-support at a very early stage. However, there are cases like ectopic pregnancies where something’s got to give. Problem is, if the mother dies so does the baby, so there’s not much to weigh unless you simply want to sit back and pray that God will magically relocate the fetus to the uterus.
I’m not sure what cases would require one to choose between the mother’s and the child’s life, but if such a case existed then my comments would apply, i.e., that no one is morally required to surrender her life for another and that the mother’s existing relationships and responsibilities to the husband, children, relatives, and friends would make her loss more profound for all concerned. I am open to an alternate view, but it seems to me that life is parade of choices between the lesser of evils. For instance, every time you vote for a politician you must pick the one who is least offensive to your values and political philosophy, since no one will ever be a perfect fit.
In regards to “offensive” and “defensive” killing, I believe I distinguished the two in my comments earlier by differing between shooting down a plane of terrorists (or “war-time” killing) and killing a person sitting in a cell bound in chains who is not capable of doing any harm in his present situation.
The first case can be categorized as reactionary killing, or defensive killing, which is outside the scope of this post. Everything else falls into offensive killing and is the topic at hand.
So, I am not asking the question of “is killing bad?”; rather, I’m asking the question of “is killing an adult human being, who is on death row and securely in prison, the same as killing a fetus?”
Forgive me if I did not make that distinction clearly enough in my original post, but nevertheless it is the distinction I have made. My point of focus is human life, not guiltiness or threat (since I’m only referring to offensive killing).
Finally, you stated that in order to have parity we must find out if the fetus is a “person”. I tried to cover that in my post as well, but maybe it needs to be restated.
First, let’s look at a Christian who views abortion as wrong and the death penalty as right (not to say that all Christians think this way). This person already agrees that a fetus is a person. There you have it. In both cases the subject is the offensive killing of a person.
It would only follow that a person of this mindset would move on to the question of the guiltiness or innocence of the person being killed. Naturally, if a person is deciding whether another person is “guilty” or not, a Christian, according to his doctrine, supposedly should not be able to make this distinction and should instead leave this kind of judgment to God.
The second example would be a non-Christian who views abortion in the “pro-choice” light (you know, that bull about them not necessarily agreeing with abortion but thinking it’s the mother’s choice – we all know that’s the same as saying they do in fact agree with it), and the death penalty as wrong and inhuman (again, not to say that non-Christians think this way, this is just an anonymous, possibly mis-representative example).
In this case, I don’t know whether the person considers the fetus a “person” or not, but let’s say it’s a partial-birth abortion and take the most extreme case we can, and let’s also say the person does consider the fetus a “person”. Well, in this case I would ask the person why they were against killing a “guilty” prisoner but were in favor of killing an “innocent” baby.
The only answer I would accept is if the person did not consider the fetus a “person”, which would bring up a whole different discussion.
I want to make one more thing clear which may help my point. There is a difference between “choosing life” and “not choosing anything”. People often mistake someone who is against the death penalty or against abortion as “choosing life”, when in fact they are looking at it the wrong way. I, myself, don’t necessarily consider myself “pro-life” as much as I consider myself “not pro-choice”. In this way, I am leaving the decision of what to do with people’s lives up to God.
If I happen to not choose to abort a baby or not choose to execute a prisoner on death row, then whatever the situation was, before I came along with my decision, still is, because I didn’t make a decision. So it only follows that the fetus or prisoner is still alive because that’s the original state they were in. I didn’t necessarily “choose life”.
There is a very subtle difference, but there is a difference. To me, it’s the difference of playing God and playing man.
It is not that you were unclear, and I am largely in agreement with your thinking; I was just outlining the hierarchy of distinctions to be made in the discussion. I understood where you probably fell within each distinction and your last comment walked through them nicely.
In doing so you can see that the nature of the unborn is the hinge upon which this issue swings. Since most people agree that we should not kill innocent people, then it is simply a matter of determining whether one (genuinely) believes that the fetus is truly human. If someone claims that they do but is pro-choice anyway, then the best tactic is to “trot out the toddler.” That is, ask them if we could kill a toddler if he/she were “unwanted,” the result of a rape, or in the case of financial hardship.
The only place where I might take issue is where you speak of “playing God.”
It is certainly not our place to “judge” people. That is God’s prerogative, and he will do a thorough and permanent job of it. However, there are temporal consequences and practical concerns regarding certain behavior, and the earthly judicial system is a shadow of the divine justice to come. Scripture encourages us to practice equity and even goes so far as to state that God has ordained government to punish evil and encourage the good (Romans 13). So, when we (in the context of formal government) apprehend thieves and enforce fair trade laws we are practicing the justice that God has commissioned. Indeed, we are in effect “playing God,” just as we are “playing Christ” when we heal the sick, clothe the naked, and visit those in prison.
If we are playing God when we take the life of a criminal, then we are also playing God when we imprison him for life or take any action that hints at consequence and retribution. I believe that the relevant question regards what God would actually have us do with various types of criminals. That is a tougher nut to crack, and I am not personally decided on how far we should take our consequences. Since the old covenant with Israel does not explicitly apply in our post-Messianic context, we can only glean principles from that portion of Scripture that might give us the most detail in this regard. That, at least, makes it clear that God is quite willing to allow human agency in the execution of some very extreme measures against sin.
I think that a good case can be made that it is in principle not immoral for humans to demand the life of another if their crimes are suitably abominable in God’s eyes. Now, whether we are morally obligated to implement capital punishment in America is another thing, especially since God’s economy is far more exacting than most of us have the metal to be. In light of this, it would seem a fairly safe assumption that, at minimum, the taking of another life would be a reasonable point for application of this principle if the principle holds. Whether we should kill homosexuals and blasphemers as well may be a further discussion, or it may, up front, play in to our general concerns over implementing capital punishment. But contrary to being a denigration of life, it is a strong affirmation of its value in that the taking of one would be seen as so heinous that it demands the ultimate consequence.
Sounds like I should clear up what I mean when I say “playing God with peoples’ lives”. I do not mean no one on Earth can tell another what to do, as you have aptly pointed out with regards to the appointment of our government by God. I think it is just and right for our judicial system to act by condemning people to jail. It is the ending of someone’s life, via execution, that is the subject at hand.
Simply put, we know what happens in our physical world since God has revealed this much to us. We do not know what happens after we pass from this spiritual world. It follows that we have the authority from God to make decisions regarding someone’s physical life here in space and time, but we do not have that same authority to make decisions regarding someone’s life outside of this world (i.e. ending their lives and sending them away from this world).
Some say as soon as you die you face a definite judgment seat and either go to heaven or hell. Others say God and the devil are battling for your soul for eternity (i.e. C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce). Still others think it’s somewhere in between.
I believe the wisest among us simply answer with “I do not know”. It is in that simple answer that I have extracted my point. We do not know for sure. We have been given clues and revelations, but it has not been fully revealed to us.
I agree that a good case can be made in favor of the death penalty, but I will say this: I personally don’t believe God would ever “kill” someone’s soul, so if we were playing God the way he meant for us to be “playing him” (living in his image and likeness) and translating that idea to our own lives in the physical world, would he really have us kill their physical bodies? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s worth pondering.
Going back to my original point, I believe that if someone made a good case (which I’m sure they frequently do) for the death penalty, it would be hard for them to simultaneously make a good case against abortion, speaking purely in terms of the authority God has given us in dealing with our fellow human beings’ lives.
I appreciate your comments and I feel I have a little better understanding of the way some people accomplish just that. You have brought to light some alternative views on the subject that I had not yet thought of, which was my whole point of posting this subject (hence the question mark at the end of the title).
There is more I would say on our topic of the death penalty, but there is something more interesting I want to address here.
You say that you don’t know what happens after we die. You site C.S. Lewis’ scenarios in The Great Divorce as but one possibility, but I don’t think he meant to offer his personal theological understanding; he was simply doing a thought experiment regarding whether those in hell could even be persuaded to live in heaven if given the opportunity.
In my reading of Scripture, and the study I have done, there seems to be good reason for confidence in many doctrines of final things (or, what is called Eschatology in the world of theology). My question, without meaning to sound divisive, is this: Is your agnosticism a personal matter or is it related to the stance of the Orthodox Church? I don’t recall running across evidence of radical differences in this area between Orthodoxy and the Protestant view, so I had just assumed it was largely the same. One of the only points that I was consciously aware that I had not seen clarified was on the issue of Purgatory. Not sure if the East parts ways with Rome on this. Of course, I’m assuming that you are still in the Orthodox camp (big “O”).