Abortion and the Death Penalty


I recently published this post on Twitter and Facebook

I posted this because I frequently see people accuse pro-lifers of being inconsistent in being against abortion, but in favor of the death penalty.  This objection can come from pro-choice people who want to criticize pro-lifers for being hypocrites and it can come from pro-lifers who believe that the “pro-life” label can only apply to people who are against both abortion and the death penalty.

It is not clear to me what the inconsistency is, so I posted this tweet to see what people would say.  I was not asking if the anti-abortion or pro-death penalty viewpoints were right or true.  I was asking if a person is being intellectually inconsistent by being anti-abortion and pro-death penalty.  I am also aware that not all people who are anti-abortion are pro-death penalty.  The question is whether or not those who are both anti-abortion and pro-death penalty are being intellectually inconsistent .  I didn’t get any conversation going on Twitter (I still have a very small following), but I got a lot of interaction on Facebook.  There was a big discussion, but the best answer came from a Catholic philosopher named Ron Belgau, who writes for a blog called Spiritual Friendship.  With his permission, I decided to share his response here.

Are pro-lifers who support the death penalty morally inconsistent? In order to answer this question, it’s important to consider alternate ways of understanding the right to life and the nature of personhood.

A. Regarding life:

1. One view would be that the life of a human person is always sacred, and that it is always wrong to intentionally kill a person.

2. Another view would be that it is always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human person, but that in certain circumstances–war, or the punishment for very serious crimes, for example–a person forfeits their right to life, and may be killed in order to protect the right to life of other innocent human persons.

B. Regarding persons:

1. One view would be that every human being is a human person from the moment of conception; that is, that they are a person simply because they are a human being.

2. The other view would be that personhood requires something more–a certain kind of self-consciousness that is typical of normally functioning adult human beings. On this view, certain human beings are not human persons, or are only “marginal persons,” and so are not protected by either version of the principle about the sanctity of human life.

A person who holds both A1 and B1 would oppose abortion and the death penalty. Holding A1 and B2 would entail opposition to the death penalty but could permit abortion; and holding A2 and B1 would entail opposition to abortion but could permit the death penalty. Holding both A2 and B2 could permit both. In other words, B1 is the essential conviction for pro-lifers, while A1 is the essential conviction for those who oppose the death penalty. In order for it to be logically inconsistent for pro-lifers to support the death penalty, it would have to be logically inconsistent to accept B1 and also accept A2. Or, to put it another way, accepting B1 would have to logically entail accepting A1. I do not see why it would be logically inconsistent for someone who supports B1 to accept A2; but at the very least, if opponents of the death penalty want to argue that pro-lifers are logically inconsistent, they need to show why the belief that life begins at conception is logically inconsistent with the belief that societies can kill in extreme circumstances to protect themselves from those who are a serious threat to the lives of others

Side Note: When I say that A2 could permit capital punishment, and B2 could permit abortion, I do not mean that they must do so. Consider A2 and the death penalty. To say that people may be killed to protect society against war or murder is not to say that they must be killed. It only means that if there is no other way to defend life except to kill those who threaten it, then killing them is permitted. But if there are non-lethal methods of protecting society from war or murder, these are preferable. In a society with a relatively low level of social development, it may be a serious burden to keep criminals locked up, and may be difficult to establish jails secure enough to protect against escape. So I think such a society could be justified in executing murderers after a serious effort at verifying guilt. But in an advanced society like the United States, it may be possible to adequately protect society without putting murderers to death. In which case, A2 may not provide an adequate justification for the death penalty. Nevertheless, if an unborn child is a person (B1), then A2 provides a much stronger reason for opposing abortion than for opposing the death penalty, because the child is innocent and is not threatening anyone; therefore, killing it cannot be self-defense in the same way that killing can protect society from war and murder. (This principle might be used to authorize abortion in cases where continuing the pregnancy directly threatens the life of the mother.)

I hope Ron’s response helps everyone think through the logic or this issue.

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