Read a couple of interesting articles last week in the Washington Post. Both discuss the death penalty. The first article, “Like Rick Perry, most ‘pro-life’ Americans OK with death penalty” looks at how politically conservative Americans are overwhelmingly pro-life, and also, overwhelmingly in favor of capital punishment.
The second article, titled “American Christians and the Death Penalty” is an opinion piece by the highly regarded British New Testament Scholar; N.T. Wright. Both articles attempt to point to a contradiction between holding a favorable view towards capital punishment while also being pro life.
The purpose of this post is to explain why they are not contradictory.
Here’s an example of the argument:
If a person is pro life, and does not believe in abortion – even in cases of rape, or incest, or when the child will be severely mentally or physically disabled to the point of having no legitimate quality of life – it is inconsistent for that individual to also be anti life/pro death in terms of punishing criminals. If life is of such great value, how can it be justified to take it away?
I think that the philosophical impetus of being pro life and pro capital punishment is of an Age of Enlightenment, natural rights background. Individuals do have a right to live. A fetus has a right to be born. It is an innocent life – and nothing, not even the mother’s right to liberty – can transcend the right of the baby to be born, the argument goes.
While we do have rights, the rights are not absolute. They can be relinquished by our actions, chiefly if we violate those rights in other individuals. If an individual deprives a person of his or her right to life, in the process, the murderer is relinquishing his or her own right to life.
Famed Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko summed it up very nicely:
Whenever I argue this with friends who have opposite views, they say that I don’t have enough regard for the most marvelous of miracles – human life. Just the opposite: It’s because I have so much regard for human life that I favor capital punishment. Murder is the most terrible crime there is. Anything less than the death penalty is an insult to the victim and society. It says..that we don’t value the victim’s life enough to punish the killer fully.
One thing that opponents of capital punishment don’t always seem to understand is that capital punishment proponents do not view capital punishment as legalized murder. In the same ways that arrests aren’t forms of legalized kidnapping and taxes are not a form of legalized extortion. It is more of an actualization of justice.
With the same mentality of, “How can you call yourself pro life, while favoring the state to take away individual’s lives” it could be argued “How can you favor an innocent baby being killed while wanting to protect murderers?”
The vast majority of Americans are either pro life and pro capital punishment or pro choice and anti-capital punishment. According to the Washington Post, only 11 percent are both pro life and anti capital punishment.