Pro-Life and Pro-Death Penalty: No, Not a Contradiction

In a recent article on CNN, Carol Costello points out what she and many others think is a glaring contradiction among conservatives in the United States: the act of supporting both legal limitations on abortion and the use of capital punishment in first-degree murder cases. According to them, if you value life so much that you would deprive a woman of her right to choose what happens to her own body, you should not be so keen on killing people when you could just put them in prison until they die. Specifically responding to the positions of a Republican politician, Costello writes:

So, Rep. Christian says it’s OK to kill, unless you’re a woman who wants to end her pregnancy?
As I told my friends during a heated debate last weekend, that smacks of hypocrisy.

I am reminded of something someone else said to me once: “It doesn’t make sense to use killing as a way of showing people that killing is wrong.” Both of these statements, though, have glaring problems. For starters, they suggest that those of us who support capital punishment are supportive of killing in general, which we are not. Yes, we do think that certain very specific people should be killed under very specific circumstances, but that does not mean we think “it’s OK to kill”, as if we were fighting for our right to hack up our neighbors for little or no reason. The straw-man nature of this argument is so obvious as to be borderline maniacal. Also, from the side of the person being killed, if one cannot see the difference between killing a baby and killing a mass murderer, it may be that any and all discussion on the matter is of no use.

One fundamental problem with Costello’s argument, aside from its straw-man nature, is that it lacks a basic recognition of the concepts of law and criminal justice. Those who oppose capital punishment do so based on the belief that the right to live is a basic human right and that all instances of capital punishment are therefore crimes against humanity. What they fail to realize, though, is that virtually all instances of criminal justice constitute the limitation or revocation of what would normally constitute a basic right. For instance, Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Is not confinement to a prison an abrogation of the basic right to liberty? Certainly, it is. If our government were to go about nabbing innocent people from the street and throwing them in prison, we would be outraged. When society discovered that Ariel Castro was holding women hostage in his Cleveland home, we were similarly outraged, and we responded by sentencing him to life in prison without the chance of parole, plus 1,000 years. Did anyone cry out about the abrogation of Ariel Castro’s basic human rights? There was not a peep.

As another example of basic rights, consider Article 17 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Naturally, if our government were to go about seizing people’s houses and other assets without giving any kind of payment, we would see this as an abuse of power and a lack of respect for basic human rights. And yet, when Bernard L. Madoff was convicted of investment fraud in 2009, in addition to getting a prison term, was he not ordered to pay billions of dollars in restitution as well? Did we feel that this judgment violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in any way? It would be a violation of human rights for government entities to go around forcibly divesting people of their wealth. It was allowable in the case of Madoff, though, because he was guilty of a crime.

It is one of the most basic tenets of criminal justice: let the punishment fit the crime. This tends to mean meting out punishment similar to the harm caused by the perpetrator. Imprison others, and you will be imprisoned. Cheat others out of their assets, and we will appropriate your assets. Why, then, do some feel it sinister or contradictory to punish premeditated murder with the death penalty? Certainly, it would be “cruel and unusual” to feed perpetrators to lions in a public arena, but rewarding the most malicious and dangerous villains of our society with a quick death behind closed doors is not at all unreasonable or inhumane.

When society imprisons the Ariel Castros of the world, is it because we disregard freedom, or because we value it? When society fines the Bernard Madoffs of the world, is it because we disregard property rights, or because we value them? When society decides to kill the Clayton Locketts of the world, is it because we lack ample value for life, or is it because we value life immensely, such that we are willing to spend egregious amounts of time and money to protect the innocent from predators? Is it a greater injustice to kill mass murderers or to inter them in “prisons” where the conditions are so good that their greatest complaint is the low quality of the video games?

Certainly, any government that applies or condones the death penalty in the case of “crimes” such as apostasy, homosexuality, adultery, or speaking against the regime is overstepping bounds and committing atrocities against the basic rights of its citizens. It is similarly unreasonable to apply the death penalty to most legitimate crimes like fraud, theft, assault, or even manslaughter. But in cases of premeditated, malicious murder, the punishment does, in fact, fit the crime. Those who want to avoid such a barbaric punishment are compelled to avoid the barbaric actions that make it necessary. As for the supposed contradiction this view poses for moderate pro-life advocates like myself, I feel that my views are actually quite consistent. Because I value freedom, I feel that those who rob others of their freedom should lose their own. Because I value the free market, I feel that those who destroy it with fraud and theft should lose their wealth. Because I value life, I feel that the death penalty should be reserved only for those who have deprived themselves of their right to live by taking the lives of others. Because I value life, I feel that abortion should be allowed only in cases of medical emergency (because it is better for one person to die than for two people to die) or rape (in which case the blood is on the hands of the rapist). A contradiction seems to arise only when we ignore either the guilt and danger of murderers or the innocence and humanity of babies. As humanity and justice are inseparably connected, by favoring one of these things over the other, we run the risk of betraying both.