The Death Penalty and Abortion: The Conservative/Liberal Straitjacket
by Rachel MacNair
A freelance writer recently interviewed me on this question: Why is it that U.S. states tend to divide out, with some having the death penalty but passing restrictions on abortion, while others fund abortion and don’t have the death penalty? You can see the list here of death penalty states and abortion-funding states; while five are both and ten are neither, the rest do divide out. A similar pattern can be seen in countries world-wide.
From a conventional political point of view, it’s a conservative/liberal distinction. But from a consistent life ethic perspective, it is indeed puzzling.
What Do Conservative and Liberal Mean?
Right-wing and left-wing aren’t rigidly distinct categories. Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty makes excellent abolition arguments from a conservative viewpoint, as of course do all conservative consistent-lifers. Conversely, the liberal and radical consistent-lifers show that opposition to abortion is quite capable of being cast in liberal principles.
When I was growing up, I was taught:
conservative = wants to keep things the same
liberal = wants some changes
reactionary = wants to go back to the way things were
radical = wants things changed down to the root
But if you go with that understanding, then positions would surely change from issue to issue. Some things should be conserved, some reformed, some changes we did turned out to be a bad idea and we’re better off dispensing with them, and some things really do need changing down to their very foundation.
Under this scheme, all pro-lifers are radical, by definition. While reforms along the way to the goal are acceptable, the ultimate goal is a change to respect human life, a societal change down to the very core.
This works fine for me. I was raised to think that “radical” is a good term, one I could be pleased to apply to myself. It applied not merely to avoiding wars, but getting to the root causes of war so the idea wouldn’t even come up. It applied to getting at the root causes of racism, and the death penalty, and poverty. Reforms are better than not having reforms, but I was in the group that regarded liberals as too right-wing.
Yet the only people I commonly hear calling pro-lifers “radicals” are our opponents, and they intend it to be pejorative. They mean “extreme,” and imply being extreme is a bad thing. But they clearly don’t mean left-wing by the term.
Still, even if it’s badly over-simplified, for the sake of insight, I’m going to use the no change/yes change distinction to answer the question as to why states and countries divide out as much as they do on which of the two forms of violence – executions or abortions – they prefer.
History of the Death Penalty: Keep Things the Same
I find that I get unanimous agreement, including from military people, when I make this point: The only reason we have wars now is that we’ve had them for thousands of years. If we hadn’t had them all this time, and someone suggested them as an innovation, no one would buy it.
The same applies to racism. The color of a person’s skin could have genealogical implications with associated positive views of heritage. But the idea that some shades of skin color are to be seen negatively while others show superiority is so silly on its face that there’s only one possible explanation for its existence: there’s a history. Without that history, if it were proposed fresh now, it would be laughed out of consideration.
I’d say the same is true of the death penalty – and the racism it’s associated with. If executions hadn’t been happening all along, they wouldn’t work as a sudden new innovation now.
All the innovations in this area have been toward fewer executions: apply them only to serious crimes like murder rather than mere pickpocketing; make the methods more “humane”; stop putting them on public display.
But for people who live in death penalty states or countries who want to keep things the same, that means tenaciously holding on to the death penalty.
History of Abortion: Changes
We’ve had feticide and infanticide throughout history as well, but there have been three major innovations:
1. Patriarchs – understood as the Head of the Household – used to decide whether or not a woman got an abortion, and her opinion on the matter was irrelevant. If she sought it herself, it was often to hide having been sexually abused in some way, or it was adapting to a harsh and judgmental society that was indifferent to her real needs. The concept that it’s a woman’s right to choose is a startling new innovation of the 20th century. The 19th century feminists never understood it that way. Large numbers of women now, especially those who’ve had abortions and are now active in the pro-life movement, don’t see it that way. But a large number of women do, and it’s the way it’s commonly presented in the mainstream media.
2. Abortions, along with childbirth, used to be harshly unsafe to the mothers. They’re still not as safe to women as proponents make them out to be, but medical technology has improved enough that asserting it as safe isn’t as obviously off the wall as it would have been in days of yore.
3. Eugenics, the idea of breeding “better” people, arose in the 19th century and had an especially strong following in the early 20th century. It’s more in disrepute now – as seen by Planned Parenthood removing Margaret Sanger’s name from their Manhattan center because of her eugenic and therefore racist views – but the philosophy lingers in pro-abortion rhetoric. At the time, eugenics was understood as what progressives believed. They saw themselves as following science, rather than religious superstition.
This gives some background for why abortion slipped into being perceived as the left-wing position. It constituted change.
Conclusion: The Workable Innovation
My experience is that the consistent life ethic offers a more logical and principled way of figuring out what to favor and what to oppose. It’s a coherent philosophy. Unlike the various kinds of violence, it’s something that could be offered as an innovation and people would buy it, as we currently observe.
It’s not that we don’t find instances of it in history, even ancient history – Judaism, early Christianity, ancient Greece, the Chinese philosopher Mo Tsu, etc. But when we find it, it’s always an innovation, and it always faces opposition from people who want to keep things the way they are. Even if they’re violent things.
For similar posts, see:
More than Double the Trouble: Another Way of Connecting [intersectionality]