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Against abortion and for the death penalty?

Against abortion and for the death penalty?

At the Republican debates this week, Texas Governor Rick Perry, defended before a cheering audience his stance on the death penalty. In the past, he has stood before crowds proclaiming himself staunchly “pro-life” when it comes to abortion. How can the two views be reconciled?

The Washington Post On Faith blog asked a panel for their views.

But first, Robert P. Jones, writing in the Washington Post blog “Figuring Faith” looks at the polls and finds that most Americans, while generally more pro-choice than Perry, pretty much agree.

Perry’s identification as a strong supporter of “a culture of life” and what he called the “ultimate justice” of capital punishment, however, raises some potentially thorny questions about the meaning of being “pro-life.” In campaign season, the question is whether American voters, especially voters who identify as “pro-life,” are going to raise concerns about why Perry’s position doesn’t represent what some Catholic theologians call “a consistent ethic of life,” opposition to both legalized abortion and capital punishment. A quick foray into public opinion, however, seems to indicate that Perry may be facing little pressure on this front for at least two reasons.

First, while the political catchphrase “pro-life” may appear to be straightforward, PRRI’s recent survey of Millennials, Religion, and Abortion found that a surprisingly wide array of Americans identify with the term. Strong majorities of the American public, for example, identify as both pro-choice (70 percent) and pro-life (66 percent) in the context of the debates over the legalization of abortion. And when the debate is extended beyond abortion to other moral issues such as capital punishment, the meaning of the term becomes even hazier.

Second, only about one-in-ten (11 percent) Americans hold a “consistent ethic of life” position, opposing legalized abortion and capital punishment. In fact, in the general public, there is no significant correlation between attitudes about the legality of abortion and views on capital punishment. Fully two-thirds of Americans overall say they favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, compared to only three-in-ten who say they oppose it. Support for capital punishment is virtually identical to the general population among Americans who say abortion should be illegal (69 percent) and among those who identify as “pro-life” (69 percent).

The Washington Post turned to a panel of writers and theologians and asked “Can you be pro-life and pro-death penalty? How does one reconcile these positions?”

Among the responses:

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite asks Who would Jesus execute?

Jesus represents. Romans were all about using power to control people; Jesus, by contrast, was about power shared in his program of “heal the sick, eat with those you heal, and announce the Kingdom’s presence in that mutuality.” The New Testament presents us with a struggle between two different kinds of power, Crossan argues, the Roman imperial model of power that promises “peace through victory,” victory guaranteed by lethal force, or “Jesus’s peace through justice.”

Jesus was executed by the Romans in order to further their domination of the occupied Jewish community. It was naked power, exercised as only the Romans could, through the extreme torture and eventual death of prisoners through crucifixion. Being pro-execution, whether in ancient Rome or Texas today, is more about power than it is about justice.

I find that much of the “pro-life” position seems to come from a similar view of power; it’s all about control, a top down conception of power. The anti-abortion movement is often more about controlling women’s procreation than it is about protecting life. If life were indeed sacred in the anti-abortion movement, then killing doctors who provide abortion services, like Dr. George Tiller, would be unthinkable, as well as undoable, and obviously it is not. The escalating attack on women’s health services, in the strategic de-funding of Planned Parenthood state-by-state, is also not “pro-life” since the vast majority of Planned Parenthood’s work (about 90 percent) is not providing abortions but life-saving health screening for women and girls, and pregnancy prevention. It’s about controlling women’s choices. It’s about power as control.

Bishop John Shelby Spong writes about the contradictions of religious people:

I do not understand why people are surprised by contradictions in the lives and rhetoric of religious people. The most overtly religious part of our country practiced and defended both slavery and segregation with no apparent sense of discomfort. If the religious voices of the Protestant right and the Vatican were silenced, opposition to the basic rights and justice for homosexuals would be almost non-existent.

Bishop N.T. Wright reflects on American Christians and the death penalty:

You can’t reconcile being pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty. Almost all the early Christian Fathers were opposed to the death penalty, even though it was of course standard practice across the ancient world. As far as they were concerned, their stance went along with the traditional ancient Jewish and Christian belief in life as a gift from God, which is why (for instance) they refused to follow the ubiquitous pagan practice of ‘exposing’ baby girls (i.e. leaving them out for the wolves or for slave-traders to pick up).

Mind you, there is in my view just as illogical a position on the part of those who solidly oppose the death penalty but are very keen on the ‘right’ of a woman (or couple) to kill their conceived but not yet born child….

UCC Pastor, the Rev. Susan K. Smith of Columbus, OH says that for Perry, some lives are more precious than others.

There seems to be a cloud that hovers over America that rains down drops of racism; the Frontline piece suggests that executions are an extension of the tendency of the South (and Texas is part of the deep South) to lynch “outsiders.”

In other words, the life of an African American, even if innocent, is not as precious as the life of an unborn fetus. Lynching has become state-sanctioned, a way to purge society of its “untouchables” far too often.

Perry said that “life is a precious gift from God,” but clearly, he only means some life. The life of a perhaps innocent person who is executed is not so precious, if I understand his philosophy.

That is a sad commentary on the American justice system, and Perry’s touting and boasting of his state’s record on executions is a sad commentary on what “life” is to him.

Certainly, it would seem, that in his world, a life such as mine or my children’s does not matter much at all.


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Gary Paul Gilbert

If I had read the article Murdoch cites I would have seen that it took until the 19th Century for scientists to realize that both egg and sperm were necessary for reproduction (“reproduction” was the term Buffon coined in the 18th Century):

“The development of ‘cell theory’ by Schleiden and Schwann gave
an explanation for why egg and sperm were equivalent,
despite their manifold differences – they were both
reproductive cells. The other factor was that realization
that heredity had a biological content and that some-
thing was inherited, which was contained in egg and
sperm, respectively”

Gary Paul Gilbert

Gary Paul Gilbert

Murdoch makes a good point about the discovery of the egg in reproduction. People used to think that the sperm was to be the whole person, hence the condemnation of masturbation as equivalent to murder. Generation, which could arise from nothing, as in spontaneous generation, was the way they looked at things in the 17th Century. Insects supposedly arose out of nothing.

To hold up a principle of the sacredness of human life to condemn abortion but not the death penalty is a contradiction or failure to apply the principle equally, but there is no contradiction in approving abortion but not the death penalty if the frame is not human life as such.

If human life is to be the ultimate principle, then everybody, like the early followers of the Way, should be pacifists.


Murdoch Matthew

Do you really think the ancients had no idea about conception? When in the world did people figure that out? Like the 1900s or something?

Uh, The 1600s, actually. Before the identification of the human (and the animal) egg, it was supposed that the male emission (sperm was also unknown) entered the womb and “took flesh.” That was how the spirit of God could enter the Virgin’s womb and take flesh. The Virgin Birth doesn’t work with sperm and egg.

Note that in the “taking flesh” concept, the baby is entirely the father’s — it’s his seed, the mother is only the flower pot. Hence the view of children as the father’s property, to rule and dispose of as he would. Salvaging something of this antique idea would seem to be behind some of the anti-abortion drive.

And the people above who speak of “protecting the lives of innocent unborn children,” knowingly or not, are weighting the discussion in their desired direction. (So are those who speak of “fetuses.”) As Gary implies, labels aren’t objective features — they’re assigned by people to organize concepts. Life doesn’t begin at conception — it’s passed on at conception and develops from there. (Life began billions of years ago and all life on Earth is related. Humankind has common ancestors not only with apes but with carrots, penguins, and bacteria.) At what point of development does the fetus become a child (or a person)? The Biblical view is that breath equals life. God breathed the breath of life into the earth-adam and it was alive. Babies who breathed, and kept on breathing, joined the community. Medical science has altered this view somewhat — babies can be viable, brought from the womb and started to breathe, sometime before normal birth. Viability seems the current standard.

The past centuries’ furor over abortion does indeed seem to be about control — not only of women’s bodies but of the social order in general. It’s used to divide and intimidate groups. But God is the great abortionist — many pregnancies end in miscarriage. God has left humankind to care for the natural order; decisions about gestation and fetal development shouldn’t be removed from purview.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Ethics is a complicated subject. It depends how one frames an issue. Morals are not an objective feature of the universe.

Autonomy of the person is one way to frame abortion, in which case a woman has the right to determine if she wants to give birth. Some of the traditions which oppose abortion also oppose birth control.

Autonomy of the person also opens the door to equality for LGBTs, whereas most religions have been guilty of homophobia.

The death penalty may or may not be the same kind of moral issue as abortion. Here one could argue that in a country founded on genocide of native peoples and enslavement of African-Americans, combined with decades of Jim Crow laws, that it is important to give all people the same rights as everybody else. The death penalty is more likely to be applied to people of color and the poor. It also makes it impossible for the state to make amends when the wrong person is convicted.

In the language-game of religion, I would be tempted to use the term “the dignity of the person.”

Gary Paul Gilbert


Google “homunculus”, Bill L, and get back to me.

JC Fisher

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