A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with my friend Phil about abortion and the death penalty. One of the interesting facts that came up is that attitudes about the two issues tend to have a converse relationship. Typically, people on the right oppose abortion and support the death penalty. People on the left typically oppose the death penalty and support abortion.
Many people point out an inconsistency with the right. It is asked, "How can you be in favor of life when it comes to abortion, but not when it comes to the death penalty?" Now, I personally believe that there is no real conflict between these two. To say that you must oppose the death penalty if you oppose abortion is like saying that you have to oppose prison if you oppose wrongful convictions.
But I want to bring the inconsistency question to the left. Is it consistent to oppose the death penalty and yet support abortion?
This year there is a measure on the California ballot. Measure 34 proposes that the state of California repeal the death penalty and replace it with life in prison. While there are many reasons to oppose the death penalty, I was amazed at how many of the arguments appealed to the potential of executing an innocent person. It was the dominant argument against the death penalty, at least in this case. Earlier this year I read John Grisham's book The Confession, a book which proved that books can be preachy whether they lean right or left. Grisham's book basically became an anti-death penalty book, telling the tale of an innocent person being executed while authorities ignored obvious evidence with amazing disregard and indifference. Once again, the whole argument from Grisham was that the danger of executing an innocent person should be enough to make us rid ourselves of the death penalty.
To sum up, a huge anti-death penalty argument boils down to better-safe-than-sorry. Because there is the potential of killing an innocent person, we should not take the risk.
This brings me to the abortion issue. Now, I personally believe that there is overwhelming medical support supporting the fact that the unborn are people. But let's set that aside and simply say that we are unsure. Let's even say that we are pretty sure that the unborn are not people, but we can't be certain. By the logic of better-safe-than-sorry, shouldn't we avoid abortion. After all, there is a chance that we will kill an innocent person. And while the death penalty always takes a life, I think few would argue that it takes an innocent life every time. On the other hand, if the unborn are people, then abortion takes an innocent life every time.
Now, I personally strongly oppose abortion and support (not as strongly) the death penalty. But if both sides agreed to adopt a consistent better-safe-than-sorry grid, I would be more than happy to jump on board.