Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Pro-Life and Pro-Capital Punishment [Aaron Brake]

There is an alleged inconsistency that is sometimes raised between being pro-life and also pro-capital punishment. Here’s the question: “Is it inconsistent to be pro-life when it comes to the issue of abortion and yet also support capital punishment in certain situations?”

Here are some important points to remember (see Francis Beckwith and his book Defending Life, pages 126-127, on this topic):

First, the alleged inconsistency of pro-life apologists who support capital punishment is often introduced as a red herring to distract from the main issue that must be addressed. Even IF pro-lifers were inconsistent on this point, that’s all it would prove: an inconsistency. And what follows from that? Not much. It has nothing to do with the one question that must be answered in the abortion debate: “What is the unborn?” As Beckwith notes, “inconsistent people can draw good conclusions” (Defending Life, 126).

Second, remember the pro-life syllogism:

P1: It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being.
P2: Elective abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being.
C:  Therefore, elective abortion is wrong.

How is supporting capital punishment inconsistent with this syllogism? It isn’t. Capital punishment kills a guilty human being found guilty of a capital crime, not an innocent, vulnerable, and defenseless human being inside the womb. This is a big difference and there is no reasonable analogy or moral equivalence between the two. Beckwith states, “Pro-life advocates, for the most part, do not argue that killing is never justified, for there are instances in which killing is justified, such as in the cases of self-defense and capital punishment, both of which do not entail the killing of an innocent human life” (Defending Life, 127).

Third, if being pro-life and pro-capital punishment is inconsistent, isn’t being pro-choice and against capital punishment also inconsistent? In other words, if A and B are inconsistent, then not-A and not-B are likewise inconsistent. But I’ve never heard pro-abortion choice advocates bring up this point. And if this is true, why even bring it up at all? Why not just focus on the arguments for each position?

Finally, there are in fact some pro-life advocates who are against capital punishment, and therefore the claim of inconsistency vanishes with regard to these individuals. If the pro-abortion choice advocate is so concerned with consistency, “Why does he not then give up his abortion-choice position and embrace this pro-life position, as it should seem to him even more consistent than the anti-capital punishment abortion-choice position?” (Defending Life, 126).

In short, pro-life advocates who support capital punishment are pro-innocent life, and therefore there is no inconsistency between protecting innocent, vulnerable, and defenseless human life in the womb and at the same time supporting the taking of guilty human life in certain situations.

Even in Scripture there seem to be clear instances where a verse or passage demonstrates God’s view of the sanctity of human life and the endorsement of capital punishment. For example, Genesis 9:6 states, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” And if God can hold both views consistently, I don’t see why Christians and pro-lifers wouldn’t be able to do the same.


  1. You call the "the pro-life syllogism," but it doesn't represent all pro-life thought. For some people, P1 is "It is wrong to kill a human being." There's usually what you might call P1.5, which says that killing can be justified if it is necessary to save one's own or someone else's life. But not all pro-lifers believe that we get to designate "non-innocent" people who can be killed at will.

    1. Jen - the position to justify abortion in the case of the health of a mother, if you will, is inherently pro-choice because you don't have to kill the child for 2 reasons: 1) There's no guarantee that God won't intervene or the mother will die; 2) The mother can choose to give her life for the baby. As such, it's a choice to abort the child. People can couch this as a "pro-life caveat" but it's simply limited pro-choice.

  2. No one is arguing that anyone should be killed "at will". Why even bring that up?

  3. "At will" is bad phrasing. I just mean, killed when they are not posing an immediate threat, with no legal consequences (or even under the aegis of the legal system, as with the death penalty).

  4. This is good, but I think the third point is mistaken. I don't think it follows that "if A and B are inconsistent, then not-A and not-B are likewise inconsistent." A pro-choice person could hold that killing persons is always wrong, so capital punishment is wrong (not-B), but unborn human beings are not persons and so killing them is not necessarily wrong (not-A). They could at the same time think that the pro-life claim that the unborn are persons deserving of protection (A) and the claim that certain other persons (those guilty of capital crimes) may be executed (B) are inconsistent -- given, I suppose, the assumption that killing persons is always wrong, which they may mistakenly attribute to the pro-life advocate. So, the pro-choice advocate is wrong but not necessarily inconsistent.

  5. Thank you Jen for your comment. My intention is not to disparage in any way those pro-lifers who oppose capital punishment. That is why the final point above was included. Rather my intention was only to show there is no inconsistency between being pro-life and also supporting capital punishment. Whether or not capital punishment is morally permissible would be another topic and beyond the scope of my purpose here.

  6. Excellent post and response, Aaron.


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