20 March 2013

Bargaining for life with Cal Thomas

Cal Thomas supports the death penalty even though he's skeptical about its deterrent effect. In his latest column, he writes that the deterrent effect of capital punishment "can’t be proved, any more than it is provable that abolishing it will encourage some to kill, knowing the worse they will face is life in prison without parole." He's inspired to write by the Maryland legislature's decision to abolish the state's death penalty. The fact that six states have done that in the last six years confuses him a little. Maryland especially confuses him because its governor supports the repeal while supporting abortion rights. How can the governor, in supporting repeal, profess a "respect for human life" while leaving the abortion question to "the individual conscience of women?" As Thomas sees it, "abortion may not involve the strapping down of a convicted felon, but it takes a life." He questions whether one can consistently oppose capital punishment yet support abortion rights. It could be asked just as readily how Thomas can take the opposite positions consistently, but as it turns out he's not so dedicated to the death penalty that he wouldn't cut a deal with the other side.

I have often proposed a deal for my liberal friends who are anti-death penalty but pro-choice: I will surrender my position in favor of the death penalty, if pro-choicers support laws that protect the unborn. It seems like a fair deal to me, but so far I’ve gotten no takers. This seems ideologically inconsistent, if they argue all human life is valuable.

Why don't liberals take his deal? It's most likely because they distinguish between the value people may place on life morally and the state's right to intervene to protect life. It shouldn't be hard for an advocate of limited government like Thomas to appreciate an argument that government control should not extend to a woman's body, even if the body harbors a theoretically autonomous consciousness. The pro-choice argument is like the argument for property rights. A communist might argue that the natural resources of the planet rightfully belong to everyone, and that no individual has an exclusive claim to any of them, but most people, or at least most Americans, reject that argument for a range of reasons. What could be more private than a woman's body, Thomas might be answered, regardless of humanity's claim on the resource it carries? Of course, Thomas could counter that the humanity of the property in question makes this argument analogous to the defense of slavery -- though we should note that no woman claims the right to forbid the fetus from leaving her body. We don't have to embed ourselves too deeply in this sophistry, however, since in this same column Thomas effectively surrenders any claim of fetal equality with citizenry. He starts by explaining his own support for capital punishment:

Respect for human life should mean a murderer ought to forfeit his or her own life as payment for the life taken. Life in prison is unequal punishment. It is not fair to the victim, to the victim’s family or even to the killer who has not received his or her “just deserts.”

We can dispute whether respect for life dictates retribution in the terms Thomas suggests, but that's a question for another time. What matters for now is the very next sentence.

In the case of abortion, obviously there can be no sentence of death or life in prison for the “murderer.”
Very rarely are anti-abortion people willing to characterize a mother who gets an abortion as a murderer. Why is that? If fetal life is equivalent to citizen life, abortion is murder and Thomas's own standard of justice demands death for the murderers: the mother and the doctor. Fail to do this and you surrender your argument for the equivalent value of fetal and citizen life. Thomas still thinks that states should "exercise an equivalent respect for life through laws that restrict abortion," but by refusing to hold mothers to a mortal standard he gives the states no reason to show the fetus that equivalent respect. No one who advocates the universal criminalization of abortion need be taken seriously unless they propose provisions for punishing mothers, and legislators ought to pressure them into taking the proper stand by amending any anti-abortion legislation to include the severest penalties for mothers. If that tastes like a poison pill to the "pro-life" people, whose fault is that?

My own offer of a bargain to the anti-abortion people still stands. It may be presumptuous of me to do this as a male, but I'd be willing to see abortion banned as comprehensively as its opponents want, though what I want in return is something more substantial than the abolition of the death penalty. Simply put, the price I ask for consenting to the abolition of abortion is definitive acquiescence in a cradle-to-grave welfare state. If the state has an interest in seeing every viable fetus born, it should take an interest in maximizing the lifespan, not to mention the quality of life, of every newborn. If people like Thomas feel a moral responsibility to ensure that these babies are born, they should accept a moral and material responsibility for their welfare thereafter. No more of this "personal responsibility" stuff when the baby doesn't ask to be born and the mother doesn't ask to deliver it. If an anti-abortion advocate will take that deal, then I might believe that they're committed to life rather than their own moral superiority. Let's see if this deal gets any takers.


dudleysharp said...


Death penalty deterrence has long been proven and it cannot be made to go away.


Samuel Wilson said...

Here's a live link to Dudley's article.

Anonymous said...

I'd go one step further. We give up the right to abortion for a cradle-to-grave welfare state AND sex education in ALL schools, as well as readily available reliable contraceptives.

@Dudley: How many murders weren't committed this year because the person thinking about killing decided it wasn't worth giving up their own life for? We'll never know.

Insofar as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter. A predator is a predator and will always be a predator. Locking him/her up for life won't change that. It may keep them from further public harm (assuming they don't escape) though that doesn't guarantee safety for the guards, etc. The ONLY way to ensure a predator cannot prey on other members of society is to end their lives. It is also far more fiscally responsible to the taxpayers.

What we need to do is to limit appeals, limit the amount of time allotted for appeals, and make sure that when the time comes, they are terminated quickly and efficiently.

What we need, I suppose, is a government willing to say "We care as much for YOU (individual citizen) as you care about your fellow citizens.

Anonymous said...

I guess what I am saying is that I don't look at capital punishment as a deterrent, since it obviously isn't totally effective as such. It isn't a punishment, since the point of punishment is negative reinforcement of social mores. Capital punishment is simply the removal of diseased tissue before it causes more harm. You don't imprison cancer and hope it will suddenly stop being cancer. You bombard it with radiation or poison it chemicals, then you cut it out. That is the ONLY way to insure it doesn't spread and eventually kill the body.