The peculiar case of abortion of the unborn vs. capital punishment for murderers

One of the most peculiar situations that one will find in American politics is when pro-lifers argue, “Pro-choicers are hypocritical because they oppose capital punishment for murderers, while supporting abortion of the unborn,” while pro-choicers will fling more or less the exact same argument right back at them: “Pro-lifers are hypocritical because they oppose abortion of the unborn while supporting capital punishment for murderers.”
Why is this peculiar? Because both sides are essentially using the same statement, more or less unchanged and un-edited, against each other. Usually in most debates or controversies, both sides will subtly twist and edit the argument against the other side (so, for instance, with voter ID, supporters of voter ID claim that opponents want to assist voter fraud, while opponents claim that supporters want to disenfranchise voters) - but not with this abortion vs. capital punishment debate. In this debate, both sides fling the ***same ***line back at each other and expect the merits and demerits of their case to win the day.

There are, of course, some people who do not fit into either category. Some pro-lifers also oppose capital punishment, and some pro-choicers do favor capital punishment.
What’s remarkable is that both sides are, logically, consistent in their arguments. The usual line used by pro-lifers against pro-choicers is, “We’re not being hypocritical, because fetuses don’t and haven’t committed murder, while murderers on death row have.” And the usual line used by pro-choicers against pro-lifers is, “We’re not being hypocritical, because fetuses haven’t been born yet, whereas condemned criminals on death row have already been born.”

I can’t post a poll in Great Debates, but which camp would you describe yourself as falling into?
(1). I support both abortion and capital punishment.
(2). I oppose both abortion and capital punishment.
(3). I support abortion, but oppose capital punishment.
(4). I oppose abortion, but support capital punishment.
(5). Neither/Other answer.

(3). I support abortion, but oppose capital punishment.

“We’re not being hypocritical, because fetuses haven’t been born yet, whereas condemned criminals on death row have already been born.”

This is close to my opinion, but not exactly. Instead, I argue:

a) Fetuses aren’t “persons.” They haven’t developed enough to qualify.
b) Even if they were, the mother’s right to control over her own body is more important than the fetus’s interest or society’s interest. A government that can intrude so deeply against individual privacy and sovereignty as to compel a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy is a tyrannical government.

With capital punishment,

a) It doesn’t produce a deterrent effect;
b) it’s grossly expensive;
c) All current methods are cruel;
d) It isn’t necessary: imprisonment suffices to keep society safe;
e) Mistakes get made. We can recompense a person (to some degree) for wrongful imprisonment, but we can’t give life back to someone who’s been executed.

I see the two issues as being very little related to each other… And yet, yes, I think the pro-life side is a little hypocritical for being so eager to put convicts to death.

I support abortion because I believe a woman should have the ability to control her body and determine whether or not she has a child.

I support capital punishment because some people deserve to die.

I’m a (3) – support abortion, oppose capital punishment.

You’re not looking for reasons, but here are mine.

I think a woman’s right to control her own body far outweighs any rights of the fetus. I don’t consider the fetus a person with rights until it’s out of her. Even if I did consider it a person, I would still put the woman’s right to bodily autonomy ahead of the fetus’s. So, I’m strongly pro-choice.

Regarding capital punishment, I’m not as firmly opposed. I oppose it for practical purposes (it often costs more to prosecute a capital case than just holding someone forever in prison), for justice purposes (I think it is applied so unevenly and so randomly that I don’t trust the system to fairly administer it), for moral purposes (I’m not sure that the government should be allowed the power to put people to death, and because mistakes can be made, but capital punishment cannot be undone. All that said, did I shed any tears when Tim McVeigh was put to death? Not really.

Unsurprisingly, I find the pro-life, pro-capital punishment to be pretty inexplicable. Here’s where I unfairly caricature the position of someone I disagree with: If you’re so concerned with life that you would force a woman to keep a fetus even if having a child could risk her physical health, mental health, happiness, and potentially her life, how can you support capital punishment? I’m personally not opposed to capital punishment because I hold life to be sacrosanct. I oppose it for the reasons I stated above – fairness, dollars, justice, etc.

ETA: So, I guess Trinopus and I have basically the same opinion.

At the risk of a no-true-Scottsman, pro-lifers oppose both. Part of what makes the abortion debate complicated is that everyone pretends that there are two sides to the debate, when there are actually at least six, and lumping them into two ends up conflating some wildly different positions. Pro-life, anti-abortion, and anti-choice are three different positions, as are anti-life, pro-abortion, and pro-choice. And that doesn’t even get into nuances like “allow abortion in the first trimester, but prohibit it after that”, or the potential rape-and-incest exception.

I couldn’t have said it better.

So, yeah 3) for me too.

I wish we could see poll results on this.

Any appearance of contradiction arises only from a ridiculous black-and-white simplification.

Whether a fetus is a “person” is an endlessly complex question that mixes philosophy, biology, and medical ethics in a basically unanswerable quagmire. And then you have to ask “at what stage of gestation?”. And then, regardless of what the answer or different answer(s) might be to that question, you have to weigh it against the considerable question of the woman’s rights.

An alleged murderer, convicted or not, is unequivocally a “person”.

There is no parallel or equivalency between the arguments whatsoever. That said, it does make the “fetus is definitely a person, no question about it-- so much so that the woman’s rights can be totally disregarded” argument of pro-lifers rather inconsistent when they suddenly become “pro-death” in the case of capital punishment, when the victim is certainly a person.

I’m gonna echo the above (choice (3)) as Trinopus’s post spelled it out rather nicely as to how I see the comparisons asked about.

Do people argue “you’re hypocrites because you support abortion but oppose capital punishment” often? I’ve seen right-wingers truck that out as an example of liberals being idiots for being wrong on two issues and prioritizing murderers over innocent babies, but I don’t see the accusation of hypocrisy. I don’t think they’re hypocritical. Doubly so because a lot of the supporters of the left positions aren’t based on ethical maxims but on effects.

The reason lefties accuse righties of hypocrisy is because righties truck out variations of “every life is sacred” and “who are you to judge?” quite frequently. The argument frequently is based on maxims, at least superficially. Maxims are fun to poke holes in.

The key element is innocence and/or justifiability. No fetus has ever committed a murder. Many pro-lifers argue that there is legitimate taking of life - in combat or self-defense, for instance. Few pro-lifers argue that life should never be killed in any circumstances.

Yeah, I wanted to make one. I think polls can be done in Elections but not Great Debates.

(3). I support abortion, but oppose capital punishment.

Early term foetus is not a person yet.

Of course it can be seen as a contradiction but it is what it is and I have no issues with it.

I support abortion access, and while I support the* idea* of capital punishment, I oppose its return to Canada because I don’t think we could manage it properly (that is to say; efficiently, fairly and judiciously). Indeed, I’m not sure any country can.

(2). I oppose both abortion and capital punishment.

But I select this option with the qualification that they are two very different forms of opposition. I oppose abortion because it is inherently evil. I oppose capital punishment because our current system is wasteful and ineffective, and because sparing people who deserve to die is an opportunity to exercise the virtue of mercy.

Perfectly stated for me.

Emphasis mine, and that’s precisely the pro-life contradiction. If someone is going to argue that the fetus can’t be killed because “it’s a person” – even if it’s a shapeless blob with no sentience – then it ultimately has to fall back on “the underlying facts don’t matter – every life is sacred, period, because mere humans have no moral authority to make exceptions”. Not “every life is sacred unless a judge or jury or some other artificially constructed institution says otherwise, even if they might be wrong or are just biased jerks looking for vengeance”. If you’re going to start making exceptions, then how about “every life is sacred except when it’s a blob of non-sentient protoplasm parasitically infesting the body of an actual adult person who neither wants it in her body nor is able or willing to properly care for it after it’s born and develops into an actual person”.

Arguments that try to draw parallels between the two cases show just how superficial the alleged parallels are.

So someone who is fending off an attempted murder cannot use lethal force in self-defense?

You can make polls in IMHO. I’d do it, but I’m too lazy. You could even ask respondents to keep the debate in this thread.


You post a lot more than I do, but for what it’s worth, I pretty much always agree with what you write.

I find abortion to be immoral to me personally except in certain medical circumstances, however I don’t think the government has the right to control a woman’s body and restrict them from having an abortion. I support the death penalty and I think unless the inmate has some chance of being exonerated by DNA evidence or something that the judicial process should be accelerated and they should be executed as soon as possible not 15-20 years later.