Are Pro-Lifers Who Are Pro-Capital Punishment Being Inconsistent?

Author Aaron Brake Published on 07/10/2019

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?”

In his book Defending Life (see pp. 126–127), Philosopher Francis Beckwith tackles this question and presents several important rejoinders.

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.”

Second, remember the pro-life syllogism:

  1. It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being.

  2. Elective abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being.

  3. 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 life inside the womb. This is a critical difference, and there is no reasonable analogy or moral equivalence between the two. The objection also misunderstands the pro-life position. As 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.”

Third, if being pro-life and pro-capital punishment is inconsistent, does that mean being pro-choice and against capital punishment is likewise inconsistent? After all, a pro-life advocate could argue it is inconsistent to value human life in the case of capital punishment and then support killing human beings in the womb. Even worse, this position supports saving guiltyhuman beings while advocating the destruction of innocent human life without due process. Instead of attacking someone’s intellectual consistency, why not just focus on the arguments for each position and let the best arguments win?

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 abortion-choice advocate is so concerned with consistency, as Beckwith says, “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?”

In short, pro-life advocates who support capital punishment are pro-innocentlife, 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 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.” Valuable human beings, made in God’s image, and yet still liable to capital punishment when guilty of murder. There is no inherent inconsistency.