Human Life is Sacred: What the death penalty, abortion, birth control, and 9/11 can teach us about the intersection of homicide and suicide

For a couple of years now I have come to believe that the death penalty should not be enforced. By this, I am not saying that the death penalty should not exist or that the death penalty should be abolished. On the contrary, there are acts that are so heinous that justice demands a sentence of death! However, once pronounced, humanity must step in and commute death to life imprisonment…unless the offender consents.

I am also more than a little perplexed by the contradictions of most death penalty apologists—chiefly the right-wing, evangelical conservatives—and often these are the very ones who also oppose abortion. How can it be that one life is sacred and the other is not? No, I really think the only group with a consistent message is the Catholic church which opposes both abortion and death penalty. I stop just short of endorsing that doctrine, but I do acknowledge its soundness.

I am even further confused by the fact that conservative evangelicals proclaim life to be created by a holy divinity but then readily call for a human so created to be put to death. How does one so cavalierly say that a life created by God should be ended by man? Is this giant leap somehow made easier by viewing the offender as less than human? This is chicken-and-egg reasoning whereby the one sitting in judgment justifies the act of judging on the premise that the person judged deserves being judged and thus the one judging justifies the act of judging by the degree of moral separation between the one who is judging and the one who is judged. In the academic speak of rhetorical analysis, this circular reasoning is referred to as constructing the image of the self-same by constructing the image of the other.

Christian theology of any flavor cannot support otherness constructs (but that doesn’t stop them from trying). The Apostle Paul concluded in Romans 3:23 that every person has transgressed and thus irremediably fails to reach God’s standard of righteousness. In order to receive salvation, the penitent must admit this fact, but in short order human nature takes over and the penitent begins to classify transgressions by a subjective measure: murder is only slightly worse than human trafficking, voluntary  prostitution is roughly on par with elective abortion (and both are worse than adultery), taking the Lord’s name in vain is worse than ordinary profanity, etc., etc.

Yes, I do have an opinion on the subject of abortion but as I have neither vagina nor uterus, I generally keep that opinion to myself, but just this once I’ll say it here: if a fetus looks like a person, I believe the fetus is a person; if a fetus has enough brain development to kick, hiccup, and move about in response to external stimuli, then the fetus has enough neurology to feel pain. But apart from this I think that abortions is a matter of personal ethic that a woman must resolve (hopefully in consultation with her partner, circumstances permitting). But there is yet another contradiction deep within the protestant pro-life doctrine dogma that life begins at conception.

What very few people understand (aside from physicians) is that hormonal birth control is a combination of estrogen and progestin (or some analogues thereof). And I am not confusing this with the placebo pills that permit menstruation. No, the first hormone is administered to prevent ovulation and the other hormone is administered to alter cervical mucous so as to impede spermatic motility. But progestin also alters the endometrium to prevent embryonic implantation just in case ovulation occurred and just in case sperm made it past the mucous. And there is even a “mini pill” which contains only one hormone–progestin–that does not stop ovulation at all and instead works by preventing implantation in the uterine wall. So basically, these birth control scenarios are themselves abortion if one actually believes that life begins at conception. Life-at-conception also rules out “Plan B” emergent contraception which forces menstruation irrespective of implantation.

But returning to the topic of elective abortion, the distinction between early-term abortion (as with RU-486) and the aforestated facts about hormonal birth control seems to vanish. It also seems that the subjective differentiation goes back to subjective perception of transgression. If pregnancy ensues outside of marriage, the horny couple should accept the consequences, plunge into a doomed marriage, and divorce when the child is on the cusp of adolescence (who then acts out in socially incompatible—and often promiscuous—ways). How does the suffering of this child compare to a gelatinous blob of cells that has no more ability to feel pain than an excised polyp? And how does this accept-the-consequences scenario square with a adultery? It seems that on the transgression continuum, extramarital sex is perhaps worse than premarital sex, but adultery excuses divorce while promiscuity demands entering into a youthful marriage that is statistically predestined for divorce. How is that logical? How can the same “offense” justify both union and separation? It makes about as much sense as murdering a murderer. Executing a prisoner cannot restore the life already taken so how is a doubling of the lives lost a sound premise? Most people do not even know that the death certificates of executed persons specify “homicide” as the manner of death (which makes sense considering that homicide is, after all, one human taking the life of another human.) But hey, this brings me back to the paused discussion of the death penalty. HOORAY!

Commuting death sentences to life imprisonment has many practical advantages. First, it seems like I once heard that states grant automatic appeals to their supreme courts for review the death sentence. Maybe that is correct or maybe it’s just wishful propaganda to ease our conscientious minds that the death is the will of some abstract idea of justice. But I do know that a number of states grant an automatic re-trial to anyone sentenced to death. And after exhausting state appeals come federal habeas proceedings, all of which create a horrendous taxpayer expense. Actually, it’s a triple expense because taxpayers foot the bill for appellate counsel of the accused, taxpayers bear the additional costs incurred by the state’s attorney general, and taxpayers shell out Benjamins to pay more judges and build higher capacity courthouses. Most scholars agree that the cost of lifetime prisoner housing is a vastly superior public policy than the horrendous costs of litigating a death sentence.

But I do hold a caveat to death penalty commutations when the offender voluntarily requests or consents to death. There are many reasons why an accused might request death. Timothy McVeigh waived all appeals and even litigated to expedite his death sentence. But Timothy McVeigh had  a martyr complex and believed that death was an acceptable, calculated risk. But I also think that McVeigh hated being caged in a prison cell and his former bravado probably waned upon arriving at the big house where inmates couldn’t care less about his ideology. In all, McVeigh died six years and two months after the Oklahoma City bombing (in contrast to the 25-30 years that many inmates spend on death-row). But McVeigh is an outlier and I would like to refer to the plot of The Green Mile. The truly innocent person might indeed view and embrace death as an end to suffering with nothing to fear in the afterlife. Or maybe the repentant soul is so wrought with remorse so as to believe death is warranted. Or maybe the repentant soul offers his or her death as an act of contrition to the bereaved family. Or maybe the agnostic just decides after unsuccessfully exhausting all appeals that life in prison is no life at all and wishes to stop existing. I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons why an offender might elect death, but my premise is that there is an unstateable (not sure if that is a word) difference between taking a life and surrendering a life.

I realize that my position is awkwardly perched at the apex of a doubly slippery slope with homicide on the right and suicide on the left, and that is precisely why I turned the phrase “surrendering a life.” The sentence of death was already pronounced so it isn’t exactly suicide. And death is only by consent so it isn’t exactly homicide either. I think to make this solution ethically sound, both the prison warden and the prisoner should simultaneously press a button or throw a switch to induce death. The death certificate could not then conclusively ascertain whether the manner of death was homicide or suicide. It would necessarily remain blank or a new statement of the manner of death would have to be devised.

In some ways the homicide/suicide dilemma shadows the decisions faced by occupants of the World Trade Center on Sept 11, 2001. Understand that by no means am I comparing those innocent civilians to convicted prisoners, but rather I am attempting to remove the prior contemplation from questions of guilt and innocence, judgment and justice, ethic and law. The transposed question is this: Is leaping to one’s death from a building engulfed in flames suicide or homicide? The argument can go both ways. Persons who perish in fires are generally presumed to first lose consciousness from hypoxia or head trauma and thus are not believed to suffer the agony of flames. I cannot say what I would choose were I in that situation, but I do know that those who chose to jump knew that several strangers imposed a death sentence on them that day and somewhere in the nebulous gray they chose what seemed most fitting to them. No one can definitively judge the decision to burn or to jump as cowardice or courage or both or neither.

All human life is sacred and the loss of any life is tragic. Our society views suicide as an illness and homicide as a crime. Two wrongs do not make a right, but perhaps in the absolute midpoint lies an undefined coordinate that is neither right nor wrong. And perhaps how we embrace this hypothesis will also serve to inform our views on physician-assisted suicide.

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