A few weeks ago several students at Tyndale University College decided to start a Pro-Life Group to “represent the cause of life both on and off the Tyndale campus, to witness to the dignity of all human life from conception until natural death, and to address the injustices of abortion and active euthanasia in Canada…” In talking about this group with other people at Tyndale I was frequently asked if this group was just anti-abortion or if it was “fully pro-life.” By this they meant that the group should also be against capital punishment and war, if not then it wasn’t being consistent in its pro-life stance. While I am not a spokesman for the group I am pro-life and yet am not a pacifist nor am I opposed to capital punishment. It seems then some explanation is in order to demonstrate how one can consistently believe that war and capital punishment can be morally acceptable while abortion cannot.
First, why am I against abortion? The basic reason is that I do not believe the reasons given for permitting abortions are morally sufficient for the taking of innocent human life. I am against abortion because I am against the unjustified taking of human life.
Now, what about war and capital punishment? Is the taking of human life in war and via capital punishment morally justified? There is a long history in Christian thought arguing for that very idea. This just war tradition has not only been around for a long time, but it has also been the predominant position during that time. Now I’m not one to accept a view as being true simply because of its tradition or popularity, but those do count in its favor. In other words, because the just war tradition has been advocated over such a long period of time by so many influential Christian thinkers it becomes increasingly difficult to accept that the just-war tradition is obviously wrong. To think that one cannot even remain rationally consistent by advocating against abortion while ascribing to just-war theory is to assume that pacifism is the only genuinely Christian view, but such an assumption simply is not warranted. (For a fuller argument against paficism and for just-war theory, see my colleague Craig Carter’s article, “Why I’m Wearing a Poppy Today.”
A similar argument can be made regarding capital punishment, but because executions involve the intentional killing of a single person, as does abortion, it will be helpful to consider a different case for why these two are not relevantly similar. In the case of capital punishment there are at least prima facie reasons to think that it is morally acceptable. The person did something morally wrong and that wrong is so great that the best way to bring about justice is to execute the offender. In some sense, the person being executing brought his fate upon himself. But when it comes to abortion there are no reasons to think the unborn deserves such a fate. There is a fundamental difference between the two and that difference is what makes one morally justifiable and the other not, thus one can consistently advocate against abortion and support capital punishment.
Now, let’s assumes that everything I’ve said above is wrong. Even if it were, one would still be justified in starting a Pro-Life Group that does not spend a minute of its time discussing war or capital punishment. How could this be so? Well, consider a few statistics.
The U.S. began allowing executions again in 1976 and since then there have been 1,273 people executed. Since then America has fought in three main wars: Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom. The total number of casualties from those three wars (including all soldiers regardless of country and civilians) is 240,025. So the grand total of deaths by war and execution since 1976 is less than 250,000. By comparison, from 1991 (the year Desert Storm started) to 2007 (the last year statistics are available) there have been 17.5 million abortions in America alone. Canadian statistics on abortion are not as easy to come by, but since Canada is far less active militarily than the United States I take it to be a safe assumption that the war casualties would be far lower while the abortion numbers would likely be roughly equivalent (on a per capita basis).
I don’t know why people believe what they do, but the only way I can make sense of someone trying to equate capital punishment and war with abortion is that they just don’t fully appreciate the anti-abortion position. If you think the child or adult is more valuable than the unborn, then I agree, perhaps we shouldn’t focus too narrowly on the unborn. But that’s not the fully pro-life position. The fully pro-life position states that the unborn has no less a right to life than anyone else.
If your goal is to reduce the number of unjustified killings then you can make a lot more progress on that front by focusing on the abortion issue – even if you happen to find war and capital punishment morally wrong too.