If the "right to life" is denied in abortion, isn't it also denied in the use of the death penalty?



Many people who support death penalty are also against abortion, and vice-versa.

What is the moral difference between the two? In both cases, isn't the "right to life" of another being violated?

What are the major ethical or philosophical positions on the problems involved with these sorts of "somatic rights"?


Posted 2011-07-18T21:05:34.983

Reputation: 390

1Welcome! What a good and interesting question. The formulation was a bit casual, so I have tried to focus it down a bit and provide a bit of context -- I have also reformulated the title to reflect the content of the question a bit better. Just letting you know so you can improve further, but try to keep it at least this specific if you can -- you are always welcome to ask more questions :) – Joseph Weissman – 2011-07-18T23:39:35.227

3I had no idea that "many people who support the death penalty are also against abortion, and vice-versa". In fact, that's not been my experience, nor do I personally fit into that assessment. – Cody Gray – 2011-07-19T13:48:25.413

1The trouble with this argument is that it is completely reversible and thus, in my opinion, not useful. For example, the person it was directed at could just say "You're right, so why do you support abortion, but NOT the death penalty? Why is it okay to kill innocent children, but not criminals?" (and around you go) – John Fuex – 2011-08-09T15:41:08.640

@Cody: as with all generalities, there are difficulties, but at least in the US, the generic conservative position is for the death penalty but against abortion, and the generic liberal position is against the death penalty but for abortion. That is pretty obvious (as to generic description). But that is a different assessment from what individuals think or what a poll might find (I personally think a poll would agree that conservative->death penalty OK, abortion not, liberal-> abortion OK, death penalty not. – Mitch – 2011-08-09T19:12:25.430

@JohnFuex Well no, the argument would be that killing a handful of cells is not "killing an innocent child", not to mention that mandating pregnancies violates body rights. Also, the death penalty has consistently been shown to cost states a lot more money than simply imprisoning the criminal for life, is not a deterrent, can actually increase murder rates (publicized executions), etc. So no, it's not quite the same reversed. :P – stoicfury – 2012-03-29T21:10:51.943

1@stoicfury You arguing the point on the fringes not the core. Both sides of that argument hinge on your core belief about whether a fetus represents a human life and thus is due human rights. All of the other arguments are secondary. Of course no one argues at this level because it is a subjective and moral distinction that you really can't talk someone out of with objective discourse. – John Fuex – 2012-03-29T23:18:35.150

1@JohnFuex But I think one can still debate about it and convince others to go from one side to another. Not everyone's views are set in stone, and many people's views rest on false assumptions which may be easily dismantled, helping them see the error of their ways. I do it all the time! ;) – stoicfury – 2012-03-30T00:57:10.660



Death penalty is a punishment, (in theory) reserved for the most heinous of crimes. While this is often done medically it does not have to be. Firing squads, hanging(thenyc.com has a NSFW Video i am not going to link from syria of mass hanging in last month), and electric chair are still common throughout the world.

That said there is no moral difference when considering commandment "Thou shalt not kill". Taking a life is still taking a life. You can justify the execution but that should not be confused with making it morally better. The commandment is not thou shalt not kill unless you deem the crime heinous. So to support one but oppose the other would seem hipocritical.

Hammurabi first proposed a set of laws that tried to set punishments that were equal to the crimes committed. Currently most advanced societies have moved to a policy that have lessened the punishment for some crimes, particularly violent crimes. The policies often involve the possiblity of release from prison, and often the potential for the death penalty in certian countries. One could argue that when committing the crime the perpetrator knew the potential penalty and thus committed a form of suicide. Albiet one that will be completed by agents of the government.


Posted 2011-07-18T21:05:34.983

Reputation: 1 512


The real question, in the context you phrased it, is whether a person has the right to waive their "right to life" through the commission of a heinous felony or euthanasia. I think this concept reconciles the apparent contradiction in position of those who support abortion and/or the death penalty, but not both.

John Fuex

Posted 2011-07-18T21:05:34.983

Reputation: 151


There is a contradiction if the distinction isn't made between the death penalty as a form of punishment or as a necessary means of protecting society. The former, is indefensible if juxtaposed with the belief in a right to life and the latter, in any society capable of producing prisons keeping inmates in near complete isolation, is nearly never the case.

The reason killing as a form of punishment is not justified by one who adopts the 'right to life' philosophy is that it doesn't protect any other peoples lives. The personalistic norm of John Paul II says a person is an entity towards which the only proper way to relate is love. The notion of 'doing unto others as they would do unto you' could be used to justify the death penalty is thrown out the door when you consider the personalistic norm, as do many prolifers. The personalistic norm doesn't mean surrender yourself or your family to invaders who want to kill you, when any notion of 'proper relations' has gone out the door.

The reason killing as a form of punishment is accepted as a plank of the Republican Party is that it is a tough way to deal with crime. That's not very philosophical or wise.

People often conflate these two very different ideas, but I'd like to hope we're moving away from the death penalty (and life sentences) altogether.

Peter Turner

Posted 2011-07-18T21:05:34.983

Reputation: 621


The way you stated your question, I'm not entirely clear what you are asking. You seem to be asking, "By what means/under what circumstances can someone simultaneously justify taking someone's life and upholding life value (right to life)?"

It is technically not a conflicting position to hold as long as you don't believe that this life value (or "right to life") is an intrinsic value or right. You just have to assert that it is contingent on each person's behavior. That is, one's right to life can be forfeited under certain circumstances (i.e. after a heinous crime is committed). Under this view, people are born and by default they are given the right to life as long as they abide by society's prevailing moral standards.

  • A fetus then—which has not made any real choices and is thus innocent—has a right to life.
  • A criminal who is facing the death penalty has summarily forfeited his right to life.

It is only a conflict if you hold that life is intrinsically valuable. Then you would never be able to justify taking a life, except perhaps in self-defense.


Posted 2011-07-18T21:05:34.983

Reputation: 69


Although many people who hold the beliefs you described, many people who are anti-abortion identify with a "pro-life" movement that is also against things like the death penalty due to their "right to life" beliefs. These people would agree that the people you describe are holding contradictory views.

Michael McGowan

Posted 2011-07-18T21:05:34.983

Reputation: 201

1Yep, i can attest to the fact that this is the Catholic understanding of the question at hand. But you should probably phrase your answer as a philosophical statement. I think the reasoning behind the doctrine is very sound. – Peter Turner – 2011-07-21T18:08:12.867

3I'd argue that those views aren't necessarily contradictory. Let's remove the "when life begins" part of the argument, which is a given for pro-lifers in their worldview, and look at the issue again. Is it contradictory to be against the death penalty for toddlers who wet the bed and for it for convicted murderers over the age of 21? I'd argue that it isn't. Context matters. – John Fuex – 2011-08-09T15:44:55.580

1The context doesn't really matter if the main tenant of belief is the that every human life has an extremely large amount of intrinsic value. If that is the case (which it might not be if you are no a pro-lifer) then it seems to logically extend even to murderers. – Michael McGowan – 2011-08-09T16:00:24.923