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 Volume 2.14  This View’s Guest Column December 9, 2002 

Matters of Life and Death
    Susanna Cornett    

Recently I’ve seen in several places a mantra of the left that goes something like this:

If you think abortion is wrong, how can you be for capital punishment? And if your answer is, people sentenced to die are guilty of heinous things and the unborn are innocent, how can you be for a war where innocents will die?

It’s a good question, for all that conservatives tend to roll their eyes and think the answers should be obvious. I was thinking about it recently, and decided I’d like to explain the answer, at least from my perspective. I make no claim to speak for anyone else.

First, a few definitions. To me, abortion is ending the potential for life that exists in a fertilized egg or zygote or fetus (whatever word, whatever stage) that, if not interfered with, would be born as a living human. I believe life begins at conception. Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is the state taking the life of a person who has committed an offense defined by society as worthy of death, and the sentence of death comes at the end of a fair trial. In my judgment, that is permissible when a person’s behavior has so completely gone beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior as to result in two conditions: the need to remove the person from ever having the opportunity to offend again, and the responsibility of society to avenge an egregious offense committed not just against a human, but against humanity. I’ll say up front that I think it’s a sentence given too often, but one that is valid and even necessary for our society to employ. Finally, war is the pitting of strengths between two or more groups (usually between nations) where one is trying to impose its will on the other by use of force; a fight becomes a war based on the scale of the battles, the level of potential for harm (in deaths and dollars) and the scope of the intent. I won’t address the morality of war yet, as that is a part of my later discussion.

This discussion is not about whether abortion is right or wrong; it’s about how someone who thinks it is wrong could think the other two are right. Therefore I won’t begin by defending my pro-life position, and I won’t be addressing how anyone else’s differing beliefs would fit into the equation. You’re more than welcome to do that yourself.

I alluded to the straightforward answer to the abortion-capital punishment issue above. It really is about innocence vs. guilt. An unborn child has done nothing wrong, has made no choices (not even to exist), and is totally acted upon when aborted. A person who has received the death penalty has chosen a line of behavior that caused great harm to one or more people, and did so in a state of mind that allowed for a different choice. They could have avoided the behavior and didn’t. As I mentioned above, I don’t think the death penalty should be given for simple acts of violence; it should be reserved for truly gratuitous evil. A good example is a case I read about this week, where a man who was invited into the home of a good family, just to help him out, later choked the homeowner’s 8 year old granddaughter almost to death, then raped her until she was bloody and left her to die (which she did) between the wall and the bed in his room. He viciously stabbed the homeowner to death in her bed while her other granddaughter watched, then tied up that granddaughter without further assaulting her, and left. He is someone I think should be executed, and I would pull the switch (or drop the lever, if it was a death by gas or chemicals) myself.

So we have the dichotomy set up — innocence vs evil, protect one, destroy the other. Then you find the duality of war: To destroy the evil, you must accept the death of innocents. How can you make that choice?

The death of innocents is always tragic and every effort should be made to avoid it. But situations arise where evil is growing, and there is no good choice that excises the evil like laser surgery for cancer, without damaging or killing good tissue nearby. The case of an attack on Iraq is a good example. Saddam has used chemical agents to kill citizens of his own country. He has invaded another country for personal gain. He is trying to obtain even greater weapons (and may be close to getting them) and has supported repeated small attacks on US citizens, interests and allies where many have died. He hates the United States. There is good reason to think he intends to harm and kill many more. He is a cancer that is killing his own people and spreading to places outside his country. So it is appropriate to consider stopping him.

But in the final analysis, whether this is a just war is not important here — because while the killing of innocents that happens in war and the moral correctness of engaging in a particular war are related, they are not the same issue. It’s similar to what I used to tell my students when discussing the death penalty — the first question is, is the death penalty a morally correct option? If it’s not, then the discussion stops there. If it is morally correct, then the next question is, can it be implemented so that the good that results supersedes the harm? And that is not a straight utilitarian equation where a simple preponderance of good is sufficient to offset even a substantial harm. The good must be so much better than the harm that it essentially overwhelms the harm. And often the good, in the case of both the death penalty and war, is the preventing of a different harm. So finally we have the question: Is the harm prevented by applying this solution greater than the harm that will result from the solution itself? Another analogy may be illustrative — think of a gangrenous limb. It is never a preferred thing for a person to go through life without a leg. However, there will be no life if the leg is not removed, so the harm prevented by the amputation is greater than the harm it visits.

And there you come to war. It is never a good and happy thing. Anyone who starts their argument by saying “war is bad” has just taken the argument back to the moral equation which precedes the situational question. First they must answer the question themselves, Is war ever the correct thing to do? If they answer no, then they must explain what good lies in the organic expansion of evil that will result in a world with no hard boundaries and no consequences for stepping over them. If they answer yes, sometimes it is the correct thing, then they have emptied that first point of impact and move to the next stage — is this war correct? It is therefore justified to ask someone who says, “War is bad”, just what the alternative is. Of course some of those people live in a mental utopia akin to willful insanity, and you can do no more than offer them a cup of tea and turn the conversation to cats. But with thoughtful people, you can make the solid point that they have their own justifications to make before they can stand on any solid foundation to question you.

My final answer, then, is this: Abortion is wrong because the death of an innocent living being is caused deliberately for the sake of convenience. The death penalty is right because the death of a guilty and evil person is caused deliberately for the dual purposes of preventing the evil from recurring and exacting the just vengeance of society, and it is only right when that is what has happened. War is right when it prevents greater harm even as it inflicts substantial harm in its own right; it is even more correct when great effort is made to minimize harm to innocents inevitably caught up in the hostilities. War is not a source of pleasure or excitement; the death of evil is a source of both.

cut on the bias
November 19, 2002

© 2002 Susanna Cornett. Used with permission.

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 Volume 2.14 This View’s Guest Column December 9, 2002 

The View from the Core, and all original material, © 2002 E. L. Core. All rights reserved.

Cor ad cor loquitur J. H. Newman — “Heart speaks to heart”