And How Many Death Row Inmates Have You Adopted Lately?
by Brenda Fine
January 11, 1999
I became active online in the prolife movement some time before I became a prolife activist in "real life". It seemed a natural way to ease in the movement: I could express myself while keeping at something of a distance from my opponents, and, worst case scenario, if things got too heated, I could always duck out and no one would think any less of me for it. Several online friends, opponents, and articles later, of course, I can safely conclude that I was pretty misguided in my intentions. I've stuck around considerably longer than I planned, and online activism has turned out to be no less emotional, draining, and, yes, rewarding than my "real life" commitments. But I'm glad I started out this way: if it weren't for some online experiences, I would be far less knowledgeable about what sorts of things would alienate my opponents and what sorts of things would make them say, "Gee, Brenda, you just might have a point, after all."
I guess that I've been somewhat at an advantage in this whole ordeal, as I (like many lifers) don't fit neatly into any of the stereotypes that have been so carelessly carved out for us. In fact, a good part of my ideology could be described as - dare I say it? - liberal. Consequently, I didn't take the bait when a liberal prochoicer challenged me on debate board, "You're prolife, eh - so what about the death penalty?" I pulled the whole consistent-life-ethic spiel, and my challenger conceded the point to me, and I faded off into the background for awhile.
But, I'm ready now to offer an alternate reconciliation of views. As every good philosophy minor knows, an informal, unstructured philosophical system, when wielded correctly, can be used to prove anything. In this particular case, there does indeed exist a liberal case for the death penalty, and I, as a sometime-leftist, feel qualified to present it.
I maintain that it is wholly inconsistent for a good prochoice liberal to be against capital punishment.
The left wing is traditionally associated with the fight for minority rights and anti-poverty legislation. So, it seems quite reasonable that an individual subscribing to these ideals would see the death penalty, as implemented in the United States, as a highly discriminatory practice. Blacks get the brunt of the penalty: "Between 1930 and 1990, 4,016 persons were executed in the United States. Of these, 2,129 (or 53 percent) were black. For the crime of murder, 3,343 were executed; 1,693 (or 51 percent) were black. During these years African-Americans were about 12 per cent of the nation's population. " (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Capital Punishment," 1977, and NAACP LDF, "Death Row, USA," Spring 1992. ) Similarly, and not surprisingly, poor people are more likely to be executed: "Approximately ninety percent of those on death row could not afford to hire a lawyer when they were tried" (Tabak, in Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review (1989)). (1)
Obviously, it is distressing that blacks and poor people comprise such a large proportion of those executed. However, we should try to be realistic about things. Now, I don't like the death penalty - I don't think anyone does. I don't think that anyone is really pro-death penalty, per se; furthermore, the discrimination against blacks and poor people that exists in our society distresses me. Sometimes, however, the death penalty is the lesser of all evils.
Consider: Drugs, the scourge of the black community, are wiping out one, two, three generations. Blacks are killing themselves and each other. Rape and other unspeakable acts of violence are becoming sickeningly commonplace within the black community (2). In light of all this, why are we fighting the death penalty, which discriminates only against black criminals, rather than helping end discrimination against those blacks who don't give their race such a bad name?
Don't get me wrong: I'm against discrimination; in fact, I'm an ethnic minority myself. But, discrimination exists, and it's not such a simple affair to stop it. Prison guards have historically demonstrated considerable hostility toward black prisoners. The guards just don't want to take care of blacks; that's a problem, naturally, but, again, let's be realistic - we can't make them be as nice to these prisoners as they would toward white ones, when obviously no one wants to. We should encourage acceptance of blacks, sure, but until blacks are equal in our society, we should be able to put black criminals to death.
Similar reasoning applies to why the death penalty as applied to poor criminals of any race is, though obviously a problem, is also the lesser of evils. We taxpayers just can't afford to pay for good lawyers for poor criminals! With this in mind, other circumstances of these poor criminals' lives, such as finances, are much less easily changed than their being alive and so, for the judges sentencing these criminals, the decision to put them to death can be very straightforward (3). Furthermore, we can't support them in jail. If they go to jail, they could have children. Who's going to support these children? The children of poor people are more likely than other children to be poor themselves, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty (4) Should we really let this become of future generations, when, by sanctioning the death penalty in these delicate cases, we could stop the cycle?
Oh, yeah, and...everything I wrote in the previous four paragraphs is absolute garbage, and it made me sick to write it.
I wrote it for a reason, however. The arguments that I made in the above paragraphs should sound familiar to anyone who's ever participated in an abortion debate; in fact, I copy/pasted them (with appropriate changes that left the arguments intact) from prochoice websites. The death penalty discriminates against blacks and poor people; so does abortion - and we can see evidence of this from the websites that I cited. Just as black and poor adults comprise a disproportionate number of death row inmates, so too do black and poor women contribute a disproportionate number of fetuses to the tally of the aborted.
I'm not arguing that every good prochoice liberal should be in favour of the death penalty. I'm arguing that everyone who genuinely wants to eliminate discrimination shouldn't allow killing, whether by suction or by electrocution, on the grounds that there won't be any killing once discrimination has been eliminated.
Yes...there is discrimination against blacks. Yes...a lot of adoptive couples don't want to take care of black babies, just as a lot of prison guards don't want to take care of black inmates. Yes...poverty is a problem, and a lot of fetuses are put to death because it's expensive to care for them, just as many inmates are put to death because they can't afford to get anyone to represent them well. The prochoice mentality merely highlights something that most of us have known all along: that it's a whole lot easier to get rid of people than it is to get rid of problems. The opposition to the death penalty demonstrates something far more important: That 'easier' doesn't necessarily mean 'better'; in fact, it seldom does.
This is the real Brenda talking now: when we tell a group that we love them and tell them that that's why their members are dying, our words are empty. If we're going to reach out and try to end discrimination, we can't give up on people when their cause starts costing time and effort and money. If it's not kind and compassionate to kill a poor or black inmate because it takes time and effort and money to sustain him, then it's not kind and compassionate to kill a poor or black fetus for the same reason. And so, I'm just not convinced that the prochoices who demand "And how many blacks have you adopted lately?" in abortion debates are telling the entire story. Perhaps the prochoice movement would lose some credibility if those who ask such questions were to truthfully append, "Myself, I haven't adopted any; that's prolifers' job. I'm doing my part by killing them."
This article copyright © 1999 by Brenda Fine and may not be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of its author. All rights reserved.