Capital Punishment and Abortion

By Prof. Paul Eidelberg

In the Mishna we read: “Therefore but a single man was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single soul to perish, Scripture imputes it to him as though he had caused a whole world to perish; and if any man saves alive a single soul, Scripture imputes it to him as though he had saved alive a whole world.”

To avoid misunderstanding, let me state at the outset that, except in extreme cases, I do not advocate capital punishment in Israel at this time. Nor do I regard as correct the Catholic view of abortion. But there is something very curious about the liberal position on these two issues, especially by liberals who advocate the American practice of “abortion on demand.”

Among the arguments against capital punishment is the contention that society has no right to take the life even of the most savage murderer. Yet many if not most opponents of capital punishment assert the right of a woman, six and even more months pregnant, to snuff out, with the aid of a physician, the life of her unborn child. Murderers would thus be spared while the innocent would be murdered.

We have become “humane” and “progressive.” For now we feel compassion, perhaps some responsibility, for those who have taken life, not for those who have just begun to live. Without a twinge of moral doubt or remorse we execute the unborn and condemn as cruel and barbaric the execution of murderers.

That capital punishment should be called cruel and barbaric by its opponents is a nice commentary on our forefathers. Meanwhile, their humane descendants each year execute countless unborn babies whose only crime was to be unwanted.

An individual accused of murder receives due process of law. He is provided legal counsel to defend him, witnesses to testify on his behalf. In the United States a jury of twelve persons is empanelled to hear and weigh evidence bearing on his guilt or innocence. Let only one member of that jury entertain a reasonable doubt as to his guilt and the accused is acquitted, his life spared.

Compare the plight of the unwanted, unborn child. He is utterly abandoned. Society affords him no defense, no legal counsel or friendly witness. Yet the life of the unborn child is on trial. He is on trial for being an inconvenient “fetus.” But we too are on trial, on trial in the courtroom of indifference called the “humane” and “progressive” society. We are not only spectators; we are also the jury. And we have been instructed by judges. They have told us that this unborn child is not a human being — which we are all the more ready to believe having been taught to regard it as a mere “fetus.”

Had we not been thus instructed, had we only harbored a reasonable doubt on this life and death issue, we would have acquitted the child rather than become his executioners. Only a reasonable doubt, nothing more than this, and we would have affirmed the child’s as well as our own humanity.

Liberal advocates of abortion intone the idea that a person has the right to control his or her own body. Some derive this right from British common law. To stretch the common law to justify “abortion on demand” is rather ironic. For the common law prohibited the arbitrary control of another person’s body and regarded a “fetus” as a “person”! This being so, it was impermissible to execute a pregnant murderess. But this is not the only irony.

The idea of “abortion on demand” actually violates the very nature of a woman’s body and the essence of motherhood. This can best be seen by reflecting on the Hebrew word for a woman’s womb — rechem. One cognate of the word rechem is “to feel pity or pain at another’s suffering.” Another is “to feel joy at another’s happiness.” Who feels more pain than a mother when her child is ill, or more joy when her child is well and successful. But this is not all.

The mother’s body nourishes the child in her womb. She gives of her own life’s substance to the child, a giving that signifies her selflessness. The very opposite character trait underlies “abortion on demand.”

The laws of our supposedly barbaric forefathers prohibited abortion unless the mother’s life was in danger. Many of our forefathers were doctors. Today many doctors, having added abortions to their repertoire of services, have also multiplied their yearly earnings. Because of this vested interest, the medical profession has become one of the principal supporters of abortion.

As for capital punishment, consider a few aspects of Judaic law on the subject. First, neither circumstantial evidence nor the confession of the accused is admissible under the Sanhedrin. Second, the murder had to be witnessed by two eligible persons, and they had to warn the would-be murderer of the consequences of his intended crime. For to be culpable the malefactor had to be sane, and the act of murder had to be deliberate. These qualifications made conviction for capital punishment exceedingly rare.

Clearly, these laws governing capital punishment do not depreciate the value of human life. To the contrary. Precisely because human life is sacred, those laws require the execution of convicted murderers, of those whose act of murder was itself a denial that human life is sacred.

By taking the life of a human being the murderer negates his own humanity; he reduces himself to the level of the beast. And it is more as a beast, homo lupus, than as homo civilis, that the murderer, after being duly tried and convicted, is executed. Imposing upon him the extreme penalty of death does not deny his humanity so much as it affirms the humanity or dignity of his victim. Perhaps, in the last analysis, the punishment of death is a profound public affirmation of the sanctity of life.

But these thoughts are not intended as a defense of capital punishment, else far more would have to be said on the subject. Let them rather stand as an argument against capital punishment: the capital punishment tolerated under the name of “abortion on demand” or its equivalent. If capital punishment is opposed on the ground that human life is so precious that even the life of the most vicious murderer must be spared, do we not cheapen life by the wholesale destruction of countless unborn children? Is the murderer more human than the unborn child?

One last word. In Alex Haley’s celebrated book, Roots, Omoro, one of the principal characters, tries to explain life and death to young Kunta Kinte: “He said that three groups of people lived in every village. First were those you could see — walking around, eating, sleeping, and working. Second were the ancestors, whom Grandma Yaisa had now joined.” “And the third people — who are they?” asked Kunta.

“The third people,” said Omoro, “are those waiting to be born.”

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