Can you be pro-life and pro-death penalty?

The death penalty in America

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  • Carol Costello: Can you be pro-life and pro-death penalty at the same time?
  • She says one Oklahoma state representative is OK with executions but strongly pro-life
  • Catholic Church has "consistent ethic of life," opposing abortion and the death penalty
  • Costello: Only a small minority of Americans are consistent on the two issues

Can you be pro-life and pro-death penalty?

It's a question more than one person I know is asking after Oklahoma's botched execution of Clayton Lockett. Not necessarily because of the way Oklahoma tortuously executed the convicted killer, but because of the hard-core way some reacted to Lockett's execution.

Like Mike Christian. The pro-life Oklahoma state representative told The Associated Press, "I realize this may sound harsh, but as a father and former lawman, I really don't care if it's by lethal injection, by the electric chair, firing squad, hanging, the guillotine or being fed to the lions."

He also threatened to impeach judges who dared delay executions for any reason.

Carol Costello

This is from a man who is so strongly pro-life he voted for eight bills in four years to prevent women in Oklahoma from terminating their pregnancies, or, as many who oppose abortion say, "killing babies."

Color me confused. So, Rep. Christian says it's OK to kill, unless you're a woman who wants to end her pregnancy?

As I told my friends during a heated debate last weekend, that smacks of hypocrisy.

The only nonhypocritical viewpoint, I argued, exists in the Catholic Church.

Catholics believe in the "Consistent Ethic of Life." As Georgetown's Father Thomas Reese puts it, "we are concerned about a person from womb to tomb."

"Life is something that comes from God and shouldn't be taken away by man," Reese told me.

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Put simply, the Catholic Church opposes abortion and the death penalty. Period. Except nothing in life is that simple. Especially our collective views on the death penalty and abortion.

If you ask a Southern Baptist, he or she will likely tell you the Catholic Church is wrong.

"There is no contradiction here," R. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told me, referring to Rep. Christian's underlying position.

Christian's words were "careless," and don't "reflect any Biblical ... defense of the death penalty," he says, but it does not defy logic if Christian is pro-life and pro-death penalty.

"It's not an eye-for-an-eye kind of thing," explained Mohler. "Retribution is not the same as a demand for justice. In Genesis 9, God speaks to Noah after the flood. When someone takes human life, they forfeit their own life."

So, I asked, "Should a woman who's had an abortion forfeit her own life?"

Mohler emphatically answered, "no."

Lockett deserved to die, he said, because the act of murder "was taken in wanton disregard of the life taken and given the nature of the crime, this individual has forfeited his right to live." (Lockett not only raped and shot his victim, but ordered his accomplice to bury her alive.)

Don't get me wrong; pro-lifers could argue that pro-choice, anti-death penalty believers are inconsistent, too. How can you choose to end life, but adamantly oppose the death penalty?

Apparently, consistency is not America's strong suit. According to a 2010 study, only about 8% of Americans oppose abortion and the death penalty under all circumstances.

James Unnever, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, co-authored the study. He expected his test results to show a consistent belief system in all kinds of premeditated death. In other words, if you believe in the sanctity of life, you would be opposed to euthanasia, the death penalty and abortion.

Turned out, that was not remotely true.

"From a religious position, the Catholic faith is the most consistent life ethic," Unnever says. "Religion is only one factor that affects using the death penalty." The other factor, he says, is politics. "When you get people who are against abortion and for the death penalty, that's not as much a religious effect as a politics effect. Politics trumps any religion."

Jacinta Gau, professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida, co-authored two studies on attitudes about abortion and capital punishment. She was also surprised by the inconsistency many showed toward life issues.

Of those who strongly oppose abortion, yet strongly approve of the death penalty, Gau says: "What seems to link those two attitudes together is related to fundamentalism, a literal interpretation of the Bible, and an inflexible way of viewing society in general," Gau says. "I'm not sure they really view it as a contradiction. There's a punitive attitude toward this -- kind of like if you don't want a child, don't engage in risky sexual behavior; if you kill someone, you deserve death."

And Gau says pro-choice, anti-death penalty believers also don't see a contradiction. Those who are pro-choice don't "see abortion as ending a life," she says. "The death penalty becomes completely separate for the pro-choice people, because it's about a woman's right to choose."

Truth told, the "Consistent Ethic of Life," is relatively new to the Catholic Church. For centuries, the church supported capital punishment.

But passionate pro-life and death penalty foes, such as Sister Helen Prejean, convinced the church that "helping to kill a defenseless person" in any circumstance is wrong.

"What's more innocent than an unborn baby?" Prejean told me. "It's easy to be against that." Then Prejean went for the jugular. The people who commit terrible crimes, "Could you kill them? If there's a part of you who can't say yes to that, then you can't say yes to the death penalty."

I must admit I was humbled by Prejean's question. Couple that with the fact we can now lock up violent criminals for life and I, again, find myself arguing for the "Consistent Ethic of Life."

As for Mohler, the Southern Baptist leader, he offered me this final thought: "If I had the opportunity to trade the death penalty for the affirmation of protection of the life of the unborn, I'd take it in a second."

Let the debate rage on.

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