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Over at Darwin Catholic a commenter asked whether a pro-choice commenter on this weblog also supported the death penalty. I presume that they were here pointing to the consistent life ethic issue. Many liberals who oppose capital punishment support abortion rights, and many conservatives who support capital punishment oppose abortion rights. These camps both have their viewpoints, which I’m not interested in re-litigating in the comments. But I was curious as to the overall societal support for the combinations of positions.

So I looked at the GSS, using the CAPPUN and ABANY variables (capital punishment, and abortion for any reason). In this post I will show you screenshots of the GSS output. It’s ugly, but it shows you deviation away from the expected proportions. Basically, if two variables are independent you can predict what you’d expect to be the crossed percentages over the four cells. If the results deviate from that you can ascertain particular associations. In the GSS output red means that the cell has a higher value than it should, and blue a lower value. Additionally, the intensity signals the magnitude of the deviation. I limited all results to the year 2000 and later.

First, the general aggregate result:

What you see here is a moderate correlation between pro-termination positions (of murders and fetuses), and between anti-termination positions. I decided to break it down by demographic, and that’s where the strangeness jumped out at me (though not in hindsight).

First, non-Hispanic whites.

Now you see a striking reversal of the associations. The political stereotypes hold here; non-Hispanic whites who oppose abortion rights favor the death penalty. Those who favor abortion rights oppose the death penalty.

So let’s separate by ideology.


I was rather surprised by these results, and I don’t have anything succinct to say, so I’ll just leave them.

Now blacks & Hispanics.

As I said, in hindsight these patterns make sense. But interesting to see how they play out in any case….

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Data Analysis, Death Penalty, Ethics 
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  1. The Catholic Church reframes the question in terms of “innocent life.”

    It is never permissible to take innocent life. So abortion (and infanticide, which again is on the table) , euthanasia and assisted suicide are never permitted. The death penalty is permitted only for the most egregious crimes and only if the criminal cannot be rehabilitated. It should be very rare.

    The Church also argues for defensive just war in very limited circumstances (most wars aren’t just) and for an obligation to use violence (suitably constrained) to defend persons (and self) from an immediate present danger (not some hypothetical future danger). The death of the protagonist is permissible if it is unavoidable and unintentional–an accident.

    In this regard, our use of drones to kill suspected terrorists is immoral.

  2. While I agree that taking an anti-abortion stance and a pro-death sentence stance seem inconsistent, the converse is not true at all. I know you said that you are not interested in debating the viewpoints of both sides, but to explain why I think your apparent assumption that these two views are inconsistent is incorrect, I have to delve into it. I think it an important issue in interpreting your data.

    Our penal system is predicated upon vengeance, not justice, in that it does nothing to address the injury to the victim, but only to punish the criminal. This is a poor judicial system in that regards. The death sentence is the ultimate application of such a vengeance mindset. Add to this problem, there are what some consider a disturbingly large number of people on death row that are later found to be innocent or wholly incapable of understanding their crime. Whether or not one agrees with how much is disturbing or not, the point is that once the sentence is carried out, there is no way of correcting it, should it turn out to be mistaken. Then there is always the inconsistency of killing someone because they killed someone. While it fits the Old Testament eye for an eye, judicially it is highly inconsistent. These are the main reasons why people are against the death sentence.
    Abortion, on the other hand, is not affecting a life that is already here. It is affecting a potential life. A fetus that can not survive outside the womb has not yet taken its place as an independent life in any capacity. Potential lives are disposed of every day. Most fertilized eggs are not implanted and are simply expelled. To claim that a one-celled zygote, or even a multicellular blastula, deserves special protection as a human life does not follow scientific or medical rationale, any more than considering the placenta a separate life. People who are pro-choice do not see the sense in giving special protection to something without a fully functional nervous system or heart. Once that stage is past and the baby can have some potential chance at survival once removed from the womb or even before, when the baby can be shown to feel pain and responsiveness to external stimuli, many people who consider themselves pro-choice would accept banning abortions. It is the first half of the pregnancy that pro-choice individuals do not accept as a current life deserving of the same rights as an individual that is already walking around as an independent entity.
    The biggest problem here is that the debate has gotten polarized into two camps, in my view mainly because the most vocal of the anti-abortion people have pushed an extreme viewpoint. Nuanced opinion is not allowed in modern political discourse, much to the detriment of proper government.

  3. Just to clarify, I am sure you know the information I listed in the abortion paragraph. I merely included it as an important part of the viewpoint and the explanation of why it is not inconsistent with the pro-death sentence stance.

  4. Aren’t the two “liberal” opinions consistent with endowing the individual with the ability to make ethical decisions for oneself, and denying paternalistic impulses of the society?

    Generally, is there anything *absolute* about consistency between a pair of answers? Shouldn’t it depend on the *methods* used to come up with the answers, on the framework of evidence and the train of thought?

  5. Dm: a much more succinct explanation that gets right to the heart of the matter with clarity, as opposed to my long-winded oratory:)

  6. @1, Bob,

    I’m in favor overall of maximizing my quality of life and those nearest and dearest to me.


    1. I’m in favor of Abortion Under Any Circumstances, paid by the Govt, no questions asked. As no point in bringing a child into the world that no one wants or will care for – they are much more likely to become a burden on the state or a criminal.

    2. I’m also in favor of the death penalty. As why keep a killer on Death Row or imprisoned for 20+ years, they have already killed and now they are exacting an onerous penalty to keep them incarcerated.

    3. Very much in favor of drones – as it reduces US casualties, and saves US taxpayer dollars. After Bin Laden was taken out, I had the opportunity on Facebook to get into a debate with an officer of the Pakistan military about how to combat terrorism. My suggestions – which I also shared with a US army major – is to view Al-Qaeda like the Bader-Meinhoff Gang – German terrorists of yesteryear. They were eventually brought to heal by killing their leader and killing any new leader that popped up to replace him. Same with Al-Qaeda, kill the head and the body will die. So save money chasing the rank and file member, target the leaders. Mossad has adopted this very tactic in checking Iran’s nuclear ambitions, by killing Iranian Nuclear Scientists, which is a lot cheaper than attacking Iran itself.

  7. It really isn’t that hard to justify holding either set of positions. As jd said, the pro-choice side does not view the fetus as holding the moral weight of someone born. To them, a fetus and person on death row are not morally equivalent.

    The pro-life side does view the fetus as morally equivalent to a person who has been born, but also sees someone guilty of a crime punishable by death as forfeiting that moral standing and executing them is perfectly acceptable. To them, an innocent child in the womb and a person guilty of murder are not morally equivalent.

    Different views of what has the right to life and whether that can be lost.

  8. your apparent assumption

    well, i don’t really care/think one is consistent or not. just taking the assumption of someone else as a starting point.

  9. @6 “is to view Al-Qaeda like the Bader-Meinhoff Gang – German terrorists of yesteryear. They were eventually brought to heal by killing their leader and killing any new leader that popped up to replace him. ”

    I don’t know where you got the idea from that Germany dealt with the Bader-Meinhoff Gang (or RAF, “Rote Armeefraktion”) by means of an assassination programme – nothing could be further from the truth. The leaders of the first generation (early 1970s; Meinhof, Bader, Ensslin, Raspe) committed suicide in prison in 1976/77 (some deluded left-wingers claim they were murdered by the state but that’s just nonsense). The leaders of the second generation (late 1970s/early 1980s) mostly were eventually captured, spent years in prison and have by now all been released.
    As for the third generation (1980s/early 1990s), apart from some exceptions (like Wolfgang Grams who was killed in a shoot-out with police in 1993) it’s actually completely unknown who these people were. RAF murders from the 1980s remain unsolved, with the perpetrators unidentified and probably still alive somewhere in Germany or other parts of Europe.
    Obviously unconnected to the main topic (sorry for that, I hope I don’t attract Mr Khan’s ire for this), but this just jumped at me as something I had to correct.

  10. i don’t really care/think one is consistent or not

    That was my impression too, although I would have appreciated if you dug deeper in the GSS to look for broader patterns of consistency in both types of answers. And even if you didn’t care, one still has to keep in mind that in the science-minded subculture, lack of consistency is too easily conflated with lack of integrity. We expect others to think logically, and if their thinking is truly inconsistent, then we sort of expect a combination of stupidity, inability to listen to the experts, and/or intellectual dishonesty.

  11. @9, German,

    The policy of attacking the leadership and largely ignoring the rank and file (aka ordinary) member was what I was talking about. Germany killed or imprisoned the gang’s leadership. A policy of more bang for the buck.

    Sorry to take this O/T

  12. although I would have appreciated if you dug deeper in the GSS to look for broader patterns of consistency in both types of answers

    what do you mean by this? be precise in the queries you want in the GSS.

    We expect others to think logically

    i don’t think this is true. more explicitly, we expect Others to think logically 🙂 our own norms/beliefs are insulated from our own skeptical gaze. this includes scientists.

    if i understand you correctly if i go by this maxim any topic where i think that the subject(s) in question exhibit my own perception of illogicality needs a preface for why think they’re illogical. e.g., anything where i talk about religion or a political viewpoint i disagree with. more broadly, social science as a whole is going to become a game with an enormous overhead of contextualizing my own subjective assessment of objective facts. do i understand you correctly?

  13. Others to think logically our own norms/beliefs are insulated from our own skeptical gaze. this includes scientists.

    a special qualification here. scientists, though human, are much better when it comes to within-domain models and questions because of the special nature of science. but if you move them out-of-domain they’re pretty mortal. this is obvious in cases like the creationist-engineer-syndrome.

  14. if people are curious, i’m closest to the pro-choice/anti-death penalty position (i don’t reject the death penalty on principle, as much as implementation; i think it may be workable in the future in a transparent society).

  15. @14, Razib,

    I’m in favor of the death penalty partly because I think it’s an efficient use of resources when dealing with serious criminals, and partly because I think genetics and early environment mold a criminal nature, so I am very skeptical that a killer can ever be reclaimed.

  16. we expect Others to think logically 🙂

    LOL. No, no, I wasn’t being like profoundly philosophical here. Just wanted to make a point that an implicit accusation of “inconsistency” may needlessly offend your readers, even if you didn’t really mean it.

  17. #16, ideally there would be an Epoché tag. it regularly does occur that readers confuse my own viewpoint to one i’m restate and taking as a starting point….

  18. 17:
    But the sort of person who would mistake a restatement of another person’s belief as your own probably wouldn’t have the faintest notion what the “Epoché” tag would mean. It’s all Greek to them…

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