BY NICHOLAS NEAL
Legalized homicide takes many forms in America. Two examples are abortion and the death penalty. Ironically the opponents of these forms of homicide are usually divided by political ideology. Progressives oppose the death penalty while supporting legalized abortion, and conservatives take the opposite position. However, there are those who connect abortion and the death penalty as both being immoral and unnecessary forms of homicide that should both be rejected. While this group is small, they are still worth examining because they have a different perspective on the cultural and political wars that is almost never discussed. Further, examination of such a group would help us understand how many people actually believe in the political spectrum as conventionally defined. After all, holding the consistent life ethic viewpoint would naturally involve rebelling against the typical idea of a left-right political spectrum.
People often complain about the inconsistencies of their opponents. There is a famous bumper sticker slogan that states "war is not pro-life"; added to that, there is a pro-life t-shirt with a graphic of a fetus inside a peace symbol that states "give peace a chance, or at least a nine month cease fire." So there already is this perception that the usual political stances are inconsistent, but who is willing to make their own views consistent? That in essence is my research question. "What groups are most likely to oppose both abortion and the death penalty?"
Photo by Raffi Asdourian; some rights reserved.
When I began this project I had thought that Catholics would be the most likely to oppose both abortion and the death penalty. Pope John Paul II expressed a consistent life ethic in his famous work Evangelium Vitae in which he condemned both abortion and the death penalty as violations against the sanctity of human life. Several other Catholic intellectuals and political activists, such as the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Sr. Helen Prejean, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, and many in the Catholic Worker movement, have also called for consistency in respecting human life. However, as we shall see, being Catholic, while significant, is not the most significant indicator for advocating a consistent life ethic.
Like me, James D. Unnever, John P. Bartowski, and Francis T. Cullen thought that Catholicism would be a significant indicator for advocating a consistent life ethic when they conducted a study on opposition to both abortion and the death penalty. One thing should be noted, however, in regard to this study: Unnever and the others only studied those that supported abolishing capital punishment and who opposed abortion under any circumstance. I took a more moderate approach in defining opposition to abortion and instead lumped together those who opposed abortion in most circumstances and those who opposed it in all circumstances under the label "pro-life." Just from experience, I think this is a more accurate way to define the pro-life movement.
Contrary to their expectations, Unnever and the others found that there was no denominational correlation for supporting a consistent life ethic. The main religious factor that caused the respondents in their study to embrace a consistent life ethic was a general belief that God loves humanity. The way to measure this was by studying if respondents felt they had "a close relationship with God," if they felt God's "presence," and if they felt joy in moments of worship. Unnever and the others had two dimensions, closeness to God and emphasis on the Love of God. Both closeness and emphasis on God's love had a positive correlation to opposing both abortion and the death penalty. This makes sense, because both the pro-life and anti-death penalty positions are based on humanist (not necessarily secular humanist) philosophies that include the idea that human life is to be loved.
Other literature I reviewed involved the demographics of opposition to each practice. One was a study by Philip E. Secret in the Journal of Black Studies. It tested for a racial difference in opposition to abortion during the 1970s and early 1980s. Secret found that blacks were less approving of abortion than whites, though this difference was small when socioeconomic factors were held constant. When observed in the early twenty-first century, it appears that race is no longer a significant determining factor in opposition to abortion. The Guttmacher Institute, which is the research arm of Planned Parenthood, showed similar results. By running multiple regressions on data from eight surveys, the Guttmacher researchers showed that blacks were less approving of abortion than whites. This Guttmacher Institute article merely analyzed trends of the 1970s, however.
Clyde Wilcox's article on the 1988 General Social Survey showed that racial differences on abortion were decreasing: though it showed that black men were significantly more opposed to abortion than white men, it also showed that black women were significantly more supportive of legalized abortion than white women. In regard to a possible split on gender lines, however, a 2011 Gallup poll showed that gender was not a determining factor for either opposition to or support for legalized abortion. Instead, age was a determining factor: the youngest and the oldest respondents were the most likely to be pro-life, while middle-aged baby boomers were more likely to be pro-choice.
I could not find any twenty-first century study of race and abortion. The closest I could get was a Gallup poll that stated that black Democrats were less likely to be pro-choice than white Democrats -- though 52% of black Democrats were still pro-choice. While the racial difference has essentially disappeared, I am not sure whether to interpret this disappearance as the result of more black Americans becoming pro-choice or more white Americans becoming pro-life. From Gallup polls it appears that from the 1970s to the beginning of the twenty-first century, opposition to abortion in general has not been constant and currently the nation is virtually split on the issue.
Except when comparing black women to white women, there doesn't seem to be evidence that blacks are less likely to be pro-life than whites. Thus, because blacks are more likely to oppose the death penalty than whites, those blacks that do oppose abortion have a higher chance of also opposing the death penalty.
Attitudes toward the death penalty continue to be marked by significant racial differences. In a 1992 article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Robert L. Young studied the effect of religion, race, and region on attitudes toward the death penalty. What he theorized was that religious fundamentalism would correlate with support for the death penalty, while evangelism (a theology, not necessarily synonymous with fundamentalism) would correlate with opposition to the death penalty. The reason for this was that several prominent fundamentalist leaders had publicly supported capital punishment and thus, if they followed their leaders, fundamentalists would likely do the same. Evangelism, however, because it involves trying to convert as many people to Christianity as possible, would correlate with opposition to the death penalty because execution puts the lost soul out of reach of the Gospel. Young also factored in race and region. He theorized that with the history of legal and illegal execution of blacks in the southern United States, black southerners would likely oppose the death penalty. Black religiosity is also to be considered a reason for opposition to the death penalty since it influences political attitudes in a more liberal direction, as was the case in the civil rights movement.
Young took data from the 1988 General Social Survey (the same survey used to examine black and white racial attitudes on abortion) and used the questions to create four different variables of religiosity: "fundamentalism," "evangelist," "reborn," and "devotionalism." "Fundamentalism" was measured by whether respondents interpreted the Bible literally and whether they attended a conservative denomination. "Evangelist" was measured by whether respondents said that they have attempted to share the Gospel with others. "Reborn" was measured by whether the respondents called themselves "born again" and whether they had a moment in their life where they made a conscious decision to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior. "Devotionalism" was measured by the rate of church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer.
Using logistic regression, Young found that there was a conflict between fundamentalism and evangelism in attitudes towards the death penalty. Biblical literalism increased support for the death penalty while evangelism decreased support for it. Black evangelists were the least likely to support the death penalty. Since opposition to abortion is also tied (statistically, if not necessarily philosophically) to religious views, blacks' likelihood to hold a consistent life ethic could be tied to the black churches.
A 2011 Gallup poll on the death penalty revealed that non-whites are 28% more likely to oppose the death penalty than whites. This imbalance has been consistent over the years, even though the majority of Americans support the death penalty. On both abortion and the death penalty, it's still highly likely that blacks will take the consistently anti-legalized homicide view, though not significantly more so than whites in regard to abortion. Also, the correlation between evangelism and opposition to the death penalty could be connected to Unnever's theory that a belief in a loving God correlates with a consistent life ethic.
The readings I found did not appear to contradict each other. They agree that blacks are more likely to oppose the death penalty than whites, and they agree that while there was a time when blacks were more likely to oppose abortion than whites, that racial difference has, for whatever reason, disappeared. Finally, they all seem to agree that religion in a broad sense has some effect on attitudes toward legalized homicide.
Now the information I used was from an ABC News/Facebook poll on the 2008 presidential election. It should be noted that this poll could be misleading as far as opinions on the death penalty, since Gallup found a significant drop in support for the death penalty in 2011. However, I still think this study can be useful in gathering information on opposition to both abortion and the death penalty. I created a variable titled "consistentlife" that identifies people who answered that they believed both that abortion should be illegal in most or all circumstances and that the death penalty should be abolished. Obviously this variable was pretty small: only about 12% of the respondents were both pro-life and anti-death penalty. At first, I ran several logit regression models, factoring in two main religious labels: "catholic" and "evangelical" (the latter was a combination of Pentecostals, Baptists, and Southern Baptists). I also factored in gender, party, and ideology. The condition of being Catholic, however, was not a significant indicator, by itself, of being consistent life. Then I held race constant, factoring in black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans. When doing so, being Catholic did become significant, but what was more significant and more positively correlated with being consistent life was the condition of being black. Even when holding income and education constant, the condition of being black was positively correlated to being "consistentlife." The condition of being female was also positively correlated to being a consistent lifer, though still not as much as being black. Another interesting result was that the condition of being a liberal was a significantly negative indicator for opposing both abortion and the death penalty, while the condition of being a conservative was not a significant indicator at all.
I should also explain that my findings did not show that a majority of blacks were consistent lifers. After running a t-test on "consistentlife by black," I found that, on average, 30% of blacks opposed both abortion and the death penalty compared to 10% of other races. Thus, while a majority of blacks in the study were not consistent lifers, blacks were more likely than other races to oppose both abortion and the death penalty. The same was true for women and Catholics, though their mean differences were much smaller.
There are a number of possible explanations for the positive correlation between being black and being consistent life. One is that it's more a matter of coincidence than a real connection. Blacks are very likely to oppose the death penalty, and not unlikely to oppose abortion, so some percentage of blacks will oppose both. In other words, the real reason for the correlation is that black pro-lifers are more likely to be anti-death penalty, just like black pro-choicers.
Another reason for the correlation could be the black churches' influence. Black churches have a politically complex history of contributing to some liberal causes such as civil rights and abolition of the death penalty but also preaching a socially conservative message on issues such as abortion. Combined with this is the fact that blacks do tend to be more religious than whites and have had a historic, cultural, and even political tie to the church. All of this rolled together could create within some black Christians a desire to defy conventional political categories and see both abortion and the death penalty as an assault on the sanctity of human life.
Another explanation is a feeling among some blacks of being targeted by legalized homicide. There is a disproportionate number of black executions, according to the ACLU: 43% of the total executions since 1976 have been of blacks and 55% of those on death row today are black. Added to these statistics is the history of vigilante executions of blacks, particularly in the south. There are also a disproportionate number of abortions among blacks. Life Dynamics, a black pro-life group, studied where the majority of Planned Parenthood clinics were set up. After looking through the zip codes of every Planned Parenthood clinic, Life Dynamics found that the vast majority of them were placed in zip codes that had a disproportionately large minority population compared to the proportion of minorities in the state population. Added to this is the eugenicist history of Planned Parenthood in the early twentieth century, when the organization targeted blacks with birth control in order to reduce the black population.
Now, I should say that although I am a consistent lifer, I am not one to believe that every politically incorrect statistic is due to some type of sinister motive. I recognize that correlation does not equal causation and therefore am not willing to say that either abortionists or executioners are secretly racist. I believe the homicide that they carry out is immoral and should be stopped, but I don't think they're racist. However, while the disproportionate representation of blacks among those executed and aborted might not be the result of conscious racism, it might cause among some blacks a feeling of being targeted and thus a reluctance to support either act of legalized homicide.
On a philosophic level, it could be that blacks are turned off by the dehumanizing aspect of legalized homicide. Whenever society justifies killing certain human beings, the justification is almost always couched in dehumanizing language. Fetuses are referred to as "parasites," "trash," "tumors," "potential humans," and so forth. People on death row are often referred to as "monsters" and "beasts" (regardless of whether we know for sure they are guilty). Blacks have also historically been dehumanized by American law and custom, and by the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century that labeled them subhuman. It could be that some blacks recognize the dehumanization involved in abortion and the death penalty and reject it because it was once used to justify oppression against them.
Now, there are some flaws to my study. I would have loved to have interviewed black clergy and black churchgoers to see if there is a relation between black spirituality and the consistent life ethic. There also was no question in the ABC/Facebook poll about a general belief in a loving God (not that I would expect there to be). This means I could not explore on the Unnever theory.
These findings have implications for consistent-life strategy. Consistent lifers should make an effort to make ideological allies within the black community, especially the black churches. Doing so would help build a demographic base for the consistent life movement, something that consistent lifers are terribly lacking. Black churches have a history of effective political activism, such as in the civil rights movement. Any type of audience that would be friendly toward the consistent life ethic would be good for consistent lifers.
Such an alliance also has implications for affecting the Democratic Party. Since blacks are the most solid voting bloc for the Democratic Party, a consistent life influence among blacks could cause an inner debate within the Democratic Party (though admittedly it has not not yet done so).
These findings also have implications for black studies in general. My study found that 30% of blacks do not see legalized homicide in the same way the conventional political spectrum frames it. They are willing, in essence though not nominally, to defy the left/right divide on legalized homicide and that is an important subject for future studies of black political thought.