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Demographics in the Consistent Life Movement


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,