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Stripping the cant from matters of life and death

Globe and Mail Update

The death penalty and abortion are subjects of so much cant and emotionalism that they should be, and in this case are, approached with some trepidation. The principal arguments for capital punishment lie in the notion of deterrence, which is statistically unproven, and of retribution. These usually resolve themselves into a rational assumption that irrational psychopaths will respond to what would impress rational people, were they to contemplate capital crimes; or, would at least furnish aggrieved society the pleasure of specific vengeance. Last year's spate of murders of policemen in Ontario and Quebec was disgusting and tragic, but the resulting clamor for the return of the death penalty was more a testimony to the influence and popularity of our local constabularies than a rigorous argument for elevating law enforcement officials to a unique status among murder victims.

If we were certain that the required test of guilt beyond reasonable doubt would always produce just and condign verdicts, much of the capital punishment debate would subside. Few there are, and I am not one of them, who would lament the demise of a premeditated murderer on his own human merits. Unfortunately, courts and juries have been known to make unjust judgments. If, as Voltaire claimed, it is better for a guilty man to go free than for one innocent man to be condemned, what are the implications in such cases as that revealed last year of the unjust conviction of a Nova Scotian for a murder of which he was innocent?

The death penalty was abolished in Britain partly because of the Rillington Place affair, in which an inarticulate but, as it materialized, unoffending defendant was sent to his death on the gallows for crimes committed by a neighbor of which the late accused was pristinely oblivious. British society was, in a sense, guilty of murder, and felt its guilt keenly. By the time an accused has exhausted the defences that are available for an executioner's charge in a society of laws, as contemporary American experience reminds us, the anti-climactic snuffing out of life is a pitiful spectacle that few who are untainted by morbidity can fail to find somewhat degrading. While I shed no tears for the homicidal criminal, nor am I much buoyed by the ghoulish sequence of trial, appeal, and judicial liquidation, which reveals civilization as, at best, unimaginatively vindictive. An unsought ally in these reservations about the virtues of the death penalty is the determinist who holds that society, genetic background, irresistible environmental influences, and the nature of the world are responsible for criminal behavior, not the individual agents of wrongdoing. It is not necessary to whitewash and exonerate the criminal to be unconvinced of the restorative powers of institutionalized executions. The fervor of some death penalty retentionists is, in any case, illogical, as the extermination of wretched psychopaths is not something that it becomes us to be too enthused about, even if it is, as it may arguably be in some cases, the lesser, and the more convenient, of evils. Abortion is a similarly emotion-charged issue.

No resolution of the controversy over abortion is conceivable without some reconciliation of polarized views. lt is as unrealistic to think of eliminating abortions altogether, or of inflicting childbirth as a punishment on unlucky or careless women, as it is to represent abortion as merely another manifestation of an individual's sovereignty over her own body, endowed with no more moral or social significance than a bowel movement. The taking of lives of the unborn is not made more palatable or defensible by a strident pretense that no moral issue is raised at all. Obviously abortions take place, and any attempt to stamp them out altogether will be no more effective than have been comparable efforts in the past to abolish well-established behavioral practices such as prohibition. No government in the world can assert successfully the right of an unborn child over the conflicting intentions of a reluctant mother, but governments and the societies they serve do have an obligation, which it is in no one's interests to shirk, to emphasize the moral and psychological gravity of a decision to abort, and to encourage conditions that will spare us all, more than has been done recently in this country, from the hucksters and fanatics who swarm around both sides of this issue.

More offensive to me than the practices themselves is the studious tendency to repress and disguise the nature of acts of life-taking. There is an annoying, and even very disquieting temptation to diminish life through recourse to Orwellian euphemism. If inducing the death of the apparently incurably infirm is to be styled "death with dignity," it is to exalt it over what is presumed to be life with indignity. There is nothing particularly dignified about unplugging life support systems, but for people to determine whether others are better off dead or alive is an onerous decision which is trivialized by swaddling it in self-righteous misnomers. There seems also to be a creeping tendency to look upon suicide, not with the compassion and sorrow that it almost always impels, but as a courageous or at least foreordained fulfillment of one's destiny. All of these forms of unnatural death are sad and usually tragic events. It is a gross indignity to gelatinize the premature termination of life by depriving it of its moral and, for most people, spiritual character. If abortion clinics are to proliferate like corner grocery stores, and provide a community fetus extinction and disposal service; if the routine execution of categories of criminals is to be entrusted to fallible courts and jailers; if those of unpromising life expectancy are to be killed painlessly while society rejoices in its progressive magnanimity; and if suicides judged to be seemly are acquiesced in while we celebrate our liberation from the superstition of the sanctity of life, we are debasing life and all who share it.

If we engage in a sort of arbitrary Darwinism, the survival not of the fittest but of the most convenient and fortunate, we take unto ourselves powers of life and death which diminish life without adding a cubit to the stature of the living. Not all forms of life can be defended with Schweitzerian uniformity. Of course, those abortions which take place, after a responsible absence of official encouragement and without any condescension to the abortion applicant, must be licit, sanitary and unstigmatizing. It is probably the best course to terminate, exceptionally, the lives of a few incurably ill or comatose people, but let us call it what it is. Self-destruction in all its disguises must be fought as the threat that it is. I would abstain from any stampede to bring back capital punishment, and with it the lurid attention given to crimes and executions, the incitements to the psychopathic imitators, and the intense pressure placed on juries deliberating the sensitive questions raised in politically motivated murder trials. The fact that the unborn have a more evident right to live than the premeditated murderer leads me to liberality in the first case rather than redoubled severity in the second. When death is officially proclaimed to be preferable to life, the issues involved are not really defined in clichés about choice, dignity, destiny and rehabilitation.

Our public debate on these questions could stand more elevation, without necessarily losing any of its intensity. And we should not forget that tenacity of life is a virtue as well as a necessity.

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