Abortion, execution and American anomalies

The right is cavalier about human life, except when it is not yet capable of independent existence
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The Independent Online

A treat, of a gruesome kind, for the liberals of old Europe this week, as the world was invited to watch American justice in action. In Florida, on Wednesday evening, a 49-year-old father of three teenage children was killed in the name of the state of Florida, by lethal injection.

Old Europe - which outlaws the death penalty in the European Convention on Human Rights - considers such an event to be utterly grotesque, and no doubt finds its enactment to be confirmation of all its suspicions about America's crude, redneck ideas about life, the universe and everything.

Even an appeal to the victim of this death sentence would bring no succour to those appalled by state-sanctioned killing. Paul Hill, a former preacher, faced his death unrepentant. He maintains that his crime - the murder of 69-year-old Dr John Britton, and his bodyguard, James Barrett, 74 - was entirely justified. Dr Britton performed abortions, and Mr Hill killed him, he feels, in order to save the lives of hundreds of unborn children. In a press conference just before his death, Mr Hill embraced his martyrdom, expressed excitement at the prospect of his imminent ascent to heaven, and exhorted others who despised abortion to take up arms in a similar fashion.

It's an odd chain of moral responsibility indeed, this one - which sanctions killing someone because they killed someone because they were performing surgical procedures which can be construed as killing people, too.

And such ambiguities have thrown up odd alliances. The groups most vehemently against the execution of Mr Hill were campaigners against the death penalty and campaigners against the pro-choice movement.

These groups usually live on opposite sides of the political fence. Yet their moment of agreement does lead one to wonder why it is that right-wingers are characteristically so very cavalier about the sanctity of human life, except when the human life in question is not yet capable of independent existence.

The cheering news is, though, that all the signs are that the American right has become worried about this galling anomaly. True enough, Republicans remain broadly opposed to abortion, though in a less strident manner. Under President George Bush's tenure, there have been moves to limit abortion. But they are not moves designed to rock the boat too much.

The most domestically significant piece of legislation has been the outlawing of partial-birth abortions, carried in congress by a vote of 282 to 139, and following an almost identical vote in the Senate earlier in the year. The Bill bans a procedure used for very late abortions and, when it takes effect, doctors using such a procedure will face a fine and up to two years in jail.

This development has been billed by the pro-choice movement as "the most significant blow in decades to the woman's right to choose". The fact that the procedure could not be done for any health reason other than the threat of death is indeed worrying, especially when it is remembered that the rare procedure is generally only done when foetuses have hydrocephalus and their enlarged skulls need to be collapsed. Attempts to introduce such a Bill have been defeated twice, and there is no reason to believe that such a move cannot be successfully challenged again.

The other anti-abortion move that has been made under the Bush administration is yet more repellent, and less stridently opposed by the pro-choice movement. This nasty little piece of sick moral imperialism places a government ban on foreign aid to family planning organisations that use their own funds for abortion counselling.

It expands on a two-year-old directive that blocks the US agency for international development from funding groups that provide abortions or information about abortions. Essentially, it attacks charities that advise women with Aids, for example, not to carry pregnancies to term that will involve the birth of very sick babies to whom Western medicine that could save their lives is not available.

Another irony then, that the pious beliefs of a president and his men can mean that a child must be born to pain, discomfort and certain death, rather than be allowed to slip away from the world without any experience of suffering. Yet, in exploring the sometimes bitterly ironic contradictions of the American right's strange attitudes to life, there are some cheering signs that such paradoxes are finally being spotted and considered.

There can be little comfort when looking at abortion - except to thank goodness that extreme protest, such as that undertaken by Mr Hill, has not been carried out for several years in the US. But in the case of the death penalty, there are healthy signs that some fully paid-up members of the US right, as well as a substantial chunk of the general population, are beginning to question the workings, if not the principle, of judicial killing.

The US may not have a big problem with denying abortions to the world's underprivileged, but at last the powers that be are waking up to the uncomfortable fact that it is the poor, the ill-educated and the members of ethnic minorities who are the most likely people to find themselves facing the death penalty within the US itself.

The charge has been led by Governor George Ryan of Illinois, who began this year by commuting all of the death sentences on his state's execution row. A Republican initially elected on a pro-capital punishment campaign, he halted executions three years ago when he realised that 13 death-row inmates had been wrongly convicted. He set up a commission to investigate death sentences and found they were disproportionately given to the poor, ethnic minorities and those convicted on the evidence of informers.

Clearly, the Governor's examinations are not going to change the US overnight. Indeed, he was ousted from office by a Democrat who believed that Governor Ryan had gone too soft on the death penalty.

But the fact remains that his concerns are shared by many Americans. One poll last year found, for example, that 51 per cent of Americans would like to see Governor Ryan's methods carried out more widely, with a moratorium declared on capital punishment while a commission examined whether it was administered fairly. Issues that particularly bother the American people are concerns over the fact that so many of the mentally subnormal are sentenced to death, and that 80 per cent of those on death row are black or Hispanic.

None of this would have made much difference to the fate of Mr Hill, who actually, it appears, wanted to receive the death sentence as part of his plan for martyrdom and his wish to "inspire" others to commit crimes similar to his own. But if the worst fears of pro-choice and anti-death penalty groups come true, and Mr Hill's death does provoke renewed extremism, this will add further fuel to a debate that seems ripe for airing.

This week also saw the overturning by a federal court of hundreds of death sentences, because they contravened a Supreme Court judgment which laid down that death sentences should be rendered by juries, not judges. The American appetite for judicial killing may not be completely exhausted. But the signs are that Americans at least want to see the practice moderated. In a US that we're told is moving forever rightwards, this can only be welcome.