Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Death and Texas

Not too long ago, I happened to catch an old episode of L.A. Law. Like most installments of the long-running show, this particular edition had plucked a hot topic from the headlines and fashioned a compelling legal drama around it. Now, I feel that I know my own beliefs pretty well, and can usually determine pretty quickly how I feel about a certain subject. But this one threw me completely.

One of the lawyers was representing a cabal of doctors attempting to get a court order to terminate a woman’s life. The woman in question was in the very late stages of terminal cancer, with just weeks to live. She was also in the late stages of a pregnancy. The doctors were concerned that, if she attempted carried the baby to term, its chances of survival would be next-to-none, and she would likely die in childbirth, if not before. They knew that the only positive outcome of this horrifying scenario, would be to deliver the baby prematurely by cesarean section; an operation that would kill the mother. The woman was arguing that she could hold on long enough to deliver the child. And as an expectant mother, it was her right to see the baby she had carried inside her.

What was so interesting about this ethical conundrum, is how effectively it challenged my pre-existing opinions. I’m a staunch advocate of abortion rights for women, and just as strongly opposed to the death penalty. And yet, this scenario found me rooting for the doctors to get their court order – siding with the rights of the unborn child over the life of its mother.

Although this was just a random hour of glossy televised drama, the questions it posed stayed with me, long after the end credits rolled. In this hypothetical scenario, I felt that the baby’s rights trumped those of the mother, since her death was both imminent and inevitable. In fact, the only outcome yet to be determined was whether or not the baby would survive. And to be clear, at eight-months, the infant was developed enough to be successfully delivered.

This wasn’t an easy show to watch. But I was thankful to have had the opportunity to challenge my own belief systems, since in the end, it left me more resolute in my opinions than ever. I was reminded that, sometimes, black and white can just leave you with a shitload of grey.

That’s the thing with matters of life and death; there are no easy answers. Knee-jerk reactions simply don’t cut it when human lives are on the line. Taking another person’s life is a lot more complicated than putting a quarter into one of Futurama’s Suicide Booths. Instead, we have to weigh the consequences of our actions, as well as those of the people around us. And consider what our beliefs say about us a society.

This week, I was alarmed to see a number of postings on my facebook timeline, arguing for the reinstatement of the death penalty in light of the Tia Sharp case. If you’ve always chanted ‘bring back hanging’ whenever you’ve seen a picture of Ian Huntley or Myra Hindley, chances are, your voice has only grown louder this week. On the other hand, if you’re like me, you may well be wondering where to start with all the friends in your social circle who eagerly ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ the picture of Stuart Hazell, alongside a call for his death.

Interestingly, many of the people who used social media to advocate for a return of the death penalty, were the same ones that shared Jason Manford’s eloquent and comprehensive take-down of the trolls who attacked a grieving Gary Barlow for his part in the Closing Ceremony. The most powerful part of Manford’s essay refers to the moral relativism relating to the way we perceive death and age. He referred to one particular comment, which suggested that losing a newborn was somehow less painful than losing a child that had lived for a few years. But this argument runs both ways – child murder may be more emotive than the murder of an adult, but it’s no greater or lesser a crime. It’s still murder. So the argument that pedophiles and child killers deserve the death penalty, while others don’t, is both offensive and illogical.

And what of the death penalty itself? Those in favour of it usually argue that there is no greater crime than to take a human life. So it’s a fitting punishment in accordance with the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ model of Biblical morality. Of course, in doing so, they’re willing to perpetuate the exact same sin. “Oh, but they deserve it,” is the predictably weak defence that usually follows, when this is pointed out. Try telling that to the family of Marvin Wilson, who was executed in the state of Texas last week, for his part in the murder of a drug informant. With an IQ of just 61, Wilson didn’t know how to use a phone book or a ladder, and there were serious doubts about the reliability of eyewitness testimony involved in his prosecution. Did he deserve twenty years of a custodial sentence, followed by death by lethal injection? It’s a rhetorical question, but I’m sure you can guess my answer.

“Well, you have to be absolutely certain,” say the apologists for capital punishment. So consider the fact that, in the last 42 years, 140 convicted death row inmates in the U.S. alone have been exonerated. They were the lucky ones. Another 39 executions are believed to have been carried out “in the face of evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt.” So much for ‘certainty’.

The death of a child must be incomprehensibly difficult for any family to endure. The rest of us, however, have a choice as to how we react. We can weigh in with our own furious indignation, baying for blood and articulating our disgust at something that is none of our business. Or we can choose to focus on the things that do concern us. Protecting and supporting the people around us; our friends, families and communities. In the long run, it’s a far more positive response than some kind of crowd-sourced bloodlust.

In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to confuse justice with revenge. In reality, the two couldn’t be more different. To quote Francis Bacon, “In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.”


  1. I wholeheartedly agree. Ive been writing to a guy on death row for a decade. He grew up in a two room shack with no running water or electricity, yet amazingly he is funny and insightful. But his daughter starkly identified two choices for those in her area: the army, or crime. She didnt stick the army. Does that mean we should execute everyone from this town? Dare I say it, all the poor black people who dont have much of an education, let alone the means to pay for a solicitor to get them off the death penalty later on?

    I'm glad to read your blog, it is the same as my own views. You have made me think I should blog about this myself, about why I write to a man who is sentenced to die.

    Incidentally, if you feel strongly, do look into supporting Reprieve. I do. They do fantastic work to provide legal aid to those on death row, and elsewhere like Guantanamo. Even better, they answer emails with a human rather than an auto responder.

    Cheers for making me think.

  2. To force a woman into a caesarean that would end her life is murder.

    As soon as you place the rights of an unborn foetus above the choice and rights of the mother, you are skating very close to the heinous 'personhood' measures that the Republicans in the US are so fond of.

    A staunch advocate of abortion rights, you should know that choice is the issue in reproductive rights. It should always be the choice of the woman whose body is in question. Always.

    (Lest you think I'm just here to troll, I actually came to read your funny X Factor summaries, which are great. I'm not here to cause trouble, but I can't let this post go without saying something)