There’s nothing less controversial than the injunction, from the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Right?
Well, that depends on what the meaning of the word “kill” is.
It’s hard, although not impossible, to find examples of societies in which murder is permissible, or even countenanced and encouraged (as in Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Rwanda 20 years ago). The societies and states of the world value and enshrine a culture of life.
The controversial issue, rather, is the permissibility of actions that take away life, e.g., capital punishment, abortion or suicide. Do they fall within the bounds of the sixth commandment?
The common law of England, which forms the basis of criminal codes throughout the United States, defined murder as consisting of five elements: (1) the unlawful (2) killing (3) of a human (4) by another human (5) with malice aforethought.
Parsing these definitions draws lines that permit people to support various sorts of acts that do indeed ultimately take a life in certain circumstances.
For example, capital punishment is a lawful form of punishment in 32 of the 50 states. Hence the death penalty is not an unlawful killing, nor is it an act of murder. Actions of self-defense and military combat that takes the life of an enemy are similarly distinguished from “unlawful” killings.
“Killing” means that the victim is irrevocably dead, in that all brain function, even beyond the cessation of breathing, has ceased. “Of a human” distinguishes murder from an abortion of a fetus. As not yet born, a fetus is not generally considered a legal person, and abortion is therefore not an act of murder under this definition. That changes once the child is born into the world. Still, for more than a generation since the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, states and the courts have battled over permissible restrictions on the legal right to abortion at various stages of pregnancy.
The element that murder be “by another human” also takes suicide out of the realm of murder. Euthanasia, however, is a form of murder under the law: one prominent advocate of the practice, the late Jack Kevorkian, was convicted of second-degree murder for his role in facilitating voluntary euthanasia.
Finally, and most significantly, “with malice aforethought” refers to the premeditated intent to kill another. This is the sine qua non of the crime of murder. Without it, an act may be a crime of manslaughter, a negligent homicide or another form of unlawful killing — but not murder.
In American politics, is it contradictory for a citizen to support the death penalty for the punishment of the most heinous crimes of murder, while also opposing all or most acts of abortion? The question is easily asked in reverse: is it illogical or contradictory to oppose capital punishment in all circumstances — on the grounds that it consists of taking another life — while still supporting a woman’s right to an abortion? According to debate.org, 50 percent of respondents to that question say yes, and 50 percent of respondents say no.
Taking the issues singly, not jointly, in America, the argument against taking a life loses out in both cases. Although the numbers in support have been gradually declining, a majority of the country supports capital punishment. Similarly, a majority of the country supports the right to abortion.
A recent Pew Research Center report found that 55 percent of American adults favor the death penalty, a drop from 62 percent in 2011. It is generally religious people who are most strongly in support of the practice.
In regard to abortion, 54 percent feel it should be legal in “all or most cases,” according to the Pew Research Center, while 40 percent feel it should be illegal in all or most cases. Since 1995, the percentage favoring abortion has never risen above 60 percent.
What do these numbers say about the state of a culture of life in the United States? They say that while there may be little disagreement about what constitutes murder, we’re likely to long remain divided over what it means not to kill.
Drew Clark is the opinion editor at the Deseret News. He writes widely on subjects of technology, law, politics and the media. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College, his master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and his law degree from George Mason University School of Law. He is visible on Google+ and on Twitter.