Thursday, May 8, 2014

Same Rules, Different Sides

Social conservatives have been just as disappointed by the Supreme Court's decision striking anti-abortion laws as social liberals have been by the Supreme Court's decision upholding the death penalty.  And both sides have adopted the same strategy:  If you can't make it illegal, make it impossible.

There are at present over 3000 inmates on death row in the United States.  In 2013, there were 39 executions.  At that rate, it would take 78 years to clear away our death rows even if no more prisoners were added.  The leading cause of death among death row inmates is old age, followed by suicide.

That's because opponents of the death penalty have been spectacularly successful in making it harder and harder for states to carry out executions.  (Full disclosure:  I witnessed an execution, 20 years ago, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life; I shall write about it in a later post.)  They have gotten the Supreme Court to stop just short of declaring that states must guarantee that executions are pain-free; an impossible burden.  They have persuaded drug manufacturers to refuse to sell execution drugs to states.  They have put in place an appeals process that takes on average 15 years.  The late Justice Thurgood Marshall aptly compared being executed to being hit by lightning; it takes an incredible amount of bad luck for even the worst murderers to find themselves inside a death chamber.

Meanwhile, abortion opponents have been doing the same thing.  They can't get it banned, but they can get states to impose regulations making it harder and harder to obtain.  Women seeking abortions are harassed with vaginal ultrasound requirements; 48 or 72 hour waiting periods mean that poor women who have to travel to obtain an abortion will find it more expensive; abortion providers are being required to have admitting privileges at local hosptials which then deny them admitting privileges.  And their strategy is working:  In 2013, there were 1.21 million abortions in the United States, comapred to 1.5 million in 1979.  The numbers of abortions have been declining steadily since 1980, and not all of that is attributable to restrictive laws; there are other factors that play a role as well.  But there are probably quite a number of abortions that don't happen because abortion opponents have been successful at restricting access to it.

It's not surprising that people who feel strongly about something will find ways to get around laws they find repulsive.  Liberals do it, and conservatives do it.  Eventually they sometimes actually succeed in getting those laws changed; I would not be surprised if the death penalty exists nowhere in the United States twenty years from now.  It's also not surprising that people on the other side of the issue feel intense anger and outrage at their will being thwarted.  Listen to an abortion-rights activist or a pro-death penalty advocate fulminate against what they see as dirty tactics on the other side; the frustration comes through loud and clear.  So does the hypocrisy of those who support such tactics on issues in which they agree with the outcome while decrying them when used by "the other side".

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