One of the unexpected twists in the debate between the
Republican presidential primary candidates last week was the prominence of the death penalty. When Governor Rick Perry’s touted his role in overseeing 234 executions (and counting) as governor of Texas, the audience broke into enthusiastic applause. Perry chalked up the audience response to strong support for the death penalty, confidently concluding, “I think Americans understand justice.”
Perry’s identification as a strong supporter of “a culture of life” and what he called the “ultimate justice” of capital punishment, however, raises some potentially thorny questions about the meaning of being “pro-life.” In campaign season, the question is whether American voters, especially voters who identify as “pro-life,” are going to raise concerns about why Perry’s position doesn’t represent what some Catholic theologians call “a consistent ethic of life,” opposition to both legalized abortion and capital punishment. A quick foray into public opinion, however, seems to indicate that Perry may be facing little pressure on this front for at least two reasons.
First, while the political catchphrase “pro-life” may appear to be straightforward, PRRI’s recent survey of Millennials, Religion, and Abortion found that a surprisingly wide array of Americans identify with the term. Strong majorities of the American public, for example, identify as both pro-choice (70 percent) and pro-life (66 percent) in the context of the debates over the legalization of abortion. And when the debate is extended beyond abortion to other moral issues such as capital punishment, the meaning of the term becomes even hazier.
Second, only about one-in-ten (11 percent) Americans hold a “consistent ethic of life” position, opposing legalized abortion and capital punishment. In fact, in the general public, there is no significant correlation between attitudes about the legality of abortion and views on capital punishment. Fully two-thirds of Americans overall say they favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, compared to only three-in-ten who say they oppose it. Support for capital punishment is virtually identical to the general population among Americans who say abortion should be illegal (69 percent) and among those who identify as “pro-life” (69 percent).
Moreover, even fewer “pro-life” Republicans (12 percent) and Americans who identity with the Tea Party (7 percent) hold a “consistent ethic of life” position. Fully 79 percent of “pro-life” Republicans and 85 percent of “pro-life” Tea Party identifiers who say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases also support the death penalty.
While Perry is out of step with the solid majority (56 percent) of Americans who say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, his support for capital punishment is widely shared. And while the tensions inherent in his anti-abortion/pro-death penalty position may raise the eyebrows of some Catholic theologians and students of semantics, they appear to be settled tensions strongly held by an overwhelming number of Republicans and even most Americans. Given these facts, it seems unlikely Perry will face much of a challenge on the question of the consistency of his stance on these positions.
Data cited above comes from the Millennials, Religion, and Abortion Survey conducted between April 22, 2011 and May 8, 2011, among a random sample of 3,000 adults. The margin of sampling error for the general sample is +/- 2 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence interval. The report, topline questionnaire, and methodology can be found here.