Abortion and Capital Punishment: The Seamless Garment Argument

Jason Dulle

Some people argue that if someone is pro-life with respect to the unborn, by the same logic they should also be opposed to capital punishment.  If a pro-life supporter opposes abortion but not capital punishment, these detractors claim they are being hypocritical, or worse yet, that such inconsistency serves to undermine the pro-life ethic.  This is often called the seamless garment argument.  It is advanced by both abortion-choice and pro-life advocates alike (pro-life advocates who are opposed to both abortion and capital punishment).

A couple of things could be said in response.  First, even if the pro-life ethic demanded that one be opposed to both abortion and capital punishment, the pro-life ethic would not be undermined merely because someone inconsistently applies that ethic.  An individual’s logical inconsistencies do not dictate truth.  Even if the pro-lifer is logically inconsistent, it could still be the case that the pro-life ethic is true, and thus abortion is wrong.  The abortion-choice advocate would be committing a logical blunder himself if he thinks that the pro-lifer’s logical inconsistency in applying the pro-life ethic is itself evidence that the pro-life ethic is false.  His conclusion is non-sequitar.

Second, the seamless garment argument misunderstands the nature of the pro-life ethic.  “Pro-life” does not mean we are opposed to taking the life of anything and everybody.  It means we are opposed to the unjust taking of innocent human life, or murder (as opposed to mere killing).  To argue that consistency of the pro-life ethic demands that one oppose capital punishment as well as abortion confuses guilt with innocence.  The unborn are innocent human beings who possess the right to life; murderers are guilty human beings who have forfeited their right to life by unjustly taking the life of another human being.  To kill an innocent and defenseless human being in the womb is an unjust taking of life, while killing those who are guilty of unjustly robbing others of their right to life is the just taking of life.  “The right to life is not an absolute; it can be forfeited. This moral right is only prima facie; it stands only until challenged by some greater law, like justice or protecting the lives of the innocent.”[1]

Let me turn the tables for a minute.  Some pro-life advocates will use the seamless garment argument against those who support abortion rights but not capital punishment.  They will argue that if one is opposed to capital punishment because it takes the life of a human being, then logically they should be opposed to abortion as well.  If they aren’t, then at best they are being inconsistent, and at worst this undermines their pro-abortion position.  But this need not be the case.  Someone who supports abortion rights but not capital punishment is not being inconsistent if he believes the right to life is based on being a person, and that the unborn are not persons.  The murderer is a person and thus should not be killed, but the unborn is not a person yet and thus can be.[2] I don’t agree with these presuppositions, but it does demonstrate that one can be opposed to capital punishment without simultaneously opposing abortion, and be logically consistent in doing so.


1. Greg Koukl, “The Bible and Capital Punishment”; available from http://www.str.org/free/studies/capipuni.htm; Internet, accessed 20 January 2005.
2. See http://dangerousidea.blogspot.com/2009/10/abortion-death-penalty-and-charge-of.html for a short treatment of this idea.

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