According to a report from Politico, the White House’s soon-to-be-unveiled plan to combat the opioid crisis includes one detail that should terrify and outrage pro-life advocates: The death penalty for even low-level drug dealers.
If the report turns out to be true, it wouldn’t be a major surprise. At a rally last week, Pres. Trump told the crowd, “When I was in China and other places, by the way, I said, ‘Mr. President, do you have a drug problem?’ ‘No, no, no, we do not.’ I said, ‘Huh. Big country, 1.4 billion people, right. Not much of a drug problem. I said what do you attribute that to? ‘Well, the death penalty.’”
Rhetoric about the sanctity of life arguably helped get Pres. Trump elected. Though in the ‘90s Trump described himself as “very pro-choice,” he ran as a pro-life Republican. Many of his supporters—who see the overturning of Roe V. Wade and the end of most legalized abortion as a serious legislative goal—voted with his potential Supreme Court appointments as a key factor.
As The Nation pointed out after the election, “One out of every four Trump voters voted with the Supreme Court in mind, and it’s a safe bet that a very substantial number of those see the Supreme Court through the lens of abortion politics … If you can rally voters around abortion, few other issues matter.”
Recent history shows that to be true, but Trump’s callous approach to capital punishment threatens to undermine pro-life principles.
Yes, there are major swaths of Christians who believe their is a biblical case for executing convicted murderers. However, there are also many leaders and activists—from Pope Francis to Shane Claiborne—who see capital punishment as being inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.
But what makes the concept of executing drug dealers especially problematic—in addition to its inconsistencies with a pro-life ethic—is its radical approach to trying to deal with the opioid epidemic.
Yes, the epidemic is a serious problem: Overdoses are now the No. 1 killer of Americans under the age of 50. But there is no indication that killing drug dealers will do anything to solve the problem. One study from the University of Colorado found that 88 percent of America criminologists did not believe that the death penalty was an effective deterrent, and 91 percent believe politicians support the death penalty merely as a way to appear tough on crime.
Giving the government this kind of power to take human life has serious implications for life. Look at “China and other places” that routinely kill individuals convicted of drug dealing.
China is an authoritarian government which persecutees religious groups—including Christians—and has also historically enforced a “one-child” policy to control population size. This means they have, at times, mandated abortions. On the surface, the issue of executing drug dealers and forced abortions aren’t related, but they both have one element in common: They happen because the government has the power of taking human life.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s extreme war on drugs has lasted for less than two years, and it’s accounted for the deaths of at least 12,000 individuals— 2,555 at the hands of police. At a campaign rally, he told citizens, “You drug pushers, holdup men, and do-nothings, you better get out because I’ll kill you.”
Those are not the words of a pro-life alley.
Few people would argue that serious measures aren’t needed to combat the nation’s drug problem. But, the tidal wave of opioid deaths didn’t start with low level drug dealers. It has largely been attributed to pharmaceutical companies prescribing and profiting from the proliferation of extremely addictive painkillers. Even the death penalty’s most stalwart supporters would agree that the state should only carry out capital punishment on those who are actually responsible for the crime. Are they willing to consider the possibility that the opioid crisis’ guiltiest parties are not on the streets, but in fancy board rooms?
This opioid crisis has already claimed enough lives, and we don’t need our government adding to the already tragic body count. If real changes are to take place, they shouldn’t by causing more death. They should be by informed policies that actually seek to save lives. That’s part of what being pro-life is all about.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.