Alabama executed a convicted murderer Friday, a day after the state enacted a near-total ban on abortions — two actions on contentious social issues that often have people across the political spectrum invoking the sanctity of human life.
"It's a contradiction that I always observed," said Hannah Cox, the national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, an advocacy group. Approving of executions, Cox said, is "a stance that cheapens the pro-life argument."
Cox, who is originally from Alabama and opposes both abortion and the death penalty, said that more conservatives were coming to feel the same way, offering as evidence Republican-sponsored bills to repeal the death penalty that have been introduced in 11 state legislatures.
Michael Brandon Samra was executed by lethal injection Thursday evening (Friday NZ time), according to Alabama Attorney General Steven T. Marshall. Samra and a friend, Mark Duke, were convicted in 1997 of killing four people — Duke's father, the father's girlfriend and the girlfriend's two young daughters — after a dispute over a pickup truck. Both defendants were sentenced to death, but Duke's sentence was later overturned because he was 16 at the time of the killings; Samra was 19.
Though the timing was coincidental, the actions taken by Alabama on consecutive days served to highlight widely held positions on the political right that some people say are in conflict, with protecting human life held paramount in one context but not another.
Governor Kay Ivey, who declined to halt the scheduled execution, has expressed some discomfort with her role in the death penalty. Early in her tenure, she said she did not "relish the responsibility that I hold" in capital cases, and she has repeatedly depicted it as an unwelcome duty of her office.
"How to proceed when faced with a potential execution is one of the most difficult decisions I will ever have to make as governor," she said after one execution. "No governor covets the responsibility of weighing the merits of life or death; but it is a burden I accept as part of my pledge to uphold the laws of this state."
Even so, Ivey has not used her authority under the state constitution to reprieve or commute any death sentence since she took office in April 2017. The state, which carries out executions at an ageing prison near the Florida border, has now executed seven people during her tenure.
A spokeswoman for the governor did not respond to messages seeking comment, but Ivey issued a statement after Samra was put to death.
"Alabama will not stand for the loss of life in our state, and with this heinous crime, we must respond with punishment," the statement said. "These four victims deserved a future, and Mr. Samra took that opportunity away from them and did so with no sense of remorse. This evening justice has been delivered to the loved ones of these victims, and it signals that Alabama does not tolerate murderous acts of any nature."
Alabama currently has 176 more prisoners awaiting execution. All but two of them were convicted of murder; 65 have been on death row for more than 20 years.
While death penalty opponents like Cox wonder how Christian conservatives like the governor can oppose abortion but uphold execution, others say the two stances become coherent when viewed through a lens of innocence and guilt.
"In a sense, it's perfectly comprehensible," said Mark Silk, a professor of religion at Trinity College. "Their view is that unborn babies and foetuses are innocent life. They've done nothing to merit the death penalty. Whereas murderers have done something to merit the death penalty. It's an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It's how they look at the world."
Silk said that white evangelicals in particular, who make up more than half the electorate in Alabama, may run into difficulty when men or women "find their way to Jesus" while on death row.
"So much of evangelicalism has to do with conversion," he said. "That's such a core experience for them. A murderer or rapist finding their way to God is as powerful a manifestation of conversion that you can find."
Cox said she found the argument that life is something to be protected only when it is innocent to be "flimsy."
"People should be still held accountable, but there should be more nuance," she said. "You are not the sum of the worst thing you've ever done."
The Catholic Church's teachings oppose both abortion and capital punishment on similar grounds.
"Pro-life values are meaningless when they are inconsistent," said Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of the Catholic Mobilising Network, a group working to end capital punishment. "The sanctity of human life applies to each and every person, innocent and guilty," she said, adding that the church teaches that a person's God-given dignity "is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes."
"As Pope Francis has said, 'There is no just penalty that is not open to hope,'" Murphy said. "That is why the death penalty is neither Christian nor human."
A scholar of evangelical Christianity said most evangelicals in Alabama probably feel no tension between support for the death penalty and opposition to abortion.
"Most conservative evangelicals wouldn't think twice about executing someone and then going to a pro-life march the next day," said John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College. He said their views have often been shaped by the political battles that have raged over social issues in recent decades, so that, for example, they also tend to oppose spending tax money on government programs that might reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.
Progressive evangelicals see the issues differently, Fea said, but "they are a minority in the state of Alabama and most of the evangelical South."
The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination, says its support of the death penalty has roots in biblical teachings. "Imposing the death penalty can help the murderer restore the broken relationship with their creator, not just with humankind," says an article posted by an arm of the convention that addresses public issues. "While we have an interest in a criminal's return to society, we should be even more concerned with the state of their soul."