One oft-cited reason to abolish the death penalty is that wrongful convictions happen. Death penalty proponents often counter that justice system errors are inevitable, and that the occasional one shouldn’t distract us from the central question of whether the death penalty is a justified punishment for people who really are guilty of terrible crimes.
Death penalty opponents rightly push back here. They point out that capital punishment brings with it a particularly high cost of error. An innocent person forced to spend years or decades of their life in prison is a terrible injustice: but it still allows for the possibility of appealing or overturning the conviction, trying to compensate the person for the wrong done to them, and giving them the rest of their life back. If the death penalty is imposed, all those doors are shut forever. Any mistakes made are impossible to unmake.
As a death penalty opponent, when I make arguments like this to supporters I’m trying to do two things: first I’m hoping that they’ll agree that that killing an innocent person is so terrible that even a small risk of it gives us reason to abolish capital punishment. I’m hoping to convince them that even if it was good to kill the worst criminals, it’s not worth killing the innocent to achieve it.
But I’m also trying to do something a bit less straightforward. By inviting the person I’m talking to to think about the irreversibility, the terrible finality of death in the case of an innocent person, I’m hoping to make them less comfortable about imposing the death penalty even on the guilty.
Both ways are trying to lead the person I’m talking to to the conclusion that the best way not to execute anyone wrongly is not to execute anyone.
I’m thinking about all this because of the recent story reported by the Sun about how a woman, Viktorija Avisane, was mistakenly told by a medical team in the Rotunda that her pre-born child had a variety of serious health conditions which would possibly result in the baby’s premature death. Avisane considered an abortion after getting the news. Fortunately, Avisane was able to get second opinions, first from a Lativan hospital and then from Holles Street, who confirmed that her baby was healthy. Avisane’s son Alex was born and is now seven months old.
This is a horrible thing to happen. But Avisane and her child are a lot more fortunate than the couple involved in the Holles Street case from earlier in the year, whose child was mistakenly diagnosed with Trisomy 18, a condition that leads to very early death in most cases. They went ahead with an abortion under this information, and were later described by their solicitor as “mentally and physically devastated”.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s only a matter of time before something like this happens again. Only a matter of time before another irreversible mistake is made.
Dr Brendan O’Shea, the former head of the Irish Council of General Pracitioners, commented on the recent case on Twitter:
He’s right as far as it goes. And abortion is not the only case where errors like this can lead to death. But it is the only case in our medical system where we could completely eliminate this kind of error overnight. We will probably never entirely get rid of the mistakes that lead to errors in the treatment of cancer or heart disease. Those mistakes happen in the course of trying to treat these conditions: the mistake is that they are not treated soon enough, or treated in the wrong way. The only way to completely guarantee a lack of such mistakes would be to stop trying to treat the illnesses.
Abortion is different: no human body is being treated or healed. The mistake is not a tragic error in treatment, but a mistakenly applied elimination. Viktorija Avisane lays out the situation with frank honesty: “I would have killed a healthy baby.”
The Irish medical system could make sure we never killed a healthy baby again. All it would take is abolishing the killing of sick ones.