NEW data indicate Americans increasingly believe life is precious. That's changing the political landscape for the death penalty and abortion in ways that will unsettle — and cheer — liberals and conservatives.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the number of U.S. executions this year will total 39. For only the second time in 19 years, fewer than 40 people were executed. In addition, the number of new death sentences issued is near a modern low. There have been 80 death sentences this year, compared with 315 in 1996. Overall, the nation's death row population has decreased every year since 2001.
In similar fashion, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the number of legal, induced abortions nationally in 2010 declined 3 percent from 2009. From 2001 to 2010 the number, rate and ratio of reported abortions decreased 9 percent, 10 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
Michael J. New, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan, notes this reduction occurred nationwide with little regional variance. Abortion numbers have fallen in 18 of the past 20 years, New points out; the total number of abortions has declined by approximately 25 percent since 1990.
On the death penalty, Oklahoma remains a national leader, ranking third in the number executed this year. But on abortion, Oklahoma has followed national trends. CDC data show 6,097 abortions were per-formed in Oklahoma in 2010, down from 10,708 in 1990.
Pragmatic factors may explain part of both declines, but cultural shifts are more obvious causes.
Many drugs used in lethal injections are produced in European countries where citizens oppose the death penalty, leading to export bans to impede the drugs' usage in U.S. executions. But attitudes have also significantly shifted on the death penalty. While Gallup polling found 80 percent of Americans favored the death penalty for those convicted of murder in the early 1990s (with just 16 percent opposed), by 2013 support had declined to 60 percent and opposition increased to 35 percent.
Death penalty opponents argue that shift is driven by publicity surrounding a handful of wrongful convictions, making citizens reluctant to impose or carry out executions. Eighteen states have abolished the death penalty. In a number of states where capital punishment remains the law, executions are rarely or never carried out.
Regarding abortion, some argue increased access to and use of contraception and sex education explains the decline. But birth control was freely available (and well understood) in prior decades when abortion rates surged. And in 2010, the CDC found women in their twenties accounted for the majority of abortions, which further undermines the stereotype of the uneducated teenager being the typical person seeking an abortion.
As with the death penalty, public discomfort has undoubtedly played a much bigger role in abortion's decline. In the mid-1990s, Gallup polling found that 56 percent of people called themselves pro-choice, with just 33 percent choosing the pro-life label. In recent years, the share identifying as pro-choice has fallen as low as 41 percent, while pro-life identifiers have hovered around 50 percent.
These are major cultural changes that have quietly shifted political dynamics. It is clear that a growing number of Americans, in cases where the benefit of the doubt is in play, have adopted a default position in favor of life — both for children in the womb and even for those convicted of savage murders.