Thursday, December 11, 2008

Death Penalty

The United States is the only country in the Western industrialized world that still uses the death penalty.

There are many reasons why I'm against the death penalty. First off, it costs more money to put someone to death than to leave them in prison for life. Also, the death penalty as it is currently practiced is racist and discriminates against the poor. Statistics show that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, and may even encourage violent acts.

These are all good reasons to oppose the death penalty on their own, but the main reason, and the most important reason, I'm against the death penalty is simply the fact that innocent people get put to death for crimes they did not commit. As long as humans are imperfect, our justice system will be imperfect and innocent people will be put behind bars. However, as long as these people aren't put to death, there is still a chance of the mistake being corrected. The death penalty is permanent.

The Death Penalty is Expensive

The cost of executing a person in the U. S. is far higher than the cost of imprisoning him or her for life. The reason for this is our need to be absolutely sure that we've got the right person. Capital cases have a more rigorous jury selection process and more money is spent on expert investigators and consultants. There is also a more lengthy appeals process, several safe guards, and a state review of the case to make sure the person accused is indeed guilty. In California, trials involving the death penalty are six times more costly than other murder trials. If for no other reason, doing away with the death penalty would save tax payers money.

The Death Penalty Discriminates

If you are accused of a violent crime, the color of your skin and the size of your wallet determines whether or not you'll be sentenced to death. African-Americans make up only 12 percent of the population, but 42 percent of those on death row are black. Cases with a white victim are more likely to use the death penalty than cases with a minority victim. Although approximately 50% of murder victims are black, only 14 percent of death penalty cases involve a black victim. In 80% of death penalty cases, the victim is white. Of the over 18,000 executions to take place in our country's history, only 42 involved a white person being executed for killing a black person. The death penalty is overwhelmingly racist.

Also, over 90% of defendants in capital trials cannot afford to hire experienced lawyers and are forced to use inexperienced court-appointed attorneys. You need to be rich in order to get away with murder. The level of legal representation a defendant gets has nothing to do with guilt or innocence, only money.

Since 1973, 21 children under 18 have been put to death in the United States. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has since ruled against putting children to death. It is also horrifying to note that 34 mentally disabled inmates have been executed. Executing people who do not fully understand their actions is barbarous and must be stopped. When we put a mentally disabled person on trial, we are taking advantage of their inability to fight back since they are not aware of the various legal avenues open to them.

The death penalty as it is currently practiced is racist and unfairly discriminates against the poor and the mentally disabled. Until the system can be improved so that all persons facing a capital sentence are treated equally, the death penalty should be discontinued.

The Death Penalty is Not a Deterrent

States which enforce the death penalty, have higher murder rates than states which do not practice it. A logical person would assume that the threat of being put to death would lower the number of violent crimes, however, people who murder do not behave logically. The threat of execution at some future date does not enter into their minds while they are filled with rage or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Far from being a deterrent, the death penalty instead desensitizes people to violence. When a state puts people to death, it sends the message to its populace that killing is okay. Texas has the highest execution rate and also has one of the highest murder rates in the country. If the death penalty was a deterrent to crime, we'd expect to see the state with the most executions have among the lowest murder rates, but the opposite is true. By putting people to death, Texas encourages violence instead of denouncing it. FBI statistics show that states which use the death penalty tend to have higher murder rates than states which don't. If for no other reason, we should oppose the death penalty in order to reduce the number of murders. An eye for an eye may feel good and give the families of the victims closure, but it only serves to escalate matters and increase the overall violence in this country.

The Death Penalty Punishes the Innocent

23 prisoners who were later found innocent of the crime of which they were accused, are known to have been executed. Who knows how many other innocent people have been put to death in this country? A recent study revealed over 400 cases of wrongful conviction in the United States between 1900 and 1991. Most of the prisoners were proven innocent and released, but for 23 of them, the evidence came too late.

In 1989 there were two close calls. Randall Dale Adams was three days from execution when Texas authorities overturned his conviction and released him. James Richardson, in the state of Florida, was released within 24 hours of execution for a crime he did not commit. He had spent 21 years on death row before being found innocent. There are no doubt others like these two men who were not as lucky. What happened to beyond a shadow of a doubt? Before we put someone to death, shouldn't we be 100% certain he did what he was accused of?

Since 1976, Illinois has released as many people from death-row as it has executed. In fact, in the U. S. overall, 1 in 7 of those on death row have been freed after being fully exonerated. These statistics just go to show that our current system of justice, which administers death, is far from perfect. Until our system of justice is perfect, we should stop killing people. We need to reexamine how we currently practice the death penalty, and if we can't stop the slaughter of innocents, we should end the death penalty altogether.

But I believe in the Bible and it says 'an eye for an eye.'

Mosiac law contains 613 commandments. Many contemporary people like to appeal to the higher authority of God and the Bible, however, they do so selectively. People pick and choose certain scriptures they agree with and ignore scriptures they disagree with. For example, homophobic people will point out that Mosiac law calls for the death penalty for homosexuality, while ignoring the rest of Moses' law. If you truly believe the Bible is the word of God, you should believe all of it, not bits and pieces of it.

The Bible calls for the death penalty often: for worshipping any God other than YHWH (Exodus 22:20), for a stranger entering the temple (Numbers 1:51), trying to convert a follower of YHWH to a different religion (Deuteronomy 13:1-10), for communicating with the dead (Leviticus 20:27), for being a witch (Exodus 22:18), for adultery (Leviticus 20:10), incest (Leviticus 20:11), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), bestiality (Leviticus 20:15), a woman having sex before marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-21), for having sex with a woman and her mother (Deuteronomy 20:14), raping an engaged woman (Deuteronomy 22:25), for prostitution (Leviticus 21:9), for murder (Levitucus 24:17)(except for murdering a slave), for kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), for cursing one's parents (Exodus 21:17), for abusing one's parents (Exodus 21:15), for disobeying one's parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), for owning an animal which killed someone (Exodus 21:29), for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), for working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), for ignoring the decision of a priest or judge (Deuteronomy 17:12), for perjury (Deuteronomy 19:15-21), for accidently killing a pregnant woman (Exodus 21:22-23), for a man not being circumcised (Genesis 17:14), for eating leavened bread during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:15), for manufacturing anointing oil (Exodus 30:33), for engaging in ritual animal sacrifices other than at the temple (Leviticus 17:1-9), for consuming blood, including rare meat (Leviticus 17:10), for eating peace offerings while ritually unclean (Leviticus 7:20), for waiting too long before consuming sacrifices (Leviticus 19:5-8), for sexual activity with a woman who is menstruating (Leviticus 20:18), for going to the temple in an unclean state (Numbers 19:13), for teaching another religion (Deuteronomy 13:1-11), for a prophet whose prophecy does not come true (Deuteronomy 18:22), for gluttony and excessive drinking (Deuteronomy 21:20).

Either the Bible is the word of God, or it isn't. If you really believed in the Bible, you'd advocate the death penalty for all of the above, including putting someone to death for eating rare steak or leavened bread. Nearly everyone has committed at least one of these offenses. Who hasn't disobeyed their parents? According to Mosiac law, all of us should be put to death.

Well, that was the Old Testament. Christians only care about the New Testament.

The frequency with which Christians quote from the Old Testament seems to contradict this statement, but for the sake of argument, let's say the above statement is true. What does the New Testament say about the death penalty? Two instances of the death penalty are observed in the New Testament: a couple is put to death for lying about church donations (Acts 5:1 to 11) and a man is put to death for blasphemy (Acts 6:8 - 7:60). New codes regarding the death penalty were not introduced by Jesus, so it's assumed the old laws still apply. In fact, Jesus said, "For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law" (Matthew 5:18-19) indicating that he agreed with Mosiac law.

However, Jesus also said that instead of an eye for an eye, people should "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:38-39) indicating that retribution was not desired. This is repeated when an adulteress was about to be put to death and Jesus interrupted and told the executioners "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." (John 8:3-11) Since pretty much everybody has done at least one thing worthy of death according to Mosiac law, everybody would be dead if we actually practiced it.

But what if a killer escapes from prison to kill again like Ted Bundy did?

It's true that Ted Bundy escaped from jail and killed additional people who would have lived if he hadn't escaped. However, he escaped from jail while awaiting trail. He hadn't been found guilty yet. Certainly no one is in favor of killing someone before they've even been found guilty. Prison escapes are extremely rare. Killing everyone who's been accused of murder just in case they escape doesn't make any sense, especially now that prisons are more difficult to escape from.

If someone killed your loved one, wouldn't you want to see them dead?

Absolutely. However, if there was any doubt whatsoever of the accused's innocence, I wouldn't be able to cope with the idea that an innocent person was put to death. If I was 100% certain that they did it, then I'd definitely want to see them put to death. However, I'd know that killing them wouldn't bring my loved one back, or make me feel any better in the long run. Getting revenge feels good for a moment, but when we put someone to death, we aren't just punishing them, but also their loved ones who will miss them despite their evil actions.

With DNA evidence, isn't it possible to be 100% sure of someone's guilt or innocence?

I suppose so, with the exception of twins who share the same DNA. However many cases, even today, rely on eye witness testimony and circumstantial evidence. DNA isn't always available. Also, there's no law that says DNA is required before administering the death penalty. If the law was changed, so that the death penalty was administered fairly regardless of race or social class, all defendants were provided with the best lawyer possible, and DNA evidence was required in all cases, I'd perhaps be persuaded to get behind the death penalty. The fact that death penalty cases are more expensive shouldn't matter as long as our courts get to the truth.

The only objection that would still remain are the statistics that show murder rates are higher in death penalty states. Also, the fact that no other Western industrialized country practices the death penalty would make the United States appear barbaric to the rest of the world. Do two wrongs make a right? Do we as a society show that killing is wrong by killing or is this hypocritical? These questions are hypothetical at this point, since the death penalty as it is currently practiced isn't administered fairly or with requirements for DNA evidence. There are currently 3,220 people on death row. Certainly there are many guilty men on death row who deserve to die, but are we as a society so concerned with punishing them that we let the innocent occasionally fall through the cracks?


Saturday, December 6, 2008


I was circumcised as a baby because back when I was born, it was common practice. My mother admitted that she had given in to peer pressure and had me circumcised just because everyone else was doing it. I don't blame her, and in fact, she said if she knew then what she knows now, she wouldn't have done it. Hearing her say this, I naturally assumed that circumcision was a thing of the past, so I was shocked to find out that it's still common practice today.

Male circumcision consists of removing the foreskin from the penis, while female circumcision can take many forms from removal of the clitoral hood, removal of the clitoris, or removal of both along with the labia major and labia minor. Opponents of the practice on females call it female genital mutilation, since equating it with circumcision makes it seem not so bad. Of course, circumcision for males is also genital mutilation. However, it isn't often called male genital mutilation in the west where circumcising males is viewed as more acceptable than circumcising females.

As a religious practice, both male and female circumcision are common in the Muslim world, although the Koran does not mention it. Jews mainly practice male circumcision, believing it is part of their covenant with God, although female circumcision is also performed, especially in Africa. Among Christians, religious circumcision is rare outside of Africa. Nationally speaking, male circumcision is only common in the US, Australia, and Muslim countries, while female circumcision mainly takes place in Africa.

Both male and female circumcision apparently began in ancient Egypt during the time of the pharaohs and continued to be practiced among semitic peoples. The practice didn't catch on in English speaking countries until around 1900, when doctors began advocating that it was necessary for hygiene and claimed it would prevent masturbation, which was viewed as detrimental back then.

"A remedy for masturbation which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision, especially when there is any degree of phimosis. The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases." - John Harvey Kellogg (1888)

C.F. McDonald wrote in a 1958 paper titled "Circumcision of the Female" that "If the male needs circumcision for cleanliness and hygiene, why not the female? I have operated on perhaps 40 patients who needed this attention." However circumcision of females never caught in the English speaking world the same way male circumcision did.

Over the years, the reasons for circumcision changed. A 1987 study found that the most prominent reasons US parents choose circumcision were "concerns about the attitudes of peers and their sons' self concept," rather than medical concerns. Basically, they circumcised their children just because everybody else was doing it. They thought their son might be made fun of when he showered with other boys if his genitals hadn't been mutilated. Aesthetics is also a reason given to justify female circumcision. However, like foot binding in China and rings to elongate the neck among the Padaung, disfigurement for the sake of beauty hardly seems like a good justification for an ancient and barbaric practice.

Isn't there some kind of medical reason for circumcision?

The short answer is no, not really. Although, if there were, I think parents should at least be informed enough to know what the medical reason is before mutilating their infant's genitals. Most parents in the US don't even consider female circumcision even though some doctors used to think it was necessary for hygienic reasons. Most countries around the world don't think there's any medical reason for male circumcision either, but despite this, it's still common practice in the US.

The American Medical Association stated in 1999: "Virtually all current policy statements from specialty societies and medical organizations do not recommend routine neonatal circumcision."

The American Academy of Pediatrics (1999) stated: "Circumcision has been suggested as an effective method of maintaining penile hygiene since the time of the Egyptian dynasties, but there is little evidence to affirm the association between circumcision status and optimal penile hygiene."

The American Cancer Society (2006) stated, "The current consensus of most experts is that circumcision should not be recommended as a prevention strategy for penile cancer." Even if circumcision helped prevent cancer, it seems overboard. Kind of like removing part of a healthy person's liver because there's a remote possibility they might get liver cancer at some point in their lives.

There have been studies indicating that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV and other STDs, however other studies show that circumcision actually increases the likelihood of contracting these diseases, so the jury's still out on that one. However, everyone agrees that circumcision on its own is not a good way to prevent the spread of HIV, making it a moot point. Instead of circumcising your child, tell them about condoms instead.

Similarly, the jury still seems to be out on whether circumcision prevents or increases the risk of infections, with studies supporting both theories. However, since most infections are easily treated, using circumcision to prevent them seems overboard. It's true that uncircumcised boys are more likely to get a urinary tract infection, however, only 1% of boys will get one, while 2% of boys get an infection as a result of circumcision. In this case, the cure is worse than the disease.

Circumcisions can be extremely hazardous when not performed by a trained professional with side effects such as death and the need to remove the penis entirely. Even when performed by trained professionals, there's still a one in a million chance of death. Even though it's extremely rare, is it worth risking the life of your child for an unnecessary medical procedure?

Does getting a circumcision reduce sexual pleasure?

Depending on the type of circumcision, it can be quite the opposite. Recent studies have show that partial female circumcision (removing only the clitoral hood, but leaving the clitoris intact) increases sexual pleasure. (for example a study done in 1959 by Rathmann et al claim that 87.5% of women saw an improvement in sexual pleasure, with 75% in a study by Knowles et al). However, since sexual pleasure is often tied in with psychological reasons, this might be attributable to the placebo effect.

Even more extreme forms of female circumcision don't reduce sexual pleasure as much as one would expect. This is because sexual pleasure isn't purely physical, it is also psychological. Basically, in cultures where female circumcision is seen as desirable, women report being sexually satisfied, while in cultures where it is viewed as undesirable, it decreases sexual pleasure.

The same can be said of male circumcision. While it's true that circumcision removes part of the anatomy that is rich in nerve endings and thus necessarily decreases sensation, it's also true that sexual pleasure is partly psychological, so men who have been circumcised can still have a satisfying sex life. Men who were circumcised as adults report a loss in sensitivity, but no reduction in overall sexual satisfaction.

What about religious reasons?

Christians have no religious reason for circumcision. Christians in the US mainly do it simply because it's become a tradition in that country since 1900, but it's not common for Christians outside the US. Circumcision is common among Muslims, but it is not specified in the Koran. Some religious writings outside the Koran seem to indicate that it should be encouraged, but it's not an official part of the Muslim religion.

The Bible tells us God made us in his own image and that the body is a temple. Jewish law prohibits tattoos and considers body piercings to be a defilement of the body. The only form of bodily disfigurement allowed is male circumcision. For Jews, circumcision is part of their covenant with God, although archeologists tell us it wasn't practiced until the Babylonian captivity as a way for the Jews to maintain their cultural identity and avoid being assimilated into the larger culture.

In either case, I think the choice should be left up to the individual. A person's genitals shouldn't be mutilated without their consent. A baby isn't old enough to consent. Your child may decided not to practice Judaism when they grow up. They might choose a different religion. Even if they decide to be a Jew, they may not choose to observe every practice. The choice to be circumcised or not should be the child's choice, and not forced upon them by parents.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Child Abuse vs. Discipline

When my wife and I tell people that we'll never hit our kids, we're told that we're naive. It's easy to say we won't hit our kids when we don't have any, but once we do, we'll change our opinion. I personally find this insulting. I agree that there are many aspects of parenthood we won't fully realize until we have our own kids, but if you think every parent across the country hits their kids, you're the one who's being naive. In fact, 6 out of 10 parents either don't hit their children at all, or do so less than once a year. (Prevent Child Abuse America. Public Opinion and Behaviors Regarding Child Abuse Prevention: 1999 Survey)

If I were to say that I'd never sexually abuse a child, nobody would call me naive, except perhaps a parent who does it. Should I bow before the molester and accept their word as fact simply because, as a parent, they have experience I do not? Of course not. If a parent who sexually abuses their kids claims it's normal and all parents do it, I wouldn't believe them for a second. Just because someone happens to be a parent doesn't make them an expert on parenting. I'll take the advice of a parent who is a trained child psychologist over the opinion of a parent without training any day.

I'm just as sure that I would never hit a child as I am that I would never sexually abuse a child. How can I know this? I know myself. Nobody in the world knows me better than I do. I would never even consider hitting a child. For me, it's not even an option. Don't tell me I have to be a parent first to know this. When you tell me how I'm going to behave as a parent, you assume that you know my personality better than I do. You don't. I don't have to own a dog to know I'd never beat one. I knew before I got married that I would never hit my wife, and I know that I will never hit a child even though I'm not a parent yet.

My wife and I are told that until we become parents ourselves, we can't possibly imagine how frustrated we will get. We aren't so naive as to believe that parenthood will be a cakewalk. We know it will be hard. We know that children will push us to our wit's end. There'll be times we'll want to strangle our children a la Homer Simpson. We know that we'll get angry, but being angry is never an excuse to hit a child. Hitting a child for instructional reasons is discipline, but hitting a child out of anger is just abuse.

My parents never hit me. I know that corporal punishment used to be common in previous generations when less was known about child development, but in this day and age, it's less clear whether hitting has a positive effect. If violence is such a great teacher, why don't we beat criminals instead of putting them in jail? I want to be clear before I continue that I'm not condemning parents who do hit their kids. Many good parents hit their children because they believe it's what's best. The decision to hit or not hit is every parent's own decision, and I won't tell you how to raise your kids. I just don't want anybody telling me how to raise mine and I've recently felt the need to defend my decision.

80% of young adults who had been abused met the diagnostic criteria for at least 1 psychiatric disorder at the age of 21 (including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, & post-traumatic stress disorder) (National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse & Neglect Information. Long-term Consequences of Child Abuse & Neglect 2005 )

Everyone agrees that children need discipline, but should not be abused. What everyone disagrees on is how to define abuse. Canadian law states that hitting a child in any way except for spanking by hand is abuse, while Utah law (the state in which I live) requires broken bones or significant bruising to take place before an act can be considered abuse.

I find it slightly ironic that in Utah, a parent can legally beat their child to the point of bruising, but something as simple as slapping another adult is considered assault. The reason for this, of course, is the question of discipline. Hitting a fellow adult is wrong, but hitting your own child is okay because it's assumed that the reason for hitting the child was to discipline them. However, intent doesn't factor into the law. Hitting a child out of frustration or anger or just because you had a bad day is just as legal as hitting a child to teach them that what they did is wrong.

My wife and I have been told that children who don't get hit by their parents grow up to be delinquents. There's no evidence of this, and actually, it appears that the opposite is true. While there aren't really any statistics that take non-abusive hitting into account, children who do experience child abuse & neglect are 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit violent crime than those who are not abused. (US Department of Justice Reports)

My parents hit me all the time and I turned out okay.

I don't doubt it. However, consider that many children who were sexually abused also turn out okay. Does this mean we should all start sexually abusing our kids? Of course not. They turn out okay in spite of the abuse, not because of it. Besides, not everyone who gets hit as a child turns out okay, many develop mental disorders and wind up in prison.

It works.

Physical abuse may work at first because it shocks a child. But it becomes less effective as it is repeated or if it comes with anger and rejection. The abuse a child suffers can cause unresolved feelings of anger that carry over into adulthood. A child who is abused repeatedly is more likely to physically punish their own child or spouse. Physical discipline can escalate into abuse if a parent loses control.

What does hitting teach a child? It teaches children not to get caught rather than helping them internalize the value or rule you are trying to teach them. Very young children often don't understand why they're being hit in the first place. They will remember the abuse, but not the lesson being taught. Abuse teaches a child that hitting is a way to solve problems. It's the height of irony to see a child hit another on the playground, then to see their parent hit them to teach them that hitting is wrong. Children often can't understand this conflicting and hypocritical message. Children learn by imitation. Monkey see, monkey do. If you don't want your child to be the one hitting and bullying other children on the playground, don't teach them that hitting is okay by doing it to them.

I myself have witnessed a child, after being hit by his mother, immediately hit another child in order to get a toy. The child has learned that hitting is how you get what you want. It's far better to reason with a child, to teach them the value or lesson you want them to learn. Explain to them why hitting another child is bad, and teach them empathy. The goal of parenting is for your child to do the right thing, not out of fear of punishment, but because the values and morals you taught them have become internalized. They should do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, not because they're afraid of reprisal.

Every problem looks like a nail when the only tool you have is a hammer.

If the only parenting skill you possess is hitting, you'll be unable to solve the wide variety of problems a child may have. There are a wide variety of tools a parent can use to deal with a disobedient child including time outs, positive reinforcement for doing the right thing, withholding privledges, talking to your child so that he understands what he did was wrong, and even a simple look of reproach. Unfortunately, many parents never learn to use non-violent methods of discipline. You need a license to drive a car, or go fishing, but not to become a parent. Perhaps if effective parenting techniques were taught at the high school level, we'd see better parents with a wider range of parenting tools.

Every child is different. Your children will likely have a different personality than you, just as you had a different personality from your parents. The same approach doesn't work on every child. You can't fix an autistic child, or a child with a less noticeable mental disability, by hitting them. Some children are naturally more disobedient and troublesome than others for a variety of reasons, including genetics. Those parents who hit their children instead of trying to understand them will never succeed in fixing a problem child.

There are circumstances when hitting a child is a good instructional tool, such as swatting a child's hand when they're reaching for a hot stove. If you've tried everything else and you think that hitting your child is the only option, make sure you do so only occasionally, since the more often hitting is repeated, the less effective it becomes. There are certain situations where spanking a child will help teach them a valuable lesson, but if you have to spank them repeatedly, it obviously isn't working.

Many cultures in our world's history and even some today believe it's a husband's right to beat his wife so that she'll submit to him. If you find this idea disgusting, you should find the idea of beating a child into submission equally ugly. Children learn by imitation. Being a good example is a better way to teach your child than making them fear you.