As The Times prepares to endorse a presidential candidate for the first time in over 35 years, The editorial board will examine the candidates' takes on essential American values while presenting its own philosophy on the issues as well. How much have The Times' values changed since its 1972 endorsement of Richard Nixon? We'll find out by looking through editorials from that year, starting with our positions on life, which the board took up in today's installment of the series.
Before there was stem cell research, cloning, or even Roe vs. Wade (a decision The Times did support in 1973), the board weighed in on abortion and the death penalty, mostly the death penalty. Except for a brief mention of abortion in an editorial on Christian disunity (for the record, The Times was pro-unity), the board only spoke of the matter once in 1972, on Nov. 28. The Times praised the state's high court for ruling two provisions of a 1967 state abortion law unconstitutional:
The effective result of the court's action will be to allow any woman who wants a hospital abortion during the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy to obtain one, simply by requesting it. There are some who fear that the court's decision will lead to a major increase in the number of abortions performed in California. In fact, however, the ruling merely seems to give the sanction of law to practices long in effect .how is a committee to weigh risk, or gauge the chances of serious impairment, particularly mental impairment? If a woman insists to her doctor that she does not want to continue a pregnancy, that emotionally she cannot accept a baby, what judgment is the doctor or a hospital committee expected to reach about the effect of pregnancy on her mental health? There are, as we have said before, good and persuasive reasons for the 1967 abortion law. But we also believe that abortion is the least desirable way to deal with unwanted pregnancy. Currently, the Legislature has before it two bills that would help provide alternatives: SB 433 would allow doctors to prescribe contraceptives to minors without parental consent; AB 1470 would require hospitals where abortions are performed to provide patients with information about family-planning services. Both bills should be passed; for medical, personal and social reasons, taking steps to avoid unwanted pregnancies makes more sense than terminating such pregnancies by abortion.
The board did lavish attention on the death penalty, a big issue in 1972, focusing on legal arguments about its effectiveness as a deterrent but also on its moral implications. On Feb. 21, the board again gave three cheers for the state supreme court, this time for declaring execution unconstitutional in the state. (The decision hinged on a slight difference between the U.S. and the state Constitutions -- the former banned "cruel and unusual" punishment, the latter forbade "cruel or unusual" ones, putting to rest the argument that death is pretty usual.):
The Supreme Court of California, in a decision of persuasive clarity and wisdom, has found the death penalty unconstitutional under the state's own constitution . The deterrent effect is a "vigorously disputed proposition," the court noted. If there is any deterrent value, it would result only from sure and swift application, but that is not possible. There are other appropriate ways to isolate felons from society, the court concluded. And if the motive is vengeance, that is "incompatible with the dignity of an enlightened society." The real result is a cruel punishment, the court ruled. The result is "lingering death," mental anguish, "brutalizing psychological effects" as the condemned await sentence. Some of the 104 in California's death rows have been there eight years.
Four days later, as we noted in a prior Cold Copy, the board tried to calm the fears of Californians, including then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, that outlawing the death penalty wouldn't mean lawlessness among lifers in prison:
The fears are real, but they are unjustified. Reagan and others who have spoken in highly emotional terms have not contributed anything to public understanding In 30 years up to 1967, an average of little more than six persons a year were put to death in California. To add this number to the list of murderers eligible for parole will hardly change the situation that has prevailed. Murderers hardly ever repeat that crime . Certainly dangerous prisoners must be kept under control while in prison. Certainly a prisoner considered dangerous and facing trial must not be freed on bail. Certainly a convicted murderer ought not to be paroled without serving the appropriate sentence, and ought not ever to be freed if he is unreformable .You may agree or disagree with the result of the court's decision -- we ourselves support it -- but you cannot argue it had no right to that decision, unless you are willing to argue the three-part American system of government ought to be dismantled . Time for reflection, and a calm examination of the facts, not a hotblooded rewriting of the Constitution, are what California needs now.
Two days after that, in a gesture of equanimity, the board presented pros and cons for the death penalty -- five classic points on each side, listed in juxtaposed columns -- and introduced the piece with this bit of history:
The death penalty has never been carried out without fervent comment on its merits and its horror. Cato argued that "gentleness and pity" would be paid for by the blood of the citizens. But, warned Cicero, "care should be taken that the punishment does not exceed the guilt."
On March 9, the board acknowledged that at least one fear of the consequences of banning executions was legitimate, and offered a solution:
the recent State Supreme Court decision holding the death penalty unconstitutional means that persons held in capital cases can no longer be denied bail on that basis. Does that decision also mean that the courts are powerless to keep in custody a person charged with a serious crime and whose release on bail might pose a potential threat to society? If California judges lack authority to protect the public from potentially dangerous persons through denial of bail, then this should be remedied by the Legislature.
The board praised the U.S. Supreme Court on June 30, for declaring the death penalty as it was applied unconstitutional. The editorial raised the essential values question that the board, and the candidates, still struggle with today:
The court decision, by its length, by the variety and occasional contradiction of its opinions, by the diversity of its reservations and dissents, reflects the uncertainty of the nation itself on this question. For the moral and legal aspects have become overwhelmed in the minds of many by questions of personal security in a time of increasing violence in the American society. And fact is not easily separated from opinion, nor reason from emotion. We are convinced that the death penalty is no longer appropriate, if it ever was, in the American system of justice. We would have preferred to see it eliminated by legislative action and constitutional amendment . The sweep of the decision appears to us just, consistent with the value placed on individual life in America today.
And on Oct. 20, shortly before election day, the board again raised the values question:
An important measure of the quality of any society is the means it employs to maintain order through law. In the system of justice, few things are more difficult than finding the punishment that fits the crime. This is all the more difficult at a time when the consensus in society doubts that "punishment" is the right word, for the emphasis is on deterrence, not revenge; on correction, not incarceration. The ultimate controversy has to do with the ultimate penalty, death, and the troubling question: Does society ever have the right to take a life? That question is being asked of California voters in Proposition 17 on the November ballot. It is really not quite that simple, but that is the thrust of the proposition. We think it is a bad measure.