Time to go pro-life all the way: for reasons related to my opposition to abortion, I am adopting the “consistent ethic of life” and renouncing my support for capital punishment. I believe that the mere potential for good inherent in all human life is a sufficient basis for abolishing the death penalty. Whether it is expressed in religious, secular or philosophical terms, there is a something at the core of even the worst of us worthy of respect and protection.
The death penalty debate, unlike the abortion one, is rarely framed in purely religious terms. This is not to say that religious arguments, and passionate ones, are not sometimes raised by both sides of the controversy. What I mean is that advocating for one side is generally not viewed as “imposing religion” upon society. There is no slogan equivalent to “keep your rosaries off my ovaries” in the capital punishment arena. No one says “keep your Mass off my cyanide gas.” When a legislature enacts or repeals a death penalty bill, objections based upon church/state separation generally do not arise. [They also tend to fade in discussions of late-term abortion or infanticide].
But reading Jill of Feministe’s call to de-emphasize the problem of executing the innocent in favor of rejecting capital punishment on its face, I was struck by the parallels to my own allegedly “magical” anti-abortion position. The abolitionist—one who puts aside questions of innocence, racism, age or retardation and the like in favor of a complete ban—is arguing for nothing but life for life’s sake. Such an argument against execution, it seems, could easily be easily be dismissed as “DNA magic,” as a fetishistic obsession with the bare resemblance of the criminal’s genetic structure to our own, or as an embrace of “ensoulment.” Why not simply declare that the condemned, like the fetus, is “subhuman” or a mere “parasite”? Why protest against the perfectly “legal medical procedure” of lethal injection?
It is of no use to distinguish the prisoner by asserting that his clump of cells has developed to the point where he is a “real” human being with a consciousness. The consciousness only counts against the argument. Having metastasized into something evil, the creature’s possession of a brain only aggravates the danger posed. Nor do arguments concerning the condemned’s capacity for pain carry much weight. Any death can be brought about painlessly and instantaneously, with the subject experiencing no more discomfort than a blastocyte. It is magical thinking to say otherwise—factually and scientifically false. And if the question “how would like it if your mother had aborted you?” is for some reason nonsense, then so is the question “how would you like it if the state had executed you?” In either case, you would be in no position to complain today.
These specious objections aside, the abolitionist position can rest only upon a respect for the core human identity and the potentiality for goodness it entails. It is a potentiality that may, unlike the fetus, take far longer than nine months to realize. Rehabilitation can be a long and expensive process. And it must be recognized that it is, in fact, only a potentiality, not an actuality.
But I believe that that is enough. Vengeance solves nothing, resurrects no one, and I seriously doubt that those inclined to kill are deterred (or necessarily even aware) of the prospect of the ultimate penalty. Every person can eventually serve to some productive use, even if incarcerated. I am persuaded by the reasoning of Pope John Paul II in Evangelium vitae that:
[We] ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
George H. Smith, author of the seminal work “Atheism: The Case Against God” comes to a similar conclusion with respect to capital punishment. He contends that the right to life is “inalienable” and that the death penalty is impermissible even in cases “where reasonable doubt is impossible and where the crimes have been especially heinous” [â€œA Killerâ€™s Right to Life,â€? Liberty 10, no. 2 (November 1996): 46]. I concur that whether argued as a question of mere humanity or mere Christianity, we are better off with less killing than more.