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The Death Penalty

The Pro-Life Movement is best known for supporting the right of unborn babies to be born. Pro-lifers are almost as well known for their support of the rights of older, handicapped or terminally ill persons to continue living until natural death.

These same defenders of the sacredness of human life are not as well known for their opposition to the death penalty. Can they be consistent to their principles regarding the sacredness of human life and still accept the right of the state to punish condemned criminals with the death penalty? Let's take a look at the philosophy which undergirds the Right to Life Movement.

Pro- lifers begin with the truth that all human life is sacred since it is created by God. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

They reason: "Once a human egg is fertilized and begins to grow, it has the same identical DNA it will have for life. It is already a tiny human individual! It's individuality, its human growth will continue to develop - just as a baby does after birth but is already a human individual person, endowed by God with the same inalienable right to life that all human beings possess. Since the right to life is given by God, no one may voluntarily destroy that human life. 'In God's hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.' (Job 12:10) This same belief is enshrined in the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill'."

When it comes to the question of elderly, handicapped or terminally-ill persons, Pro-lifers again invoke the principle of the sacredness of human life. They argue that while all possible means may be used to relieve pain and to promote the comfort of a human individual even if as a secondary effect, that life may be shortened - no attempt may be made to deliberately end that life.

The emphasis here is on the intention of the person who is caring for the patient. It may be summed up in the phrase, "to heal and to cure - not to kill." If the use of a drug given to relieve pain will have the secondary effect of shortening the life of the patient - so be it. But if the intention is to kill the person, this would be wrong.

How about the death penalty? How does this fit in with the Pro-life principles stated above? It is necessary again to recall the overriding principle of right to lifers! The God-given right to life of each human individual, and the corresponding duty to protect, cherish and defend that human life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states "The murder of a human being is gravely contrary to the dignity of the person and the holiness of the Creator." (2320)

Does this mean that an individual can never kill another? Here right to lifers would hold, that just as we must respect the right to life of other human beings - so we must respect and defend our own right to life. They would hold that when we are unjustly attacked, we may defend our life but only as a last resort. We should try to protect our life by running away, by calling for help. But as a last resort, we may injure our attacker - even fatally, if this is the only way to defend our own life.

Why? Because we are interested in protecting and saving our own life. The fatal injury is a way of doing this. We try not to do more damage than we have to, but if the only way we can defend our life results in the death of our attacker - so be it. We intend to defend ourselves, not to KILL. The killing is a sad secondary effect of our right to defend our own life.

This same principle to defend our own life, also applies to the defense of our family members, or of other innocent persons who are unjustly being attacked by others. Carrying this same principle one step further - we can apply it to our society if it is being unjustly attacked? Always, we must try to avoid taking the life of another, but as a last resort, if the only way we can defend ourselves or our fellow citizens against an unjust attack results in the death of others, we accept this as an unfortunate effect of defending our own lives.

NOW - How about the death penalty? How would these right to life principles apply? Let us take the case of a criminal who has been justly judged guilty of a heinous crime - of murder, for example.

Does he have a human life?
Yes.

Must we respect that life?
Yes.

Are we being presently attacked by this criminal so that our own life is threatened?
No.

Do we have a right to defend ourselves against possible future attacks by this criminal?
Yes.

If the only way we could defend ourselves were to KILL this person - might this be considered self-defense?
Possibly. But with the alternative of life long incarceration, without parole - are we not able to defend our lives? Is it really necessary to kill this criminal in order to defend ourselves? The answer, it would seem to me, is almost NEVER, if we are to abide in the principles of respect for the human life of others.

"Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being."  - CDF. Instruction, Donum vitae, intro.5

Contact Us

Respect Life Office
171 Clifton Ave.
Newark, NJ 07104
 
Cheryl A. Riley
Director
973-497-4350
 
Patricia Decker
Associate Director
patricia.decker@rcan.org
973-497-4348
 
The Mercy House
973-643-8000