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Can You Be Pro-Life While Supporting the Death Penalty?

May 1, AD2013 24 Comments


A few weeks ago I was reading the inestimable Simcha Fisher’s excellent National Catholic Register article titled, “Who Is to Blame for Kermit Gosnell?” Since I’m a glutton for punishment, I read the comments as well. Commenter Rob said, as part of a larger comment,

“What’s disturbing to me, as a non-Catholic, is the fact so many people claim to be pro-life and oppose abortion but, in stark contrast, defend capital punishment. In my opinion, being pro-life means we oppose the taking of life especially by the state.”

I read many pro-life blogs, and I’ve often heard this sentiment or variants of it expressed. Sometimes it’s used by abortion advocates to try and expose the alleged hypocrisy of pro-lifers, and in the same vein, sometimes it’s used by pro-lifers to claim that you’re not REALLY pro-life unless you also oppose capital punishment. Neither viewpoint is accurate, nor do they acknowledge the key differences in play when it comes to opposing abortion versus opposing the death penalty.

For example, my position on capital punishment does not fit most of the popular stereotypes. I generally oppose the death penalty, but I believe the State does have the right to administer it. I believe that the death penalty is overused in our country and is, in many cases, not necessary, but I don’t want to see it banned or outlawed. My reasoning is as follows:

  1. Abortion is always an objective intrinsic evil. Capital punishment is not an objective intrinsic evil.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2267, states,

“Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’”

Now, compare the passage above with the Church’s teaching on abortion in paragraphs 2270-71 (all emphases mine):

“Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. […] Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law…”

Note that the language used to describe the death penalty does NOT claim that it is a moral evil or contrary to the moral law. In fact, the Catechism acknowledges that legitimate authority does have recourse to the death penalty if circumstances warrant – a teaching that could not exist if the death penalty were an intrinsic evil (because, as the Church also teaches, we may never do evil so that good may result).

It’s unacceptable for Catholics to support abortion because direct abortion is always an intrinsic moral evil. However, support of the death penalty is a matter of prudential judgment since capital punishment is not intrinsically evil.

  1. Victims of abortion are always innocent. All criminals on death row have been convicted of a crime.

When I’m asked (usually by someone identifying as pro-choice) if I oppose the death penalty as well as abortion, I respond, “I absolutely believe that unborn children should receive due process of law prior to their executions – legal representation, trial by jury, and multiple appeals – just as convicted criminals do.”

While partially tongue-in-cheek, my reply also serious. After all, if abortion analogous to the death penalty, then shouldn’t each human being sentenced to death – whether by the courts or his/her mother – get the same rights prior to being killed?

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, as many as ten convicted criminals (out of approximately 1,000) who have been executed since 1976 may have been innocent (but there’s no conclusive proof either way). The last time I checked, 10 dead inmates < 52,000,000 innocent children killed by abortion since 1973. Of course, it’s a travesty and a tragedy if an innocent person is killed by the death penalty – but the chances of an innocent child being killed in an abortion are 100%., as opposed to the .01% of convicted criminals who were possibly innocent at the time of their executions.

  1. The death penalty is needed for the instances when criminals remain a threat to society.

Richard McNair is currently being held at the supermax prison in Colorado. He escaped from jail in Minot, ND in 1987 by using lip balm to slip out of handcuffs. He escaped from a Bismarck, ND jail in 1992 by crawling through a ventilator duct. He escaped from a Louisiana jail in 2006 by hiding under bags of mail. So far, the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” has managed to hold him, but will that always be true? What if there wasn’t a prison that could hold him? Or what about inmates who manage to order hits from prison – even those in top security prisons?

The death penalty also has some use as a bargaining tool. For example, Jared Lee Loughner recently pled guilty to several counts of murder, among other charges, in order to avoid the death penalty. In other cases, convicted criminals have traded information (such as where bodies of missing victims are buried) in exchange for life in prison (in lieu of capital punishment). Outlawing the death penalty would take this option away from prosecutors.

I absolutely agree with the Church’s teaching that criminals should be given ample opportunity to repent, and that the death penalty is largely unnecessary for the protection of society. I don’t believe that Kermit Gosnell should receive the death penalty because I don’t believe he’s a danger to anyone but unborn children and anesthetized women — none of whom he is likely to encounter in a prison setting. Additionally, I want to give him the chance to repent of his crimes, assuming he’s able to emerge from the mountain of pro-abortion propaganda he’s been buried under for his entire professional career.

In some cases, life in prison isn’t sufficient to ensure the safety of the public at large, or even the safety of other inmates who reside in the same prison. Put in its simplest terms, one can be pro-life and oppose the direct killing of innocent human beings while still having rational and logical reasons for supporting judicious use of capital punishment– not due to a thirst for vengeance or a dismissal of human rights and dignity, but out of concern for the preservation of the safety of society and/or the desire for legitimate justice.

© 2013. JoAnna Wahlund. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

JoAnna was baptized, raised, and married in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but converted to Catholicism in May 2003, on G.K. Chesterton's birthday. She has six terrific kids here on earth, four saints in heaven praying for her, and a wonderful husband who supports her in all things. She enjoys defending the Catholic faith online (in between her duties as chief cook and bottle washer for La Casa Wahlund, and her role as Senior Editor of Catholic Stand). She blogs at and more sporadically at

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