As we recommit ourselves to advocating for the rights of the unborn, the question will increasingly be raised: What about the death penalty? The argument will be made that if the Church is willing to publicly upbraid Catholic politicians who promote abortion, it should also be prepared to give the same treatment to those who support the death penalty.
We need to be ready with some answers.
I have to admit at the outset that I am against the death penalty. As I see it, our legal system is simply not perfect enough to ensure that every person who is sentenced to death is really guilty of the crime he or she is being accused of. The likelihood of an innocent person being put to death - no matter how remote - gives me pause. A life sentence in prison can always be reversed, but a death sentence is permanent.
Furthermore, I think Catholics who do support the death penalty should examine their consciences to ensure that their support is not a result of ignorance, prejudice or vengeance.
That being said, I can't say that I find the death penalty to be a morally equivalent evil to abortion. Nor do I think that there should be an equal urgency to end the practice.
First of all, capital punishment is an extension of a government's responsibility to protect its citizens. It can be argued that capital punishment acts as a deterrent, that is, that people are less likely to commit violent crimes when they know that they may be put to death as a result. Just as the police are authorized to use deadly force to protect citizens and the armed forces to protect the nation, so the legal system may be allowed to use the death penalty to protect the public from criminals.
In the case of abortion, the government fails at its responsibility to protect the innocent. Those who are the most vulnerable, who have no voice, are the very ones who are excluded from protection.
Secondly, people do not find themselves on death row for no reason. Police and prosecutors do not randomly pluck people off the street and sentence them to death. Rather, people receive the death penalty because they chose to commit a crime. Furthermore, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, they are presumed to be innocent and are entitled to be represented by an attorney and to be tried by a jury of their peers. The death penalty is not founded on a presumption that the guilty do not have a fundamental right to life. Rather, the lengthy appeals process afforded to them indicates just the opposite. It can be argued that the judicial system is unfair and can inadvertently prosecute innocent persons (I certainly believe it's a possibility). Nonetheless, it does support the basic right to life of the accused by requiring a high threshold of certainty before leveling a sentence of death.
While the death row inmate gets her day in court, the unborn child has no advocate and no appeals process. Until an attorney is appointed to defend the rights of every unborn child, then I cannot agree that the death penalty is an equal violation of human rights.
Finally, the sheer numbers of abortions as compared to capital deaths is staggering. In 2007 there were 42 inmates put to death in the United States while there were approximately 1,370,000 abortions committed. While only one unjust death of an innocent person is too many, the fact that there are so many abortions each year convinces me that it is a moral issue requiring much more urgency than the death penalty. So many more lives are at stake. At current rates, if it took us ten years to end the death penalty, 420 lives would be lost in the interim. However, if it took us ten years to end abortion, 13,700,000 lives would be lost. If over a million inmates were put to death annually in U.S. prisons, then I might agree that it is a morally equivalent issue. But, given the sheer numbers, it is impossible to argue that the death penalty is as urgent or more urgent than abortion.
In his book, Render Unto Caesar, Archbishop Chaput of Denver argues that abortion is the "foundational" moral issue of our time. It challenges us as a society to decide whether we will be a nation in which the rights of all persons are honored or whether we will be a nation in which the powerful can veto the rights of the weak. The death penalty, pre-emptive war, social justice and other moral issues are certainly compelling. All people should examine their consciences and their attitudes regarding these questions. But, like civil rights in the '60's and slavery in the nineteenth century, abortion is the defining moral question of our time. Because it is premised on the denial of a right to life for a class of people and because of the sheer number of its victims, I cannot foresee any rational argument being made that another moral issue demands equal or greater attention or urgency.