It is clear from the whole teaching of the Catholic Church that if we are to take a pro-life position then we must be against the death penalty. A fully Catholic pro-life politician will therefore be opposed to both abortion and the death penalty.
However, it is also true that we are obliged to weigh the moral issues with subtlety and with the full exercise of our reason. While it is true that both abortion and the death penalty end a human life, it is not accurate to equate the two issues completely.
In terms of moral theology there are several reasons why abortion and the death penalty are not of equal weight.
The first is the question of proportion. While every individual life is sacred, we also have to consider the number of human lives in question. Comparatively few prisoners are executed in the United States. This website reports 52 executions in the USA in 2009. This website reports on abortion statistics. The last year reported was 2005, in which there were well over a million abortions. Generally speaking in the United States about 50 criminals are executed every year. This compares to well over a million abortions each year.
The second issue we need to consider is ability to resist the violence which takes life. The criminal being executed has no way to resist the executioner. However, he or she does have the full process of law and numerous appeals through all the courts of the land before the execution takes place. It is true that many of those executed are from the underclass and do not have the best lawyers money can buy, but they do have recourse to the legal process and they do have pro life lawyers to defend them and pursue their appeal at every opportunity.
In addition to this, the criminal had the choice not to commit the crime for which he or she is being executed. Of course there are many factors which affect the individual’s free choice–economic, social, educational etc. Nevertheless, individuals still do have the free choice to commit a crime or not.
The unborn infant has absolutely no choice or ability to resist the violence inflicted upon them. The unborn child is a totally innocent victim. The condemned criminal is not.
This brings us to the third issue: guilt of the condemned. While innocent criminals may be executed, every opportunity is taken to ensure that the innocent are not condemned. Most often the criminal is guilty himself of a violent crime. The unborn child, on the other hand, is completely innocent of any crime.
The fourth issue is one of personal or corporate responsibility. In the case of abortion individuals are making monumental decisions about the death of an innocent child. The abortionist, the people working in the clinic, the person procuring the abortion and the woman who asks for the procedure are all incurring a crime based on their rational decision. In the case of the death penalty the individual is put to death by the will of the people, decided by a democratic process, and executed anonymously so that it remains, as much as possible, the action of the corporate body done through legal means in the name of the body politic. We may disagree with this process, but it would be incorrect to equate the culpability of those who enact the death penalty with those who participate in abortion.
When considering the morality of an action we weigh up three factors: the action itself, the circumstances and the intention. The action itself is either objectively wrong or right. It is objectively good or evil. The circumstances and intention do not affect the objective goodness or evil of an action, but they do determine the person’s culpability.
Therefore we must consider the circumstances and intention of those seeking abortion and those seeking the death penalty. In many cases those seeking abortion are in circumstances of difficulty and pressure–health wise or in other ways. They have an intention of finding an easy way out of an intractable problem. However, there are also many cases of abortion in which the circumstances are not difficult and abortion is simply chosen in for contraceptive or economic reasons. Many abortions are chosen for ‘social’ reasons. The circumstances and intentions surrounding abortion are complex, but the ultimate reasoning is that it is better to take an innocent life than to continue with the problems the pregnancy presents.
The circumstances and intentions of a state execution, on the other hand, are very different. The circumstances are clear: the prisoner has committed a heinous crime. His legal appeals are exhausted. The intention is that the state end his life as an act of justice. The culpability of this action is negligible compared to the culpability of a person who procures an abortion for self centered ‘social’ reasons.
Finally, we need to consider the culpability of a person who is not personally involved in abortion or execution, but who takes a position in favor of abortion and a person who is in favor of the death penalty. A good Catholic should be against both. However, a person who is in favor of the death penalty, for the reasons above, is not as culpable as the person who is in favor of abortion.
I hope no one will mis-understand this post. I should state clearly that I am opposed to the death penalty, and do not wish to support it in any way. Nevertheless, it is important to think through these moral issues with both clarity and compassion.