Can Someone Be Pro-Life and Support Capital Punishment?

If you watch national news, you may have noticed a lot of attention being given lately to a particularly horrible crime. One day in 2007, two home invaders terrorized and tormented a Connecticut family for 7 hours — including savagely beating the husband/father, raping & strangling the wife/mother, raping the younger daughter (and possibly the older one, though that wasn’t clear to me) — before tying both daughters to their beds, dousing them with gasoline, and setting the house on fire. Fortunately, the girls died of smoke inhalation before the flames consumed them. Only the husband/father, Dr. William Petit, managed to escape to safety.

The jury has been deliberating on whether or not one of the invaders, Steven Hayes, was mentally competent at the time. His attorneys have tried to paint him as a barely functional addict just following the orders of his younger partner, some sort of sadistic puppetmaster. I admit I don’t have all the facts and haven’t heard all the pertinent arguments, but from what has been reported, my reaction has been “Fry ’em both!”

Well, the verdict finally came in from the jury last week; Hayes has been given a death sentence for six felony counts. Although, he will likely spend years on death row in liberal Connecticut, while taxpayers’ money is used to feed and care for the sick SOB. (His dead-eyed partner-in-crime, Joshua Komisarjevsky, won’t be tried until next year.)

image of unborn baby, caption: Pretend I'm a tree and save me.As you may have guessed or inferred from other statements I’ve made, I am strongly pro-Life. Many Christians (especially Catholics) and non-Christians believe that a consistent “pro-life” stance requires one to be against the death penalty, as well as against abortion. “All life is precious,” after all. Sometimes they will say that Jesus was all about love & forgiveness and we should be, too. They might quote “turning the other cheek” and decry the evils of answering violence with violence, etc. (The same sorts of arguments are often used for pacifism in general, of course, though that’s outside of the scope of this article.)

I would like to respond to this type of reasoning, sometimes called the “seamless garment” argument, by focusing on the basics of the pro-life argument and the pro-death penalty argument.

The term “pro-life” is shorthand for a very particular position. When referring to the abortion issue, the “pro-life” position is an argument for the protection of innocent, unborn, human beings and, therefore, against the taking of those lives (i.e., murder) for frivolous reasons. Notice that it is specifically human children that we are concerned for. While we do not approve of frivolous killing of other living creatures, neither do we fight nearly so hard on their behalf — well, I suppose some do — nor mourn the extermination of pests (e.g., ants, termites, mice) or butchering of livestock for food. (Hindus, on the other hand, often put the freedoms & well-being of animals over that of their fellow humans, which is one reason there is so much poverty, starvation, & disease among large Hindu populations.) Notice also that it is not a blanket objection to the taking of human life. There are circumstances where it is justified. War is one case (assuming one follows “just war” theory). Capital punishment is another.

By the way, even those who promote the “seamless garment” argument do not act consistently with their own view. Unless, of course, they are devout Jainists, who are strict vegetarians and go to great lengths to avoid even accidentally killing insects and micro-organisms. (Jainism is an offshoot of Hinduism.)

Now, let’s consider the argument for capital punishment. When I say I am “pro-capital punishment” or “pro” the death penalty, I certainly don’t mean that every crime should be a capital offense. Nor do I mean that everyone guilty of a capital offense should get a death sentence. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances. But, for clear cases of premeditated murder, whether or not the felon ever expresses remorse or “gets religion”, I think the state has every right to take his/her life.

There are many factors to consider, to be sure, but I think it can be boiled down to a matter of safety and justice. As imperfect as government is, one of its primary responsibilities is to help ensure the safety of the state/nation’s citizens (and legal residents). The corollary to this is the punishment of those who break the laws. Certain offenses are more serious than others, and the punishment should fit the crime. (This is known as the ancient legal concept of lex talionis.) In this context, the definition of justice is:

“The upholding of what is just, especially fair treatment and due reward in accordance with honor, standards, or law.”

Or, put another way,

“People who are guilty get punished in an appropriate way to their guilt.”

When someone tries to equate abortion with capital punishment, they betray a confusion not only about the arguments but also about the rights of the individuals in question. Are innocent and defenseless children worth saving and defending? I think our moral intuition says “Yes!” On the other hand, what about adults who have committed brutal, premeditated acts of murder, such as those described earlier? Is it really enough to take them off the streets and throw them in prison? (I’ll avoid going off on a tangential rant about endless appeals and injunctions and forced releases due to overcrowding, etc.) Both human law throughout the ages and Biblical mandate (e.g., Gen. 9:6) declare that such people have shown themselves to be deserving of death. They are a danger to society (of the worst kind) and must pay for the life (or lives) that they have taken with their own. The only way to be sure they can never take another life — nor be a burden on others — is to first take theirs.

Convicted murderer and rapist, Steven Hayes

Convicted murderer and rapist, Steven Hayes

How can anyone say that punishing a murderer by taking his/her life (after due process) is unjustified? How can anyone believe that the perpetrators of heinous crimes against their fellow man deserve the same rights to “protection”, let alone life, as innocent, unborn children?

From all accounts, Steven Hayes feels guilty and remorseful and welcomes the death sentence, having made several suicide attempts since committing the crimes at the Petit home in 2007. I am glad he is remorseful, but he must still pay for his crime. One of the jurors in the case admitted that:

“It was a very hard decision. It’s not easy to put someone’s life on the line.”

As it should be. The responsibility is a great one and should never be taken lightly. But, as Dr. Petit said,

“Vengeance belongs to the Lord. This is about justice. We need to have some rules in a civilized society.”

I totally agree.

Obviously, I have not addressed all of the arguments for or against capital punishment, since I’ve tried to focus on the titular question. But, hopefully, I have made it a bit clearer why being in favor of the death penalty — at the very least, for murderers — is entirely consistent with the anti-abortion, pro-life position. In both cases, we value & honor life, specifically by protecting the “innocent”.

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NOTE:  Sometime, I hope to publish a piece on “The Case for Capital Punishment”, where I will examine the broader issue and arguments — religious and non-religious — in more depth.

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