Can You Be Pro-Life and Pro-Death Penalty?
Examining the tension between defending life and condoning death.
Earlier this month, the Texas legislature approved a loudly-debated package of restrictions on abortions in the Lone Star State; among other things, requiring abortion clinics to bring their facilities in line with surgical standards and banning abortions after 20 weeks.
Days later, Texas State Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr., introduced a bill would keep those restrictions from taking effect until the state also outlaws the death penalty.
But Dutton isn’t the first to link abortion and the death penalty, to suggest being pro-life includes all lives, not just those of the unborn. (In fact, bills similar to House Bill 45 reportedly have failed in previous sessions of the Texas legislature.)
To many who have grown up in the Catholic church, like Danielle L. Vermeer, that’s part of the church’s “consistent ethic of life,” going back to the American-Catholic dialogue written in 1983 by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago. That document, upheld several years later by Pope John Paul II’s “Evangelium Vitae,” mapped for the first time the Church’s teachings on social justice issues.
“What it really comes down to is, is there a respect for the sacredness of life in all cases in all places at all times?” Vermeer said.
Vermeer lives in the Chicago suburbs and blogs about the intersections of faith and feminism and, increasingly, social justice issues on her blog, From Two to One. She said to her, the sacredness of life is more clear cut in the case of capital punishment than even abortion, complicated in its layers of health and choice and when life begins.
She doesn’t believe a person’s innocence or guilt justifies the state intervening to take that person’s life. “I don’t think as Christians that’s what we’re called to do.” Not when we believe all are guilty of sin. Not when we believe God’s grace is sufficient to pardon that sin.
Rev. Sarah Ross, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Pleasant Hill outside Kansas City, Mo., pointed to Jesus’ concern for the poor and oppressed, those statistically most likely to have abortions or be sentenced to death.
The facts back up Ross’ concern. Three-fourths of women who have abortions say they cannot afford a child (40 percent are at the federal poverty line), and half do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
When it comes to the death penalty, 310 people convicted of crimes in the U.S. have been exonerated by DNA evidence since 1989, according to The Innocence Project. Of those, 18 had served time on death row, it said.
Those exonerated disproportionately have been black: 193, compared to 93 people who are white or 22 who are Hispanic.
The Texas Moratorium Network puts the number of innocent people who have walked off death row “in the modern era” at 142. Some of the individuals had spent up to 33 years condemned to death. And in Texas, 70.7 percent of all people on death row are non-white.
“The issues of race and class prejudice (as well as possible innocence) are more than enough reason to oppose the death penalty as it exists today in America, whether or not one opposes it on a fundamental level,” Ross said.
Still, many other Christians, such as Joy Wegener, a pastor’s wife and mother of four in North Dakota, draw both anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment arguments directly from the Old Testament.
There are passages in which God calls for the death penalty, including Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12-14, Numbers 35:30 and Deuteronomy 17:6, Wegener said. Perhaps most famous is His command in Exodus 21:23-25: “If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
“So, because I order my beliefs on the Bible, I am pro-life—I am for protecting the innocent—and I am also for capital punishment,” she said.
Vermeer said she “completely understands” the “eye for an eye” argument.
But she also pointed to the way Jesus responded to that command in Matthew 5:38-40: “Turn the other cheek.”
“I don’t want to say necessarily that nothing applies, but understanding Christ as a person and His very real experience of dying through capital punishment should give us a little bit more pause and reflection to think, what does it mean in the totality of the Gospel? When Jesus says, ‘It is finished,’ what is He talking about?” she said.
That’s important, she said, “Especially in light of the resurrection, which should change everything—not to say that it’s all washed away, but that Jesus fulfilled all these commandments and laws.”
Vermeer said she thinks Dutton’s bill “probably never will go anywhere,” but that’s probably not the point.
It’s less about implementing policy than it is drawing attention to life and death issues that can be more complicated than bills and bans may suggest, she said. It’s about causing people to “understand and think more empathetically and holistically about these issues that are not so cut and dry, and from that perspective, maybe we can have a conversation that does lead to better policies,” she said.
“I’m glad there is a framework in place for a conversation to get started.”