Capital Punishment

Missouri Right to Life Policy on Capital Punishment


Missouri Right to Life takes no position on capital punishment.


Missouri Right to Life has never taken a stand for or against the death penalty or on many other issues which relate to the killing of human beings, such as war in general, particular wars, genocide, political gulags, diversion of famine relief from starving people by corrupt governments, unjust trade barriers by rich countries against poor ones which deprive the poor ones of money to buy food and medicine for their people, the providing of contraceptive supplies to refugees instead of real medical assistance, and the like. We focus on the problems of the destruction of innocent human life by abortion, infanticide, euthanasia and the abuses of cloning and embryonic stem cell research. Many other problems may legitimately be considered as “life issues,” and they are certainly serious issues, but they are not our issues.

There are people of good will who believe that one cannot be truly pro-life while remaining silent on other life issues. They may not have considered that the many life issues are not of equal moral importance. They may simply part company with us in that assessment. The following considerations impel MRL to consider abortion and the other assaults on innocent life to be of far greater societal importance than the death penalty. When one compares the magnitude of the respective problems and the legal process available for potential victims, one can see that the death penalty is far less an attack on the good of society than are the problems that MRL addresses.

Consider first the magnitude of the abortion problem compared to that of the death penalty. From the year the death penalty was re-instituted by the Supreme Court, 1976, through the year 2008, the Justice Department reports that a total of 1,136 executions have occurred. That is a total, not an annual, figure. In the last year for which national abortion statistics are available at the time of this writing, 2005, the Guttmacher Institute (Planned Parenthood’s research arm) reports approximately 1.21 million abortions were performed. (Praise God that the rate is down somewhat from the 1.6 million per year which occurred from the late 1970’s through the early 1990’s.) In other words, each day of the year 2005, day in and day out (Sundays included), an average of 3,315 unborn children were killed by abortion. Thus, in 2005, on each day almost three times as many persons were killed by abortion as the total of all the executions which have taken place in the last 33 years.

The numbers stagger the imagination: 3,315 deaths per day by abortion in 2005; 1,136 total executions in 33 years. There have been over 50 million deaths in America by surgical abortion since 1973. The aggregate numbers thus reflect approximately 50,000 deaths of unborn babies for each single death by execution.

Now, persons concerned about the death penalty may reply that each person executed is a unique human being of incalculable value, so one should not compare numbers. But that is just as true of the babies as of the executed criminals; each one of the aborted babies was a unique human being of incalculable value, too.

Consider further that each person who faces the death penalty has had a trial at which he was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of a heinous crime. While errors in convictions have occurred, each convicted person has had at least one appeal. The vast majority have had multiple appeals. Compare that to what is available for the protection of the unborn or the newly-born. There is no court procedure at all. Fathers and grandparents of the babies are not allowed into the courts to try to save the lives of their babies, for the Supreme Court has stated they have no cognizable interest in the lives of their young. It is even unconstitutional, decrees the Supreme Court, for laws to require that notice of the abortion be given to the father or grandparents of the baby. And the babies themselves, of course, have no right to an attorney to go to court for their lives.

A Word on One Church’s Teaching

When Missouri Right to Life is questioned about the death penalty, the question usually comes from a member of the Catholic Church in something like the following form: “How can you claim to be pro-life when you do not oppose the death penalty?” This section is added because of the frequency of questions from Catholics on this issue, not to single out the Catholic Church on the basis of its teachings. If other religious traditions have questions about MRL’s position based on their own church’s teachings on capital punishment, then MRL will be happy to address them.

MRL’s members come from many religious traditions. The Catholic members of MRL believe that MRL’s position is consistent with Catholic teaching. The Catholic Church teaches that protecting innocent life is of paramount importance, involving a principle that can never be subject to considerations of particular circumstances, while opposition to the death penalty depends on a prudential judgment about the circumstances of society in modern times. MRL focuses its efforts on reforming society to honor the paramount principle, and it lets other organizations address the principles of secondary importance that depend on societal circumstances.

His Holiness John Paul II brought opposition to the death penalty to the fore in the teaching of the Catholic Church in a manner never undertaken by his predecessors. In his magnificent encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (1995), John Paul II taught that although capital punishment was once a legitimate form of punishment because it was necessary for the protection of society, it is legitimate no longer. Modern societies can protect themselves against the worst criminals without it. (Evangelium Vitae, no. 56.) This is a prudential judgment, yet a clear papal teaching which, it is understood, Catholics are bound to follow.

However, His Holiness contrasted the respect which is to be shown for the lives of convicted criminals with the absolute protection to be provided to the innocent. As he stated,

If such great care must be taken to respect every life, even that of criminals and unjust aggressors, the commandment “You shall not kill” has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person. And all the more so in the case of weak and defenseless human beings, who find their ultimate defence against the arrogance and caprice of others only in the absolute binding force of God’s commandment. (Evangelium Vitae, no. 57, emphasis added.)

The protection for the innocent and vulnerable is absolute, in contrast to the protection of the guilty, which depends on whether society can protect itself from them or not. And to underscore the importance of the absolute protection to be given the innocent, His Holiness issued the following solemn pronouncement:

Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Romans 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. (Id.)

It is hard to find a more authoritative statement in Catholic teaching than one stated “by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter” and resting upon Scripture, Tradition, and the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

The bishops of the United States agree that direct attacks on vulnerable innocent humans is of first priority. “As disciples of Christ, as bishops in his church, our first concern for human life has to be for those who are unwanted—with fatal results—by their parents or their children, or by society itself. Such as these fall victim to the ultimate abuse of abortion or euthanasia.” U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Faithful for Life, A Moral Reflection,” p. 2 (September, 1995) (on-line at “Yet abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others. USCCB, “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” no. 5 (1998) ( “As Americans, as Catholics and as pastors of our people, we write therefore today to call our fellow citizens back to our country’s founding principles, and most especially to renew our national respect for the rights of those who are unborn, weak, disabled and terminally ill. Real freedom rests on the inviolability of every person as a child of God. The inherent value of human life, at every stage and in every circumstance, is not a sectarian issue any more than the Declaration of Independence is a sectarian creed.” Id., no. 6 (emphasis in original).

The first concern is for those who fall victim to abortion or euthanasia. The preeminent threats to human dignity are abortion and euthanasia. The bishops call upon our fellow citizens most especially to renew their respect for the unborn, weak, disabled and terminally ill.

Missouri Right to Life’s Catholic members would submit that in concentrating on abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and abuses of cloning and embryonic stem cell research, MRL concentrates on the life issues which the Catholic Church itself pronounces as most important. After all, if the innocent and defenseless among us have no right to life protectible under the law, how long are the rest of us, convicted criminals included, going to enjoy any legal rights?

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