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The Politics of the Death Penalty

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 19, 2007

I don’t mean to harp on it, but the politics of capital punishment is interesting. Although the United Nations’ recent vote in favor of a moratorium on the death penalty was warmly welcomed by Renato Cardinal Martino (who had worked for some years unsuccessfully toward that end), it came only after a significant struggle with a minority of member states who wanted the resolution to apply to abortion as well as capital punishment.

The vote on November 15th had 99 nations in favor of the moratorium, 52 against and 33 abstentions. The United States opposed the resolution as a whole, but supported one of the amendments, which urged member states “to take all necessary measures to protect the lives of unborn children.” Two anti-abortion amendments failed by similar margins: opponent states numbered in the low 80’s; proponents in the high 20’s; abstentions in the high 40’s. There are several reasons to presume that most of the abstaining nations are at least mildly pro-life, suggesting that the issue of capital punishment could pave the way for a freer discussion of abortion.

For example, a number of heavily Catholic countries which had co-sponsored the death penalty resolution expressed sympathy for the amendments, but argued that they were not germane to the resolution in question, which they preferred to keep focused on capital punishment. These included the Philippines, San Marino, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Gabon, Honduras, Haiti, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Panama. Many countries thought the anti-abortion issue deserved greater attention, and some called for a separate resolution to be introduced at next year’s General Assembly.

On this occasion, however, sponsorship of amendments in favor of the unborn came from heavily Islamic states: Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Libya, Kuwait, Mauritania and Sudan. The death penalty tends to be fairly heavily and severely applied under contemporary Islam, and it was clear that these states found it ironic that other nations were attempting to seize the moral high ground on the death penalty while continuing their widespread support for abortion, which the Islamic world rightly abhors.

The sexual libertinism and pro-abortion politics of leading Western nations—and especially of the European Union—create a credibility problem in the eyes of many Islamic and third world nations. Those countries which employ the death penalty (twenty-five members states performed executions in 2006) and also restrict or prohibit abortion understandably believe that their moral priorities are more logical than those of the growing string of permissive societies intent on eliminating capital punishment. (I commented on the unease this creates in the pro-life mind in Opposition to the Death Penalty.)

Meanwhile, in the United States, where polls have shown 65% of the population in favor of the possibility of capital punishment for a long time, there is nonetheless an increasing reluctance to apply the penalty and to carry out the sentence. The recent use of DNA evidence has led to overturned convictions for over 200 prisoners in the past ten years, about eight percent of whom had been sentenced to death. In 2000, Illinois declared a moratorium on executions after a number of death-row inmates were proven innocent. Many states have reduced fears of repeat offenders by permitting a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. And those who must perform or witness executions have seen too much unnecessary suffering in too many botched attempts.

None of these confusing considerations is irrelevant to how we think about capital punishment, which according to Catholic teaching is an option to which the public authority may resort when necessary to protect society in grave matters. Careful consideration of what this means in our contemporary situation—including what it entails for all those involved—is well worthwhile. Even the moral one-upmanship going on between the secular West and the Islamic Middle East is worth serious reflection. Although the politics of the death penalty is indeed interesting, it would be a disservice to dismiss it as only interesting. It is in fact very important, and not least of all because it presents a fresh demand for moral clarity.

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