Answering the Tough Ones: Personhood and the Death Penalty

by Katie Walker | September 30, 2010 1:00 pm

A few weeks ago, I gave a speech on personhood, human rights and the pro-life movement back in my home turf of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky.

There is very little that is more nerve-wracking than going back home and giving a speech to several hundred of the people who once wiped your nose, taught you Latin and helped you make your first pro-life sign.

But there I was. Thankfully, I got over my nerves, made it out alive and the next day I received an email from a good friend in attendance asking how the death penalty enters into the discussion on human personhood.

Now I’ll admit I’m a little jaded. I’m often asked “what about the death penalty?” by people only hoping to call me out as a hypocrite.

But when asked by this particular friend, I realized that to those who aren’t in the thick of this fight day in and day out this is still an important question.

Books could and have been written on this topic, but here are just a few of my immediate thoughts on the fight against the death penalty and the fight for human personhood.

First of all, the most important difference between the pro-life/personhood movement and the anti-death penalty movement is that preborn children, euthanasia victims, disabled, handicapped etc. are denied their rights because they are considered by society as less equal, as less human, lesser non-persons, because of their age, mental or physical condition or residence.

All these things are situations which they CANNOT alter.

Condemned people on death row are also stripped of their right to life, but NOT because they are considered intrinsically less human, lesser persons. They are stripped of their rights based on the social contract which says that certain crimes demand certain payment to society.

Those who receive the death penalty are stripped of their right to life because of a situation which they COULD have altered – the crime they committed.

Preborn children have no rights. They are not recognized as persons under the law. Condemned criminals are recognized as persons and accordingly receive due process of the law.

Second, as I explained to my friend, the pro-life/personhood movement is not a movement to END abortion. This is a movement to GRANT human rights to all human beings by establishing a cultural, institutional belief that all of us are equal, all of us invaluable, unique and made in the image and likeness of God Himself.

Once we have established that all human beings are equally and infinitely precious persons, then we have a great platform to talk about why the current death penalty system could be an affront to the dignity and rights of human persons.

One of the most inspiring things about articulating the pro-life movement in terms of human personhood is that it takes the debate away from the narrow confines of abortion – one of the many Hydra heads of the culture of death (euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, In vitro fertilization, etc.) and places it in the positive light of human rights and the dignity of the human person.

Does the death penalty enter into the conversation? Absolutely.

Once it is positively established in law that all human beings are equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights …  that first among these are LIFE … ” then , my friends, we have a rock solid platform and foundation to start addressing other societal injustices: poverty, education, opportunity, and yes, the death penalty.

“The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.” – Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae

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