As pro-life Democrats, we believe that every person has worth and dignity and that every life has value. This is true not just of the innocent child in the womb, but even of those who have committed unspeakable crimes. The sanctity of human life is something that cannot be forfeited.
Democrats for Life of America is shaped by this consistent commitment to life—an approach we like to call whole life—and we believe that this consistency is vital to ending the culture of violence that permeates our society and to building a culture of life.
Of course, there is no consensus among pro-life Democrats when it comes to the death penalty and how we, as a society, should respond to brutal crimes and assaults on human dignity and life. For those who are pro-life, defending the life of an unborn child is quite obviously necessary, as the child is innocent and defenseless. But what about those who are not innocent and whose acts of violence have violated the sanctity of life?
Most of us who are whole life have come to believe that the death penalty is not the right response. Taking a human life to show the value of human life seems unlikely to work, and the reality is that we know that it does not work: The death penalty is no more effective as a deterrent than life in prison without the possibility of parole. To take a life needlessly cannot be reconciled with our consistent commitment to life.
For decades, those who embrace the consistent life ethic or whole life approach have argued for effective punishments that deter and prevent crimes. Consistent life advocate Mary Meehan, in a noteworthy article that was first published in 1982 and remains equally compelling today, outlines the case for an alternative to the unnecessary and ineffective use of the death penalty:
The punishment for premeditated (first-degree) murder should be life in prison without possibility of parole. Murderers should do productive work in prison in order to pay for their room and board and to make financial restitution to the families of their victims. We should return to the notion of “life at hard labor.” It should not involve the cruelty of meaningless work—breaking big rocks into little rocks—but productive labor and an effort to make amends. Such an effort can restore to a family at least some of the financial support it lost when a parent was murdered. In the case of a murdered child, it might enable the family to establish a scholarship fund or other memorial so the child will not be forgotten.
This type of approach would look to provide something real and tangible to those who have seen someone they love stolen from their lives, rather than believing that retribution will somehow bring closure and justice. This belief in some measure of restorative justice is far more promising than hoping that violence will heal what has been broken, the lives that have been shattered.
With the recent case of the Boston Bomber, we must be clear: He should be punished for the pain and anguish he caused. He must be held responsible for killing and maiming the marathon runners and their supporters. He has forfeited his right to live freely as a member of our society. But he belongs behind bars. If we believe in life, we cannot assent to killing him when it will not make our society safer and more just.
Nothing can atone for the lives of those he killed, and nothing can make up for the tragedy suffered by the dozens he maimed. And we can never fully heal the emotional pain and struggles of those loved ones whose friends and family members he killed or injured. Yet restorative justice offers more hope than demanding and exacting revenge. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will never be able to compensate for his crime, but a restorative approach would demand that he make some amends. And it would save us from becoming that which we do not wish to become: a society that treats human life as if it were disposable.
Pro-life Democrat Brian Keaney, a fellow at DFLA, has asked a powerful and challenging question: Why do we sanitize the killing we do to those on death row? He challenges us to face the gruesome nature of taking a life. He says, “Let us see if we have the stomach to witness such a horrific act and to know that it was carried out in our name.”
When it comes to abortion, one of our goals is to spread accurate information about the nature of abortion. Its supporters too often make it seem like a simple medical procedure, like any other done in a civilized society—even in the case of late-term abortions. But we try to remind people of two facts: The child’s life is real and should not be ignored, and abortion is a gruesome, horrific act. So what happens when we also look at the reality of capital punishment rather than a sanitized version of it?
The death penalty debate among pro-life Democrats will continue in the years ahead, but Democrats for Life of America is clear: The death penalty does not make us safer, it does not deter, and it does not reinforce the sanctity of life. It is time to end the death penalty, even for those who commit the most heinous crimes, such as the Boston Bomber.