Death for Gosnell? Or Mercy?

Robert George addresses something that’s been on my mind as well. As surely as I know that the sun rises, I know that, if found guilty, Kermit Gosnell deserves the death penalty for his crimes.

We know very little about the psyche of Dr. Gosnell. His keeping of souvenirs certainly suggests that he took some psychotic kind of pleasure in what he did, but the motivating factor appears all too mundane. Gosnell brutalized women and murdered babies because it was easy and profitable. He did it because he could, and the pro-abortion culture told him he could, because it wasn’t actually a real “life” between the blades of his scissors. The only thing separating his actions from the stated positions of the abortion lobby is that the abortion lobby–and the president–thinks its okay to kill infants born alive as long as the facilities are sanitary. Sen. Barbara Boxer even seems to suggest that babies can be killed up until their parents take them home from the hospital.

The courts gave him a licence to kill, the politicians gave him the leeway to do it without supervision, and the activists and media tried to make sure no one observed his murders.

In other words, there are hundreds of unindicted co-conspirators involved in the crimes for which Gosnell is on trial, and they will never be brought to justice.

That doesn’t mitigate his culpability at all. The man preyed on the poor, the weak, the defenseless. The man is, in any reasonable definition of the word, a monster.

I know that, and yet…

The death penalty has two aspects: retribution and public safety. The state’s execution of Gosnell would not seem to be a matter of public safety. If found guilty, he is unlikely to ever get out of jail, and even if he did, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which he could return to his particular crimes.

It’s tempting to think that justice can only be satisfied by retribution: that the magnitude and outrageous cruelty and callousness of these crimes can only be served by the death of the perpetrator.

But Catholics have an opportunity for a more powerful witness: the witness of mercy. When you meet cruelty with cruelty, you just get more cruelty. As Professor George says:

Kermit Gosnell, like every human being, no matter how self-degraded, depraved, and sunk in widkedness, is our brother—a precious human being made in the very image and likeness of God. Our objective should not be his destruction, but the conversion of his heart. Is that impossible for a man who has corrupted his character so thoroughly by his unspeakably evil actions? If there is a God in heaven, then the answer to that question is “no.” There is no one who is beyond repentance and reform; there is no one beyond hope. We should give up on no one.

If our plea for mercy moves the heart of a man who cruelly murdered innocent babies, the angels in heaven will rejoice. But whether it produces that effect or not, we will have shown all who have eyes to see and ears to hear that our pro-life witness is truly a witness of love—love even of our enemies, even of those whose appalling crimes against innocent human beings we must oppose with all our hearts, minds, and strength. In a profoundly compelling way, we will have given testimony to our belief in the sanctity of all human life.

Do we really oppose the culture of death in all its manifestations, or do we harbor a little corner of our hearts that cries out for blood?

I can answer that one easily for myself: yes, I do have that desire for vengeance in my heart. I want blood. I hear of violence and I want it to be paid back with violence, because that would seem satisfy justice.

I know that desire exists me, but I don’t trust it. A powerful voice that calls for death–even the death of the guilty–is very rarely the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Everything we do–even unto sacrificing our own lives–must be done for the greater glory of God. As I’ve written before, God makes it pretty clear what he demands, and it is not sacrifice.

In a case that so clearly proves the pro-life position on the horror of abortion and the sanctity of life, we do well to reject death. Our nation is saturated in casual cruelty. Death is easy: flick of a switch, it’s over. Little is gained except abstract and outmoded notions of retributive justice. At some point, our most powerful witness to Christ will be to oppose cruelty with something far more powerful: the merciful love of God. The world could use that right now more than it could use another body in a case that already has far too many.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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