George A. Sprecace M.D., J.D., F.A.C.P. and Allergy Associates of New London, P.C.

Point and Counterpoint: Abortion and Alternatives - Article 31, for Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Death Penalty: A Punishment Created by Man

To address this controversial topic, we must return to the beginning. “In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth and created Man in His own image and likeness,” complete with human dignity and the great gift of free will. Soon afterward, Man used that free will to his detriment. And then Cain murdered Abel. Instead of destroying Cain, God banished him. Cain, very worried, assumed that as a result, “anyone may kill me at sight.” “Not so,” the Lord said to him. “If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged seven-fold. So the Lord put a mark on Cain.” Later, when the Lord saw “how great was man’s wickedness on earth,” he decided to wipe out His creatures, but spared Noah and his flock in order to assure a new beginning. We see in these actions God’s choice of a second chance for His creatures. And we are reminded that “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. I shall repay.”

But the consequences of free will have shortcomings. Laws including Mosaic Law, the Code of Hammurabi, Roman law, and laws throughout the Dark and Middle Ages prescribed the death penalty for an over-generous grouping of infractions, often preceded by torture and mutilation. Roman law included deportation and also life imprisonment at hard labor under “capital punishment.” Only beginning in the 18th century was the validity of capital punishment imposed by civilized societies questioned. Most nations in Western civilization have outlawed the death penalty. It continues to be upheld by the laws of the United States, although its implementation is highly fragmented among the States.

Current arguments against capital punishment fall into several categories. The ethical/moral argument is made lucidly by the modern Catholic Church: the primacy of human dignity at all stages of life, the central role of forgiveness among Christians, the fact that the ultimate judgment is ultimately God’s and God’s alone. An individual and society have the right to self-defense, but using the least violent methods are the most effective.

The utilitarian argument is the death penalty does not deter further violence – except that by the executed criminal. However, a series of academic studies reported over the last few years claim that the death penalty does act as a deterrent to murder. The argument over errors in convictions, resulting in the incarceration and execution of innocent people gains strength every day with the effective use of forensic science. The argument over methods, consistent with the American constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment,” is based on practical experience including the proper refusal of physicians to be involved in any way in its implementation.

A fine summary of the position of the Catholic Church on this subject is offered by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In conclusion, Dr. Moore is opposed to capital punishment and Dr. Sprecace has finally resolved his ambivalence and now embraces the same position.

Peter Moore, PhD                                 George A. Sprecace, M.D., J.D.

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