April 17, 2013 (FirstThings.com) – Abortionist Kermit Gosnell is facing the death penalty if he is convicted of the murders for which he is being tried in Philadelphia. Surely, the heinous acts of which he stands accused are depraved. They probably meet the criteria for capital punishment under Pennsylvania law. However, in the event that Gosnell is convicted, which seems likely, I am asking my fellow pro-lifers around the country to join me in requesting that his life be spared.
Someone might make the case for mercy by pointing out that Gosnell merely carried out the logic of the abortion license that is enshrined and protected in our law. One might note that there is no moral difference between dismembering a child inside the womb (which our jurisprudence, alas, treats as a constitutional liberty) and snipping a child’s neck after he or she has emerged from the womb (potentially a capital offense). How can our legal system impose the death penalty on Gosnell, given the arbitrariness and irrationality of the underlying law?
But that is not the fundamental reason for our asking for Gosnell’s life to be spared.
Kermit Gosnell, like every human being, no matter how self-degraded, depraved, and sunk in wickedness, 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.
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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.
I do not myself believe that the death penalty is ever required or justified as a matter of retributive justice. Many reasonable people of goodwill, including many who are strongly pro-life (and whose pro-life credentials I in no way question), disagree with me about that. But even if the death penalty is justified in a case like Gosnell’s, mercy is nevertheless a legitimate option, especially where our plea for mercy would itself advance the cause of respect for human life by testifying to the power of mercy and love.
I do not expect my request to be met with universal acclaim. Given the horrific nature of the acts of which Gosnell is accused, it is understandable that some, perhaps many or even most, will believe that this is not a case where mercy is appropriate. They will not want to join me. I understand.
However, I ask everyone who reads these words to consider the matter carefully and prayerfully. In 1994, I had the honor of representing Mother Teresa of Calcutta as her Counsel of Record on an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court of the United States asking the justices to reverse Roe v. Wade. In connection with that project, I learned that this was not Mother’s first intervention in American courts. On a number of occasions, she had asked judges to refrain from imposing the death penalty on a defendant convicted in a capital murder case. She did not question the defendants’ guilt, or even the justice of the death penalty. Her plea was always a plea for mercy.
By asking for mercy for Kermit Gosnell, we defenders of human life in all stages and conditions have the opportunity to follow the example of the greatest pro-life witness of the 20th century.
Note: Robert P George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he lectures on constitutional interpretation, civil liberties and philosophy of law. He also serves as the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. This article first appeared at First Things, and is reprinted with permission of the author.