I am, as most of you know, pro-life. That means I am opposed to abortion in any and all circumstances. While I absolutely do care about moms in tough circumstances, I also believe that a fetus is, from the very first moment of conception (when it has its own individual, human DNA blueprint) a human person. And I believe that human persons are created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore have intrinsic dignity and rights.
Which is why it weirds me out when people who consider themselves pro-life as well then turn around and fail to respect human life in other instances.
If you believe in the dignity of a human person when it is composed of one cell, unable to think, move, talk, suffer, or defend itself, it seems to me that it shouldn't be hard to believe in the dignity of all human persons. And most people who describe themselves as pro-life also believe in the dignity of other people unable to move (like coma patients) or unable to talk (like the severely disabled) or unable to defend themselves (like the very poor). And yet they might advocate the death penalty or war with a zest that seems entirely inappropriate.
A person's a person no matter how small, sure. But I also believe this: A person's a person no matter how black. A person's a person no matter how Muslim. A person's a person no matter how guilty of murder.
Now, the Catholic Church does allow for one very particular instance in which a human person may be directly killed. That is when that human person is an aggressor threatening your own life or that of someone for whom you are responsible. By their aggression, they have forfeited, to some extent, their right to life.
The simple example is that of a gunman charging at you with clear intent to shoot. To make it easier, let's say you have a bunch of kids with you, and you're not sure who he's going to shoot first. You have a loaded gun. You can go ahead and shoot, and if you can't avoid killing him when you shoot, that's okay. In fact, you probably have the responsibility to shoot.
Another is the example of war. The Canadians finally realize we exist and send a brigade of ferocious Mounties, armed to the teeth, to murder our men and enslave our women and children. You enlist in the New Hampshire militia and prepare to defend your family. If you happen to shoot one of the attackers, fine for you. You are simply doing your duty. You respect the life of the other guy, but you recognize that he will kill you and your family if you don't kill him first -- and so you do.
The death penalty is also allowed by the Church. Traditionally, the solution to a dangerous criminal who threatened the peaceful citizens was to execute him. However, theologians and popes (particularly John Paul II) have been lately emphasizing how this ought to be avoided when possible.
Why? Because life has value. Because the "other guy," the guy you want to kill, has hopes, dreams, a family who will mourn him, and a desire to live his life -- just like you do. Because God is the giver and taker of life, and it isn't our place to say when people live or die. When we have to -- when there is absolutely no other option -- we sometimes have to take the life of an aggressor. But we'd rather not. We'd rather, like God does, see him be converted and live.
That's why the Church has such a strict definition of a just war, and one of the requirements is that all other methods have been exhausted. We shouldn't be looking for an excuse to go to war. We should be looking for any way to avoid it. Not because we are afraid of death -- but because we don't have the right to kill other people if it is possible not to. I have heard war defended on the grounds that "well, we have to, if we want to be a world power," or, "it would cause us severe economic hardship if we didn't," or, "we'd better strike first, or they will attack us later." Sorry, these aren't reasons to go over and kill someone who hasn't attacked you first!
I am not getting into specific wars here because it would take a much longer post ... probably a series of posts. I feel differently about different wars, but overall I feel uneasy about our country's eagerness to involve ourselves in armed conflicts. It's like we've forgotten that people die in them! Can there be a war that is necessary, in which risking our own lives and those of our enemies is just? Most certainly, and I believe there have been plenty of these over history. But I think there have been a heck of a lot more unnecessary wars.
With the death penalty, I feel the same. Might there be (or have been in the past) cases where a criminal had to die to protect everyone else? Definitely. But when we have the option of giving someone life without parole, and everyone can be kept just as safe that way, why don't we use it? Certainly this is expensive. But so are babies. We choose the more difficult way sometimes because we care about human life.
I got into a debate about the death penalty awhile back. Arguments in favor of it included "Knowing you're going to die is a great encouragement to repent" and "If a person kills someone, it is just for them to be killed." The first one is just beyond our pay grade. We have no idea what will help someone repent. I'm not going to get into the business of trying to save people's souls by killing them -- God never gave us permission for that. And as for the second, I thought we got rid of "an eye for an eye" when Jesus came along. "Justice is mine, sayeth the Lord," and all that. It isn't our place to decide what is "just" for another person to receive. If a man steals a thousand dollars, it is reasonable to require him to pay a thousand dollars to the person he robbed. But if a man kills a person's child, can killing him in return ever give the child back? If a man kills ten people, is he to be killed ten times? There is no restoration of justice when a person has been killed. That's a life that is no more -- it can't be given back or paid for with more death.
As you can see, my pro-life views are a little more complicated than, "You can't kill someone ever." If someone has made the choice to attack you, they don't have an equal right to life as someone who's just minding their own business. But that doesn't mean their life doesn't count, that we won't have to account for it to God. Their life has a value that can't be measured.
So, just understand that when I hear someone say, "I'm pro-life -- protect the unborn!" but then in the next sentence say, "Let's nuke Iran!" or "Hey, that guy killed someone -- he deserves to die!" ... I feel a disconnect. As if they were saying, "Only unborn life matters and has value." And the fact is, all life has value. And none of it belongs to us to do with as we like.