SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — The indefinite postponement of a death row inmate’s execution could give pro-lifers some traction in their fight for the unborn, advocates said.

California was forced to let the death warrant expire for Michael Morales, a convicted murderer-rapist, after two anesthesiologists refused to participate in his scheduled execution Feb. 21.

That decision capped a week of controversy over the constitutionality of executing criminals by lethal injection. A week earlier, a federal judge had ordered a medical professional to be present after Morales’ lawyers argued that use of the three drugs used in California and 36 other states to put inmates to death violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

They said Morales would feel pain from the last two drugs if he weren’t fully sedated by the first one. When both anesthesiologists tapped by the state to participate in the execution refused to take part, the state was forced to postpone it indefinitely. Their involvement would have violated the American Medical Association’s code of ethics.

The Morales case has clear implications in the fight to end abortion, said Andy Rivas, a policy adviser on criminal justice matters for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The ethical questions confronting physicians on the violation of their oaths — prematurely ending life — is something that should be discussed because [the anesthesiologists] were put in a terrible position,” he said. “I think that applies to other instances, like abortion.”

But not all pro-lifers equate taking the life of a child in the womb with that of a convict on death row. Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, said pro-lifers should focus on the sin of abortion before addressing the death penalty.

“Not one innocent preborn baby has ever stood trial and been found guilty of a crime prior to be being executed by an abortion,” she said.

There is, however, a clear parallel between the California anesthesiologists and pharmacists who conscientiously refuse to distribute “morning-after” emergency contraceptives, said Frank Manion, senior counsel with the American Center for Law and Justice.

“I’ve been representing people on these conscience-clause issues for about 10 years now,” he said, “and I’ve often wondered if we would get one of these cases involving execution.

“What’s not in parallel is the reaction to what they did,” he said. “I think most people think what they did was praiseworthy, whereas pharmacists who do this are held up as bigoted religious zealots interfering with a woman’s fundamental right to get whatever drug she wants.”

Life at All Stages

The analogy can be applied to life at every stage, according to Dr. Robert Saxer, executive vice-president of the Catholic Medical Association.

“You need to go back to the foundation of why it’s objectionable for a physician to participate in assisting death,” he said. “The AMA has an ethical policy that assisting death is incompatible with the role of the physician. Certainly that has implications with assisted suicide, abortion and stem-cell research.”

But Michael Sexton, president of the California Medical Association, says physicians’ opting out of certain procedures for conscience reasons is different than their non-participation in capital punishment because it is not a medical procedure.

“I think you have to look at each of the various situations on their own,” he said. Capital punishment is “an issue to be decided by society, and physicians as members of society are free to follow their conscience whether they believe pro or con regarding capital punishment, which is very different from a physician actually being involved in carrying out a capital sentence.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that if the convict’s guilt is certain, “the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means. ... The cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (No. 2267).

The U.S. bishops renewed their efforts to “end the use of the death penalty” a year ago. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., one of the country’s leading voices against capital punishment, told the Register that the campaign has helped many Catholics understand Church teaching on the subject.

But many American Catholics still have an “Old West” mindset when it comes to capital punishment, he said.

“We come from the days when you didn’t have the possibility of life [imprisonment] without parole,” he explained.

The Church is consistent in its teaching on life at all stages, the cardinal said.

“We are living in a time when we’re trying to proclaim the culture of life and how life is the preserve of God the Maker,” he said. “He is the Lord of Life, and all life really belongs to him. If we’re going to say that you have to protect the life of the little baby in the womb, you should also take a look at preserving the life of everybody.

“Our Church is very consistent and says: Let us be for life in every stage, even the life of those who are guilty,” the cardinal said. “Unfortunately, some people may have committed horrible sins of murder, but to say that they can’t be forgiven is to say there are unforgivable sins, and there really aren’t any unforgivable sins except those that harden our hearts as we go to death.”

Patrick Novecosky

is based in Naples, Florida.