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Pope Francis wades deeper into death penalty abolition movement

Francis made an unexpected pivot in his speech before Congress Thursday, turning from a statement about defending human life to opposition to the death penalty.

It started as the perfect set-up for the leader of the Catholic Church to forcefully denounce the act of abortion. "The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development," Pope Francis said before a historic joint meeting of Congress Thursday morning. But the pope's appeal did not go forward in defending the life of unborn children, nor did he reference abortion by name in his address.

Instead, the pope made an unexpected pivot, taking direct aim at capital punishment.

"This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty," Francis said. "I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes."

It was a commanding and sweeping appeal from the pope, touching on a complicated issue that has vexed policy makers since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Those complexities have only become more acute in recent years, following a string of high-profile executions that went horribly awry, giving strength to the abolition movement. Now, more and more Americans are openly questioning the morality and efficacy of how the death penalty is carried out in the U.S.

Church leaders are starting to play a larger role in advocacy. Echoing the pope's message, activist groups have been reframing the debate by treating the condemned as people whose lives should be protected, regardless of their crimes. Evangelical groups have taken on the cause by targeting individual politicians in states that carry out the most executions. Following Francis' lead earlier this summer, bishops in the U.S. reaffirmed the church's commitment to abolish the death penalty.

"Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation," Francis said.

Only 21 other countries have forms of capital punishment, according to Amnesty International. The U.S. has been one of the most aggressive in carrying out the death penalty as of 2012, placing it just behind China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

There are signs that the U.S.'s reliance on capital punishment is starting to cool. In the last decade, seven states have abandoned the practice entirely, while a recent shortage of lethal drugs has made it more difficult for other states to carry out executions.

This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court was forced to step in following the aftermath of a series of botched lethal injections that left inmates yelling out, writhing in pain and suffering for hours. The high court ultimately ruled that a controversial sedative could remain as the drug of choice in a three-part cocktail used by executioners in Oklahoma. But the case sparked a contentious oral argument, pitting the liberal justices against the conservative majority in broadly questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty itself. 

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In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, suggested that capital punishment may violate the Eighth Amendmen's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, pointing to three "fundamental constitutional defects" with the death penalty: It’s lack of reliability, arbitrary application and excessive delays that undermine its purpose.

Justice Antonin Scalia was one of the most vocal opponents of abolishing the death penalty, saying it wasn't the court's role to legislate the issue. But in an indication of things to come, the conservative justice said this week that he "wouldn't be surprised" if the court rules the practice unconstitutional.