Right to Life vs Right to A Life: Abortion & The Death Penalty by Marie Cartier

MarieCartierforKCETa-thumb-300x448-72405Earlier this week I went to hear Sr. Helen Prejean speak about the death penalty. You will remember, if the name does not immediately ring a bell, that the amazing movie Dead Man Walking (dir. Tim Robbins, 1995) was about her and her ministry to provide solace and closure with God to those inmates on Death Row. In the film, Sr. Prejean was played by Susan Sarandon. Dead Man Walking, a phenomenal hit, chronicled her first attempt at this ministry—her trials and limited success—in helping Matthew Poncelet come to grips with what he had done, ask forgiveness of the victims’ parents (because he was complicit in the murder of two teenagers) and face his death with dignity.

dead man walkingIn addition to teaching Gender and Women’s Studies, I have also been the screenwriting professor at University of California Irvine since 1992. I have used the screenplay for this movie (adapted from Prejean’s book and direct interviews) almost since it was published. It’s a great example of how research, interview, and authenticity can make a movie work—rather than “making it up.” Even the title was new to most of America- “Dead man walking!” refers to the last walk an inmate makes as he (or she) walks to his (or her) death.

So, I was enthusiastic when I heard that Sr. Helen was speaking at a local church very close to my house. Although I’ve used the screenplay for well over a decade, I had never met her or read the actual memoir she wrote. It seemed the perfect opportunity to meet her and get a signed copy—and also something my students would love to hear about when we discuss the film in the winter.

The book, Dead Man Walking, had its 20th anniversary last year. In that time it has spawned not only a large ministry spearheaded by Sr. Prejean but also, the film and several off-shoots of the film itself—among them a school theater project. In the Dead Man Walking School Theater Project, students play the parts of the guard, the accused, the victim, etc as a way to inhabit the roles and make personal decisions regarding the issue of capital punishment.

As an educator, and one who uses “theater games” with my students to involve them in the issues in a way that I believe only theater can, and as someone vehemently opposed to the death penalty, I was excited and thrilled to meet Sr. Helen Prejean. But at the same time, I felt myself thinking that this is often how coalition work crumbles—we want everyone to be on the same side of all issues, not just the one at hand. When I sat in St. Cyprian’s Church in Lakewood, CA, listening to Sr. Helen, I was acutely aware that this was a church I do not frequent often. It does not have a gay and lesbian outreach, for instance like St. Matthew’s –the Church I do attend—does. I was pleasantly surprised that St. Cyprian’s, which had seemed fairly conservative, was welcoming a speaker who was as radical as Sr. Helen into their environs.

Catholics are against the death penalty—and the Pope has made clear that the death penalty is unnecessary and wrong.

The states that have abolished the death penalty have a high preponderance of Catholics, and Catholics oppose the death penalty in greater numbers than the general population to a high degree. Only 24% of Catholics actually support the death penalty as opposed to 33% of the general population.

death penaltyprotestOne of the reasons for the shift in Catholic thinking in recent years is that the death penalty has been linked to “right to life” and opposition to abortion. In Catholic discussion, it has also been linked with opposition to euthanasia, and physician assisted suicide. Right to Life, as one Catholic column suggests, means “at both ends” –meaning before conception and through death, or abortion to euthanasia—and includes those on Death Row. So, while I sat at St. Cyprian’s ready to be washed in the grace of an activist I had admired for decades, I was brought up short by a discord I did not expect.

Sr. Helen and I would not agree on many things—she was clear from the pulpit where she was speaking that this was the best time for the abolishment of the death penalty and as she said, Catholics were leading the way “because we are pro-life—in all situations. We are against the killing of the unborn…” and she continued.

However, I was spun out in my thoughts by her comments—for once again we were at the table –which Gloria Steinem says we are never allowed to leave—the abortion rights table.

When I heard Steinem speak in the late 1980s at a UCLA lecture, she was clear—women will be kept busy because we will constantly be dragged back to the abortion rights table.”It is a struggle all the time and it always will be,” said Steinem of protecting women’s right to choose.

For without the right to a legal abortion, Steinem insisted, we cannot do anything else—it is the cornerstone of our freedom as women. Her work and viewpoint were honored, in fact, by President Obama in 2013 when Steinem was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom specifically for her work advancing the rights of women, among them her firm belief in the right to choose. She is seen as one of the foremost and vocal proponents of the right to choose as a basic right for women and a necessity for women’s liberation.

If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. – Florynce Kennedy, American lawyer, actor and activist

This saying is often attributed to either Flo Kennedy or Gloria Steinem. However, they have both said that in the early 70s they were in a New York taxi cab together and the working class female cab driver first said it.

In the 70s, I accompanied two women very close to me, to get abortions at different times. I even held one in my arms as she received it. Did I think we were “wrong”? No. I was deeply grateful this was legal. I was very clear in both of these cases that these two women were not just not ready to have the child—they had both become pregnant through no fault of their own—miscommunication about birth control and an abusive boyfriend constituted the reasons for their pregnancies.

Right to life? Or right to a life? Who decides?

So there I was—with my feminism and my radicalism—listening to Sr. Helen, but also remembering protesting Operation Rescue and their shut down clinic strategy in April of 1990 in the Mid-Wilshire section of Los Angeles. Randall Terry, the leader of Operation Rescue was set to arrive that day. We were protesting his arrival and the attempt at clinic shut down. At first, I was shoulder to shoulder with another woman and we were loudly and emotionally both singing, “We Shall Not Be Moved” together. As Terry’s truck came into view I started to boo loudly and she started to cheer. We slowly peeled our shoulders back from one another and looked into each other’s eyes. I am sure in that moment we both believed three things about each other. Number one, we were doing the right thing; two, the other person was not the monster we thought her to be and yet… And number three—Ok, back to work.

abortion legal illegal

As I waited to have Sr. Helen sign my copy of her memoir, I thought how I would talk to her about pro-choice. Of how I would tell her what an avid fan of her ministry I was; how I had had 100s of students buy the script to the film; of how I think the film is the best illustration of method acting there is, and I have used it as such…and how I teach Gender and Women’s Studies and –how could she possibly equate capital punishment with abortion?

Marie & Sr. Helen Prejean
Marie & Sr. Helen Prejean

When my turn arrived to have my book signed I told her all of the positive things I meant to say—and they were all true—every word. She is heroic in her ministry and has made a huge difference in the discourse around capital punishment—putting a human face on Death Row inmates. In that moment, though, I did not talk to her about her views on abortion. I did tell her I taught Gender and Women’s Studies and she looked right at me and said, “Good for you. We need that.” I left it at that.

Coalition work is hard— and exhausting. I don’t have the answers to it, although in my life I have sat at organizing tables where the differences among us seemed insurmountable—and often were—and blunted any efforts at forward movement. Sometimes I have thought that was for the best. But, as a long term activist, I want to get the work done.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

Marge Piercy

If we can find a way to work together –in common cause– I want to find that way. “We need that.”

Let me hear from you.


Marie Cartier is a teacher, poet, writer, healer, artist, and scholar. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of New Hampshire; an MA in English/Poetry from Colorado State University; an MFA in Theatre Arts (Playwriting) from UCLA; an MFA in Film and TV (Screenwriting) from UCLA; and an MFA in Visual Art (Painting/Sculpture) from Claremont Graduate University. She is also a first degree black belt in karate, Shorin-Ryu Shi-Do-Kan Kobayashi style. Ms. Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University.

27 thoughts on “Right to Life vs Right to A Life: Abortion & The Death Penalty by Marie Cartier”

  1. Even the Church says that conscience comes first, above any official Church teaching. And that would apply to the differences in opinion with someone you both agree with and disagree with. If the other person is following her conscience and you are following yours, you are essentially in accord.


    1. yes. it’s interesting/difficult how the radical right wants us to be in coalition around issues such as “right to life”– i.e. the assumption that while we have differences, we can put them aside to work together for the greater good– but in the Catholic Church primacy of conscience does not necessarily in my experience become a way to work together on GLBT issues…


  2. I really enjoyed your post, especially when you wrote, “…the other person was not the monster we thought her to be and yet…”. I think that interactions which allow each person to see the humanity and dignity of the of the (and how convenient for me that these activities often center around food, the arts and sports!) , are essential for coalition building. Sometimes it may not be possible to form a coherent group, but I would like to think that such interactions moderate everyones’ opinions and prevent people from getting too extremist. Groups of like minded people tend to become more zealous and rigid in their thinking the more isolated they are. Interaction is essential for flexibility.


    1. dear nmar- thanks for your post. if you’d like to write more about your experiences around difficult coalition building regarding “food, arts and sport” I’d be interested to hear them! agreed- flexibility is essential to interaction!


  3. Marie, I appreciate the position you were in. I’ve taught the movie Dead Man Walking in my Women and Religion class at Stony Brook University, and it serves as a great example of how the role of nuns evolved in the Catholic Church, and of the powerful ministry of Sr. Prejean. But you’re right, acknowledging all the views of those we idolize is necessary, if difficult. When I’ve taught about Margaret Sanger In my Intro to Women’s Studies, I do make a point to discuss her views on eugenics as well as all her great accomplishments in making birth control available. It’s messy but you’ve gotta keep it real.


    1. I definitely relate to your post– I have the same issues with bringing up Margaret sanger. and I do bring up the issues with eugenics– and also the issues regarding the horrific use of slaves in the early history of the development of gynecology. true that– it is messy– history and especially “herstory” but we do have to keep it real. thank you for your work!


  4. Hi Marie, I liked your post!

    This quote of Rumi’s came to my mind:

    “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
    there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

    When the soul lies down in that grass,
    the world is too full to talk about.
    Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.”


  5. such a great question–i’m happy to answer… that i’m not exactly sure. !! but, I imagine it has something to do with over 10 years of catholic school and being taught by nuns and as soon as I say “sister…” it’s hard for me to get into my usual “question authority” mode. the other thing is that as soon as I said I taught gender and women’s studies and she said “that’s good. we need more of that,” I took it as a sign that we were on the same side– sort of– and that while she might not agree with all I am doing she supports in a bigger way what I am doing with my gws students…and I guess the reason beyond that is that there was a long line of folks waiting to also get their books signed ;)…I do think I may send her this column however and see where the dialogue goes from there.


    1. I worked with a Sister of Charity as a mentor for many years, sadly she has passed on. But we never got into a fight about viewpoints I had that were not Church teaching. She would simply listen and take the conversation in some productive direction. She ran a soup kitchen, where I volunteered and her work with the street people was exactly the same sort of engagement — she simply took everyone on as equals, I learned so much from her.


      1. I learned so much from the Sisters of Notre Dame that taught me from grades 1-10…they were living independently in the 60s –independently from men and were in women’s community. nothing in my 1960s reality mirrored that women could do that. they were (and still seem to me) extraordinary.


  6. A different perspective.

    The parents of rape/torture/murder victim Loretta Bourque, a “Dead Man Walking” Case

    ” . . .makes you realize the Dead Man Walking truly belongs on the shelf in the library in the Fiction category.” (1)

    “Being devout Catholics, ‘the norm’ would be to look to the church for support and healing. Again, this need for spiritual stability was stolen by Sister Prejean.” (1)


    Case Detective Michael Vernado, in the rape/torture/murder of Faith Hathaway, a “Dead Man Walking” Case

    “I wouldn’t have had as much trouble with (Prejean’s) views if she would have told the truth . . .” ” . . . (Sr. Prejean) based her book on what was in I guess a defense file and what (rapist/murderer) Robert Willie telling her.” (1)

    ” . . . she’s trying to mislead people in the book. And that’s something that she’s going have to work out with herself.” “(Sr. Prejean’s) certainly not after giving anybody spiritual advice to try to save their soul.” (1)



    Book Review: “Sister Prejean’s Lack of Credibility: Review of “The Death of Innocents”, by Thomas M. McKenna (New Oxford Review, 12/05). http://www.newoxfordreview.org/reviews.jsp?did=1205-mckenna

    “The book is moreover riddled with factual errors and misrepresentations.”

    “Williams had confessed to repeatedly stabbing his victim, Sonya Knippers.”

    “This DNA test was performed by an independent lab in Dallas, which concluded that there was a one in nearly four billion chance that the blood could have been someone’s other than Williams’s.”

    ” . . . despite repeated claims that (Prejean) cares about crime victims, implies that the victim’s husband was a more likely suspect but was overlooked because the authorities wanted to convict a black man.”

    ” . . . a Federal District Court . . . stated that ‘the evidence against Williams was overwhelming.’ ” “The same court also did “not find any evidence of racial bias specific to this case.” (1)



    Did she consider the mental suffering of a parent who lost their innocent daughter to a rape/murder or, possibly, the mental (and physical) suffering of that girl, as she was being raped and murdered?

    Of course the sister considered it and she made her choice – the murderer.

    Other topics, below


    (1) “Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review”

    (2) Prejean: Death penalty is torture, TimesLeader.com online, October 1, 2012,


  7. Your article expands a number of common misconceptions.

    The Catholic Church has made it very clear that the death penalty and abortion are very different topics, morally and theologically.

    Catholics in good standing can support the death penalty and even an increase in executions, if their own prudential judgement calls for it.

    Saint (& Pope) Pius V, “The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder.” “The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent” (1566).

    “paramount obedience”.

    Abortion is always considered an intrinsic evil.

    Some teachings:

    1) Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger):

    “stated succinctly, emphatically and unambiguously as follows”: “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.

    For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.

    There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” (1)

    2) Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ

    “Pope John Paul II spoke for the whole Catholic tradition when he proclaimed, in Evangelium Vitae, that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral (EV 57).”

    “But he wisely included in that statement the word innocent. He has never said that every criminal has a right to live nor has he denied that the State has the right in some cases to execute the guilty. ”

    “No passage in the New Testament disapproves of the death penalty.” (2)

    3) Fr. John De Celles, “What Ardent Practicing Catholics Do” (3)

    “Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is … a grave and clear obligation to oppose them … [I]t is therefore never licit to … “take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it.”

    “In other words: it is always a grave or mortal sin for a politician to support abortion.”

    “Now, some will want to say that these bishops-and I- are crossing the line from Religion into to politics. But it was the Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) who started this. The bishops, and I, are not crossing into politics; she, and other pro-abortion Catholic politicians, regularly cross over into teaching theology and doctrine. And it’s our job to try clean up their mess.”

    “Some would say, well Father, what about those people who support the war in Iraq, or the death penalty, or oppose undocumented aliens? Aren’t those just as important, and aren’t Catholic politicians who support those “bad Catholics” too? ”

    “Simple answer: no. Not one of those issues, or any other similar issues, except for the attack on traditional marriage is a matter of absolute intrinsic evil in itself. Not all wars are unjust — and good Catholics can disagree on facts and judgments. Same thing with the other issues: facts are debatable, as are solutions to problems.”

    (1) “More Concerned with ‘Comfort’ than Christ?”, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick: Catholic Online, 7/11/2004 http://www.catholic.org/featured/headline.php

    NOTE: Ratzinger (Now retired Pope Benedict) was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and delivered this with guidance to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

    (2) “The Death Penalty: A Right to Life Issue?” at

    (3) “What Ardent Practicing Catholics Do: Correcting Pelosi”, National Review Online, 9/1/2008 6:00AM


    Cardinals, Bishops and Congressmen Slam Pelosi on Abortion

    New York Cardinal – Pelosi Not Worthy of “Providing Leadership in a Civilized Democracy”



  8. Hi Marie
    I absolutely love this article right to life v right to a life Abortion and the death penalty it was amazing.
    As a Buddhist, I strongly believe in the protection of life because as Buddhists we believe that taking a life any life is wrong and it cannot be negotiated. If for example you are protecting your own life or your family’s life from physical violence Or death then yes of course you have to you defend yourself but in terms of an unborn child this is highly improbable. The unborn child is the creation of two parents both of whom were present when the baby was created, we Buddhists believe that a baby is born because of karmic energy from its past life and so as a result, it is born into a human body. It is not the decision of the parents or of any other human being to take the unborn baby’s life because in Buddhism we believe this life was created because it is now time for a human birth.
    Of course not everyone follows a Buddhist faith or belief, but it’s very difficult whatever your religious following to come up with a valid reason why and unborn child should be killed and prevented from having a life.
    We must learn to take personal responsibility for our emotions and our thoughts when it comes to taking such drastic actions. The same I believe applies to the death penalty. 10 years ago I lost my own partner to murder in the most brutal way and people around me would make comments like “this person should be hanged” or “they should take his life”
    At first of course I was angry and grieving the loss of my partner but as I believe taking and life is wrong I also had to acknowledge that preserving the life that remained had to take priority and so I decided to forgive my partners killer.
    It is I believe very easy to make rash decisions about other peoples lives, and when we do this and react in certain ways, we can often make decisions that we regret afterwards.


    1. I think that people want to have black/white and either/or rules in life, but so often, it depends on the situation. One of the commandments is “Thou shalt not kill.” But, don’t kill what, don’t kill when, and don’t kill whom? We kill animals with abandon (so we can eat them, or for entertainment – as in hunting for “fun”), we approve of killing in self-defense, some of us approve of killing “an enemy” who threatens to take our land or possessions. Also, we have never determined, via law, when a person becomes a person (when it is conceived, when it can live outside the uterus, etc.). Who has the right to tell a woman who becomes pregnant that she must bring that embryo to term? If women could become pregnant ONLY when they WANTED to conceive a baby, that would make the question easier to answer. Unfortunately, many women become pregnant because of mistakes or rape/incest. Why punish the victim by forcing her to have a baby she doesn’t want? Karma is an idea created by humans to explain things we don’t understand. It is no excuse for limiting the rights of women in terms of what happens to their bodies, and as long as a fetus grows inside a woman’s body, it is the woman’s right to determine what happens to it.


      1. Hi Katharine
        Actually on reading your post I think you have some very valid points, there were perspectives that I hadn’t looked at. The thing I don’t understand however is where you have said that as long as a fetus grows inside a woman’s body, it is the woman’s right to determine what happens to it. Are you saying then that the unborn child does not have a right to live?
        Please don’t misunderstand me Katharine, I am not ridiculing what you have said I am simply trying to grasp the perspective from which you are coming. I completely agree with you that if a woman becomes pregnant through rape, she may not want to keep the baby for obvious reasons,. As a woman I completely agree that her rights should be respected at all costs. This article however was not about what a woman does or does not feel is right, it’s about whether the unborn child has a right to a human life and I really believe it does.
        You also mention that you feel karma is an idea created by humans to explain things we don’t understand. Buddhism believes in rebirth and teaches that individual human life begins at conception. The new being, bearing the karmic identity of a recently deceased individual, is therefore as entitled to the same moral respect as an adult human being and therefore should not be killed.


  9. In the 1980s shortly after the RC Church said that women could not be priests, I spoke at a Catholic College in Minneapolis St. Paul on female imagery for God. At dinner before the speech I asked the nuns if it would be a problem that I advocated Goddess in addition to God-She. No they said sister so and so has been teaching that in art history for years. After me, Sheila Collins spoke in a very personal and moving way about her abortion. She was ushered off the stage by the nuns and no questions were allowed. I asked the same nuns what happened. They said: We counsel students to get abortions, but if we said that publicly, the bishop would come down on us. I was surprised that Goddess would be overlooked, but abortion, not. It is also a question of where you draw your line in the sand. These nuns were not willing to be defrocked over their “private” views. Yet the church’s prohibition of abortion is probably doing more harm worldwide than just about anything else. My next blog is on Anne Hutchinson. She had the courage of her convictions and not only lost her friends but died for them. I love those radical nuns, but I also love the ones who left because of the church’s views on abortion. Great harm is being done in the name of God.

    And I should add that the RC church’s position on abortion and birth control and the harm it does to women, esp. in the Third World, is on was one of the reasons I stopped being a Vatican 2 practicing Catholic! It was a line in the sand I refused to ignore.


    1. thank you so much for yr post!! agreed- any affiliation with the catholic church is fraught with contradiction for feminists…i have felt pride in ” nuns on the bus” radicalism and dorothy day humnitarian history …and shame and anger at the church’s mususe and tragic back turning on the reality of women’s lives. thank you again for you post- and i look forward to yr hutchinson blog!


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