A Grand Alliance
Left meets right on pro-life agenda?
By Alex De Grand

A somber moment of silence for executed criminals was illuminated by approximately 40 candle-bearing death penalty opponents gathered outside the historic Fayette County Courthouse on the evening of September 28.

With a slight autumn chill in the air, these activists listened to a short speech and read the names of those inmates put to death since their last vigil two months earlier.

"There are too many reasons [the death penalty] is wrong," said Will Warner, the event speaker and member of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

"It's bad enough that justice is already dispensed by how much money you have. It's worse when the stakes are as high as life and death."

The cause to abolish the death penalty draws the usual liberal-leaning suspects like the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International.

But Warner said there is an effort underway to build a grand pro-life coalition that bridges the typical right-left political divide.

Warner referred to state representative Bob Heleringer, a Louisville Republican, as an example.

Heleringer is a strong abortion opponent. He is just as opposed to the death penalty.

"If you're truly pro-life, you'll agree the state doesn't have the right to take human life -either that of the unborn or an individual on death row," Heleringer said.

Heleringer attributes his thinking on the subject to his Catholic faith. Pope John Paul has repeatedly issued strong statements against a "culture of death," denouncing equally abortion and the death penalty.

But Heleringer says it is hard to find many Kentucky lawmakers with this consistency. Heleringer said his bills and amendments aimed at abolishing the death penalty don't muster much enthusiasm.

"A lot of people come to Frankfort with their minds already made up," Heleringer lamented.

Heleringer said a fellow Catholic state representative, Democrat Jim Wayne of Louisville, is one of the few to back him.

"We are lonely people," Wayne said of himself and Heleringer.

Heleringer said those who oppose one and not the other make a lot of distinctions to rationalize the split. Abortion opponents argue that criminals-unlike a fetus (which they characterize as an unborn child) - have a chance through due process and appeals.

"But in the end, the result is the same: a life is taken," Heleringer said.

And a lot of those at the Lexington rally would question how valid some of those distinctions really are.

For example, as Warner noted, wealthy people are not a common sight on death row.

Rather, the death penalty is largely used against the poor, the mentally ill, and other vulnerable members of society.

Activists also dispute how much of a safeguard "the system" provides against wrongful executions, pointing out the inmates recently saved from Illinois' death row were not rescued following a new trial.

"These executions were not stopped by the judicial system but by families, volunteers and college students [who examined the cases]," Warner told the assembled activists.

"When people have to push and cajole the system to come to its senses, that system is broken," Warner added.

Heleringer says the problem is many of these issues are discussed in the abstract - abortions and executions are conducted out of the public eye.

There needs to be a dramatic illustration of what's at stake to rouse people from their complacency, Heleringer said

"If we were to publicly - on prime time TV - execute someone and perform a late-term abortion where the baby is minutes from birth, it would galvanize American opinion against both practices," Heleringer suggested.

Wayne agreed there needs to be a grassroots effort to build an across-the-board consensus endorsing life. He identifies the pope's statements as key to this effort.

"Since the pope has come out so strongly, a lot of Catholic groups are moving [that way]," Wayne said.

If Catholics in Louisville are mobilized, they can help change the minds of conservative Catholics found in Northern Kentucky, Wayne said.

With strong bases in those parts of the state, Wayne envisions the movement gathering the liberals and moderates found throughout the rest of Kentucky.

"It can be done," Wayne said.

But before all that can happen, there will be a lot of grunt work at the grassroots level, activists say.

Among the public events planned by the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty will be another rally November 30.

Abolition 2000, a campaign drawing support from religious and social justice groups, is also seeking recruits.