A group of Knights of Columbus gathered in a church basement after Sunday Mass in rural Michigan. They posted some signs — “Love Life, Choose Life” — and laid out their weapons: pen and paper. Each signature collected was a step toward winning a legislative battle — to ban a grisly second- trimester abortion procedure in their state.
This recent effort in Michigan is just one example of how Knights at the state and local level are contributing to grassroots pro-life work. From circulating petitions to meeting with legislators to participating in marches for life and other demonstrations, Knights are a positive force for legislative advocacy throughout the nation. Members in many states, including Michigan, California and Virginia, have been a unified voice for the right to life.
“It’s important that Knights be leaders,” explained Richard Marciniak, the culture of life director for the California State Council. “It’s important that we work at both the state level and in our community to protect life from conception until death.”
Tim Donovan, who serves with his wife as pro-life chair couple for the Michigan State Council, has a hard time describing the procedure he is working to stop. “It’s just gut-wrenching,” he said.
Medically known as a dilation and evacuation abortion, it involves pulling off the limbs and crushing the skull of an unborn child in the second trimester of pregnancy. According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, 1,908 dilation and evacuation abortions were performed in the state in 2018.
A ban on the procedure passed in the Michigan legislature last spring but was vetoed by the governor. Right to Life of Michigan has led an initiative to collect petition signatures from at least 340,047 Michigan residents by Dec. 23. If the petition effort is successful, the legislation will be reintroduced and cannot be vetoed if passed.
Barbara Listing, president of Right to Life of Michigan, said the organization always seeks out the Knights first.
“The Knights have been a great partner over the years,” she said. “They have always been such faithful champions for the unborn.”
Shortly after the petition to ban dismemberment abortions was announced late last spring, the Michigan State Council pledged to secure 40,000 signatures and provided financial support for printing the first petitions. The Knights mobilized volunteers, and the first batches of petitions were distributed at K of C meetings during the summer.
“It’s really at the local level that many of the Knights have been out there, collecting signatures,” said Listing.
In Listing’s hometown of Shepherd, Mich., where her husband, Otto, is a longtime member of Shepherd Council 8554, Knights collected signatures at local churches and went door to door in the community.
On behalf of the Michigan Knights of Columbus, State Deputy Bill Chasse received Right to Life of Michigan’s life achievement award in September 2019, in recognition of the Order’s active leadership.
Donovan, who helped coordinate the Order’s statewide participation in the petition drive, is proud of the response of Knights to pro-life initiatives near and far.
“I truly believe that many of these different pro-life efforts throughout the nation would not be happening if it were not for the support and solidarity of all my brother Knights,” he said.
On the West Coast, the California State Council has also been effective at mobilizing many of its 80,000 Knights to pro-life action.
California Knights have helped to organize and support the Walk for Life West Coast in San Francisco, OneLife LA and the San Diego Walk for Life, as well as many smaller events. The state council also communicates with local chapters, district deputies and grand knights about pending legislation. Through this network, individual Knights in different legislative districts are encouraged to contact their representatives and sign petitions.
If even 10% of Knights sign and submit a petition, legislators take notice, explained Richard Marciniak, the state culture of life director.
“Legislators are beginning to recognize that the Knights are numerous and have a real role in their community,” he said.
Robert Burnside, the state council’s legislative chairman, noted that the Knights’ political engagement is also motivated by the principle of patriotism.
“Participating in the system is important,” Burnside affirmed. “Prayer is always good, but sometimes you have to come out of the pews to tell legislators that something is to be done or not.”
Knights have a chance to do that in person during Catholic Advocacy Day, an annual event organized by the California Catholic Conference, the bishops’ official public policy voice.
Some 40 Knights joined Marciniak in the capital of Sacramento last spring to meet face-to-face with their representatives and present the Church’s positions on important policy issues.
For example, in response to legislation that provides free abortion pills for students at state universities, Knights encouraged legislators to instead consider provisions for housing, counseling, medical care and child care to help women choose life.
Marciniak is hoping to increase the K of C presence each year.
While there has been some success in affecting public opinion, he said, “It’s very important to keep members focused on legislative issues, because that’s where the battle is really being won or lost.”
A focus on policy, not political affiliation, is also key, he added.
“You can’t do this as a partisan thing,” Marciniak said. “You have to focus on the issues, the ethics, the morality of the issue. Otherwise you’re going to alienate a lot of people.”
Marciniak believes advocacy within each state is crucial, even in places where it seems like an uphill battle.
“Pro-life laws at the state level greatly affect life issues,” he said. “This is won or lost at the state level.”
In Virginia, Knights have been bringing the fight from the national capital to their state capital.
Virginia Knights have long played an instrumental role in the national March for Life, held in Washington, D.C., each January since 1974.
According to Thom Harrington, a board member of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, March for Life president Jeannie Mancini has put it this way: “Without Virginia Knights of Columbus, there would be no March for Life.”
Harrington, a member of George Brent Council 5332 in Manassas, Va., leads operations and logistics for the march. Knights — mainly from Virginia, but also other nearby jurisdictions — have served as marshals for the national march from the beginning. They help to keep things running smoothly, as the event draws hundreds of thousands of participants every year.
“A crowd that size can sometimes get a mind of its own,” explained Virginia State Deputy Bob Szerszynski, who has served as a marshal for many years. “Our job is to try to keep people on the march route.”
Harrington noted that the event is the largest annual, peaceful human rights protest in the world.
“Our example has led to statewide and local marches across the country,” Harrington said. This, in turn, has had an effect on pro-life legislation.
“Pro-life witness changes the culture, and laws reflect the culture,” he explained. “A large number of state laws have been enacted to place important limits on abortion, yet more needs to be done.”
In early 2019, Virginia became a center of controversy after a legislator acknowledged that a proposed bill — later withdrawn — would allow abortion for any reason until birth. To many observers, defenses of the bill appeared indistinguishable from defenses of infanticide.
As part of the response to the bill, the March for Life Education and Defense Fund worked with state groups to organize a march that brought several thousand people to the Virginia capital April 3. The Virginia Knights stepped up to help, sponsoring more than dozen buses to Richmond and serving as marshals for the event.
“Because the unborn cannot speak or march for themselves, we must do so on their behalf,” Harrington affirmed.
Szerszynski agreed, noting that pro-life advocacy is integral to the Knights’ mission.
“If you think about it,” he said, “this is why Father Mc- Givney founded the Knights of Columbus: for the protection of widows and orphans — by extension, that means everyone.”
KEVIN J. JONES is a journalist living in Colorado. He is a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Council 13205 in Littleton.
Knights and other Catholics play an integral role in the political life of our nation. But our duty to engage in the political process may sometimes feel daunting. Here are three steps you can take to become an effective advocate:
1. Connect with your state Catholic Conference.
Most states have a Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops of the state in public policy matters. Stay informed about the issues highlighted on the Catholic Conference’s website, and if your state does not have a Catholic Conference, connect with your diocesan pro-life office about how to get involved.
2. Subscribe to action alerts.
Action alerts are messages concerning public policy and legislation, sent by organizations to mobilize members and influence the decisions of elected officials. Stay up to date with important legislation by subscribing to action alerts from your state Catholic Conference, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council. When you receive an action alert, contact your elected officials using the form provided.
3. Personally contact your elected officials.
There have never been more ways to contact your elected officials. Personal visits, letters, phone calls and social media posts are all effective ways to make the Catholic voice heard in the public square. Find the contact information for your elected officials by visiting www.usa.gov/elected-officials.
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