Staying politically involved for life

On the 16-hour drive from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., Kyle Holtgrave tells bus passengers that going to the March for Life is not just two days off school.

“It’s a great opportunity to understand the depth of the pro-life ministry,” he said. “We talk about legislation. They have journals, and we encourage everyone to write letters to hand to their congressmen.”

Holtgrave is director for the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry in the Diocese of Springfield.

“You can’t just yell ‘Vote for life!’” he tells them. “We are there to help tell our government that this is an important issue. We have five congressional boundaries that cross our diocese, and I tell the youth which offices to visit. We’ve had congressmen meet with us to explain what they’re doing for pro-life.”

Politicians listen.

Forging accountability

“It’s not the first letter you write. It’s the second or third,” said Ernest Ohlhoff, director of outreach for the National Right to Life Committee in Washington, D.C.

The National Right to Life Committee focuses on lobbying, education and political action on the national, state and local levels. Being voices for the voiceless becomes effective action when, as Holtgrave reminds the youth attending the march, pro-lifers make their voices heard, too.

Ohlhoff stresses the importance of being tenacious.

“You’ll get a response thanking you for your first letter, but your question wasn’t answered,” he said. “Then you take the time to write back and say, ‘Thank you so much, I appreciate you taking time to write, but you didn’t tell me specifically what you’re going to do.’ Tell them that you’re going to talk to other members of your chapter and other friends in the movement about their response. Letter A doesn’t work, Letter B didn’t work, and then you write Letter C. We encourage people to look at this as a process, not just a one-time deal. The follow-ups really make the legislators know that someone is out there watching them. Their goal is to stay in office or get re-elected to a higher office, and they can’t afford to have people unhappy with them.”

Model legislation

The National Right to Life Committee also has attorneys who help write laws appropriate to each state.

“A poorly crafted law can start out as a failure even before we try to move it through,” Ohlhoff said. “We help our state affiliates to find what they need.”

The committee has had a hand in a number of important state-level laws that, in many cases, were adapted for and introduced by other states.

“The partial-birth ban that was introduced on state levels and used as a model legislation was pioneered by National Right to Life attorneys,” Ohlhoff said. “That’s a good example of the grassroots movement doing a lot of work, building the momentum and having 32 out of 50 states passing this law, and then the federal government picked it up.”

Committee attorneys are also behind the pain-capable bill that’s been passed in some states.

“The next thing we’re looking at is the Dismemberment Abortion Act, which is protection from an abortion where the baby is ripped apart,” he said. “At least six states have passed that.”

Local coordination

National Right to Life Committee’s 1,000 chapters at parish, diocesan and regional levels have opportunities for direct work like life chains, billboards, radio spots, speakers, educational programs and information booths at public events that, Ohlhoff said, have been instrumental in changing minds about planned abortion.

State Catholic Conferences maintain an advocacy network to coordinate statewide and diocesan-level actions and issues.

“We try to keep ahead of issues and have had quite a few successes,” said Kim Wadas, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. “We have legislation regarding a 20-week ban and were successful with requiring ultrasounds prior to abortion. We’ve been looking at ways to make certain that women are fully informed that there are other options.”

The Wisconsin Catholic Conference keeps in touch with people via email, newsletters, press releases and bulletin inserts. Catholics at the Capitol, held every two years in Madison, educates participants about how to communicate with their policymakers and how to do presentations at parishes.

“We encourage people to attend so that they can get to know their legislators,” said Rob Shelledy, director of the Office of Social Justice Ministry and Dignity of the Human Person in the Milwaukee archdiocese. “It’s important to recognize that we are called to be a consistent voice calling for respect to the human dignity. Every Catholic is called to be involved, to live their faith within the walls of the Church, and also outside the walls of the Church.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

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