CHICAGO — After numerous pro-life bills were defeated in the last Illinois legislative session, Arlene Sawicki, chair of family concerns for the Chicago Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women, said she was ready to throw in the towel.

Instead, she and Catholic pro-lifer Jim Finnegan decided to organize Vote Life America, an ad hoc interdenominational lay coalition. The organization is publicly challenging Catholic and other Christian pro-abortion legislators whom they feel are betraying their Christian principles — and in the case of Republicans, betraying the pro-life planks of their party's platform.

Their strategy is to peacefully and prayerfully demonstrate at legislators’ offices and distribute “report cards” within their districts and at area churches. The report cards detail the legislators’ abortion positions and list their voting records.

Vote Life America is targeting 15 legislators, notifying them in advance when demonstrations happen. They plan to use nongraphic signage as well as graphic pictures of abortion when they picket, because, Sawicki said, many of these legislators have never seen an aborted baby. “Instead they deal with sanitized rhetoric and high-sounding feminist political agendas,” she said.

Sawicki, a mother and grandmother, said she has always been pro-life, but has been most active in the last 10 years. She has served on the board of the Illinois Federation of Right to Life and she joined the newly formed coalition on Abortion/Breast-Cancer Link as vice president, extending her concern to pro-life efforts and to women who have had abortions.

She also worked with the pro-life efforts of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Mary Fiorito, vice chancellor for the archdiocese, told the Register, “Arlene was one of the most involved and committed parish pro-life coordinators in the Archdiocese of Chicago. She could be counted on for any task, large or small, and was always willing to give of her time and talent.”

Sawicki said that 10 or 15 years ago she had nothing but anger toward pro-abortion politicians, and that it took years to overcome her feelings. “It takes time to approach things with love in your heart,” she said.

Sawicki hopes pro-lifers will join her new organization's political demonstrations and contact their legislators on the issues.

Vote Life America plans to organize a legislative-alert information link between various diocesan councils. They want to correct the current situation in which information does not get out in a timely manner.

Sawicki says more pro-life messages need to come from the pulpit as well, but even that is not enough. “I think it comes down to the constituency. It has to take people in the pews, pressure from the folks that are voting for these pro-aborts. We thought after the partial-birth abortion graphics came out that all Catholics would join us, and yet they haven't.”

Jill Stanek, an evangelical who serves on the Vote Life America planning committee, is frustrated with other Christian denominations as well. Stanek was the nurse who helped expose Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill., for its approach to abortion, in which babies born alive were left to die. The news made international headlines and prompted state Sen. Patrick O‘Malley to introduce the Illinois Born-Alive Infants Protection Act. The bill was killed in a House committee after being passed in the state Senate.

During the legislative process, Stanek was appalled at how legislators twisted language and even switched their votes. She felt it was time they paid, and she believes Vote Life America is a good solution.

“Legislators need to know that people are not going to forget when they don't vote for life,” she said. “[The Born-Alive] bill simply said that this baby is a human life and has all rights and protection under the law. They've got abortion up to the end of the birth canal, and now they want it even after the baby is born.”

Misleading the Voters

Candidates who claim to be pro-life, but are not, particularly disturb Stanek. One example, she said, is Rep. Maggie Crotty a Democrat and a Catholic, who recently came out as pro-choice after misleading the district on her positions, according to Vote Life America. The organization's report card indicates that Crotty was elected in 1996 by promising constituents she would support a partial-birth abortion ban and support parental notification, but she voted otherwise.

Her office was the first to be picketed, Oct. 27. In response to the demonstration, Crotty told the Sunday Southtown newspaper that she never claimed she was pro-abortion.

“I'm pro-choice. I can't make everyone happy all the time.” (Crotty did not respond to calls from the Register).

Representative Rosemary Kurtz is also on Vote Life America's target list. A Republican Catholic who represents Sawicki's own district, Kurtz defeated pro-life Rep. Cal Skinner in the 2000 election. When pressed about her abortion position, Kurtz said she was “pro-adoption,” and that “she was for life.”

“I couldn't stand being called pro-abortion. I'm for life, but when it comes to labeling me in government, I don't want to be labeled, period,” Kurtz said.

During her campaign, Kurtz received thousands of dollars from Personal PAC, a bipartisan political action committee dedicated to electing pro-choice candidates to Illinois state and local offices. According to its Web site, http://www.personalpac.org ,1C;Pro-choice Rosemary Kurtz, who defeated anti-choice leader Cal Skinner in the March primary, went on to win the general election and will be an additional pro-choice legislator in the House.”

Sawicki said Kurtz's voting record shows a pro-abortion, anti-family position. She voted against the parental notification bill because it would not allow a teenager to notify a relative or clergyperson instead of a parent.

Sawicki said that such language would have created a “hole in the bill as big as a Mack truck,” defeating its purpose.

Kurtz also voted for a bill that would have required hospitals, including Catholic hospitals, to inform rape victims about availability of post-rape abortifacients.

Kurtz believes it is up to the churches to do something about abortion and that it doesn't belong in government. “There's a division. Render unto God the things that are God's and unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's,” she said. “I don't know any Republicans who even think about this. There are so many other things that we're responsible for — funding for the poor, the elderly, plus transportation. It's just endless, and [it's a mistake] to add one more thing to our plate. So that's the way I feel about it.”

Sawicki responded that it's too late to use that “tired, inane spin.” She said, “The self-endowed imperialism of the United States Supreme Court in the Roe decision not only usurped states’ rights to legislate abortion, but assaulted the very foundation of America's constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The primary duty of our government is to protect, not legalize the killing of the unborn.”

Sawicki hopes Vote Life America will mobilize more people because the “old reliables” can't be counted on forever, she said. “How do you get people interested in this? How do you get the youth involved; the faithful pro-life pew Catholics to at least call their legislators? If someone has a prescription for how to do this effectively with Catholics, I'd like to hear it.”

Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.