Energized Catholics mobilize to collect signatures to ban 'horrific' abortion procedure

A man signs the petition to ban dismemberment abortion in Michigan during a memorial service for victims of abortion on Sept. 14 at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield. Across the Archdiocese of Detroit, parishes, pastors and ministry groups have mobilized to support the drive, which seeks to collect 400,000 signatures by Dec. 23. (Photo by Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

Pastors, parishes play key role in collecting 400,000 signatures to place measure before Michigan Legislature

DETROIT — Seema Erskine and other volunteers from Old St. Mary’s Parish's mothers group stood in the vestibule of the historic Greektown church, pens and petitions in hand.

A kind smile, a little information and another signature.

Erskine is one of a multitude of volunteers collecting signatures for a petition to add dilation and extraction abortions — commonly known as “dismemberment abortions” — to Michigan’s already-existing ban on partial-birth abortion.

“When the petitions were first made available through the Michigan Values Life organization, we requested them online,” Erskine, leader of the Old St. Mary’s mothers group, told Detroit Catholic. “We’ve set aside three weekends in September and October to collect petitions.”

The mother’s group was established in the parish to provide retreats and collect supplies for mothers at the parish, but when the petition process began, Erskine said gathering signatures fit the group’s mission.

“The mothers group is all about making sure we are helping mothers, families and children,” Erskine said. “We’ve never done so much from a legislative standpoint, but if anyone in the parish is taking up this cause, it makes sense for the mothers group to do this.”

Across the Archdiocese of Detroit, parishes have been collecting signatures for the drive, announced by Right to Life Michigan on June 26. Since then, groups have worked to collect 400,000 signatures by the 180-day deadline.

Deacon Lawrence Toth of St. Valentine Parish said the Redford Township parish collected signatures after Mass on the weekends of Sept. 14-15 and again Sept. 21-22, saying the parish has a duty to protect life and promote justice.

“It’s a matter of justice,” Deacon Toth said. “We live in an era where life is denied by people who are part of an utterly pro-death movement. It is clear to anyone who investigates it, the baby is so frequently trying to avoid the (abortion) procedure. The actual process involves attacking the baby in this horrific process.”

A woman lays a carnation on the gravesite of 14 aborted babies at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield on Sept. 14 during a National Day of Remembrance for Aborted Children. (Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic)

Before the St. Valentine community set up tables to collect signatures, the parish offered information on the petition and what it will accomplished if made law, Deacon Toth said.

“Right to Life sent information on the petition along with forms, so we’ve had information in our bulletins on why this issue is important,” Deacon Toth said. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of advanced notification. People know where we stand and why we are doing this.”

In addition to information in bulletins and volunteers collecting signatures, pastors across the Archdiocese of Detroit are preaching on the topic, educating parishioners about why the Church stands against abortion.

Msgr. Timothy Hogan and Fr. Andrew Dawson, pastor and associate pastor, respectively, of St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills, used their homilies as a chance to educate parishioners about the petition.

“This is not a political issue; it’s a life issue,” Msgr. Hogan said. “We’re talking about a barbaric action in the abortion industry. We are just bringing out the facts: that this child has separate DNA, is a human being, that science shows infants in the womb experience pain.”

What does the petition do?

The dilation and extraction ban would add to Michigan’s already-existing ban on partial-birth abortion, said Chris Gast, director of communications for Right to Life Michigan.

“The last time we did a petition drive, it concerned health insurance and preventing it from covering abortion during the Medicaid expansion,” Gast told Detroit Catholic. “This one is very straightforward: don’t dismember children in the womb. It’s the most common late-term abortion procedure, and the enthusiasm for this petition drive is amazing.”

Gast said Right to Life Michigan has been overwhelmed with petition requests from across the state, as well as requests for information about the drive.

The dismemberment abortion ban is one of two pro-life petitions being circulated this election cycle. A separate petition circulated by the Heartbeat Coalition would ban abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected, but Gast said Right to Life Michigan doesn't support it. While well-intentioned, Gast said the petition could unintentionally backfire, negating Michigan's already-existing ban on abortion that is only dormant because of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.

A woman holds a sign for drivers to see along Woodward Avenue in Ferndale earlier this year during a prayer vigil outside a Planned Parenthood facility organized by Citizens for a Pro-Life Society. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

“We’re not participating in (the Heartbeat Coalition’s) petition drive because of Michigan’s already existing laws,” Gast said. “The petition we’re trying to pass is in line with 12 states who have passed dismemberment bans. Really, we’re just amending our partial-birth abortion ban to clarify that 'D and E' should be treated like partial-birth abortions. The Supreme Court says our partial-birth abortion ban is fine, so this is just banning another form of later-term abortions.”

Right to Life Michigan isn’t publishing how many signatures have already been submitted, but the group is confident it will reach the 400,000-signature threshold before the 180-day mark (Dec. 23), and plans to collect signatures through October.

“I encourage people to focus on getting their signatures turned in as soon as possible,” Gast said. “When you get them, turn them in. The sooner people send them in, the better it will be.”

Getting the word out

The petition drive has included a call for Catholics to enter the “public square,” with Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron and other Michigan bishops urging their churches to get involved. 

Kristine Hass of St. Joan of Arc Parish in St. Clair Shores said 18 people from the parish have been collecting signatures after Mass, including during the Harper Cruise in late August.

“Because St. Joan of Arc has so many exits, we have stations at every one, with multiple lines for people so they don’t wait that long,” Hass said. “Being on the cusp of Wayne and Macomb counties, we’re sure to have the right petition for each person to sign.”

Hass said parishioners at St. Joan of Arc are closely connected to the pro-life movement and step up to the plate when it is time to support the cause.

“This isn’t our first time doing this,” Hass said. “We did a similar petition drive to stop taxpayer funding for abortion, and we have a pretty solid group of pro-life folks at the parish.” 

With abortion frequently in the news in recent months, Hass said, more people are feeling compelled to take action. 

“(As citizens), we have a right to petition, and people are eager to take some active role outside of prayer, which is what we’re always doing,” Hass said.

Church and state

As the petition is an issue-based campaign, not affiliated with any political party or partisan candidate, the Church has the right to promote the issue from the pulpit and on parish grounds, Gast said.

Sue Barczak of St. Regis Parish in Bloomfield Hills is one of a handful of parishioners to collect signatures after Mass and during St. Regis School’s back-to-school barbecue.

“I think the reason so many parishioners want to be involved is because of the action of dismemberment abortion; it’s a barbaric thing to do to a baby,” Barczak said. “It has sparked people’s juices, and it has definitely sparked them to do something.”

Information on the Michigan Values Life petition drive is displayed in the vestibule at Old St. Mary's Parish in downtown Detroit. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

That spark is enhanced by the fact that the Church, and more importantly, parishes, are behind the effort, said Erskine of Old St. Mary’s.

“I think people very much trust our pastor, and if they know the church supports the petition, they will support the petition,” Erskine said. “Even for myself, I felt the parish did the research, and when they said they supported the effort, I felt comfortable collecting signatures. When it happens in the church or parish environment, it really creates an element of trust.”

Likewise, pastors who promote the petition from the pulpit give a sense of confidence to parishioners to promote and sign the petition, Msgr. Hogan said. 

“It really comes down to this being a moral issue that affects human life,” Msgr. Hogan said. “As a Church, we’re called to protect life, the dignity of each human person. That right is ingrained in our Constitution as one of the inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

“The Church has the responsibility to proclaim this in the streets and to the community,” Msgr. Hogan continued. “It’s not a partisan issue, not a political issue. We have something to say to the world, and that message is this: God is the author of life, and we have a responsibility to protect it.”