Pro-Life Wisconsin invited Vigil for Life to present at its annual Day at the Capitol. Here's what Steve Karlen had to say:
My name is Steve Karlen, and I represent Madison Vigil for Life. Before I get started, I’d just like to ask the Holy Spirit to bless my talk and fill my words with truth and grace. My Italian wife reminded me yesterday that today we celebrate the feast day of St. Joseph. And since St. Joseph knows a thing or two about unplanned pregnancy and the difficult choices that accompany it, I ask his intercession in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I’d like to thank you all for coming. I’d also like to thank Monsignor Holmes for leading us in prayer and for all his work in the service of God and defense of life.
It’s also my great pleasure to thank fine legislators like Representative La Mahieu and Senator Grothman for their service to Wisconsin residents—born and pre-born. Their courageous stance isn’t exactly a popular one in the Capitol these days. It’s not one that will yield political clout nor draw worldly praise. But Representative La Mahieu, Senator Grothman, and their pro-life colleagues have demonstrated that they are willing to do what is right, even if it’s not trendy. They are heroes in the pro-life movement, and they deserve both our respect and our admiration.
Finally, I’d like to thank everybody at Pro-Life Wisconsin for hosting us this fine day and for inviting me to speak. Surely, I’m preaching to the choir this morning, but the folks at PLW are doing absolutely fantastic work. Not only do they conduct tireless legislative efforts, media campaigns and educational outreach; they also get down into the trenches to pray at vigil sites, participate in demonstrations, and strengthen grassroots efforts to build a Culture of Life across this state. And they do it all without compromising the truth for political expediency or good PR.
Like I said, I represent Vigil for Life right here in Madison. Our organization works to end abortion and all destruction of human life through prayer, fasting and peaceful witness outside abortion clinics. We coordinate the 40 Days for Life campaign, a 24/7 vigil of prayer, fasting and peaceful presence outside of the Planned Parenthood on Madison’s East Side. Our humble organization also coordinates twice monthly prayer vigils outside of Madison’s Planned Parenthood locations, a pro-life retreat, pro-life speakers, and other events throughout the year.
I couldn’t be more proud of our group of prayer warriors. Our resources are few, but our hearts are big. One veteran pro-life activist described the 40 Days for Life campaign as the force that will finally turn the tide on abortion in America. It’s a testament to the power of grassroots activism firmly rooted in prayer, fasting and love for Jesus Christ. And it’s faith and humility that made Vigil for Life a major player in Wisconsin’s pro-life movement this January when it was revealed that the Madison Surgery Center would begin performing late-term abortions downtown.
My involvement in this saga began on December 29, 2008. I was enjoying an evening with my family at home, celebrating the Christmas season when I received the strangest phone call of my life. A man named Matt Bowman was on the line. He worked for an organization called the Alliance Defense Fund. To establish his credentials, he told me he was friends with a number of my pro-life colleagues. He told me that a new abortion clinic was coming to Madison and that he’d like me to organize a demonstration. And then he told me that he couldn’t say any more, but that he knew I was having lunch the next day with PLW’s Matt Sande who would fill me in with the details the next day.
I said goodbye, he hung up the phone, and I told my wife, “That was the single strangest phone call I’ve ever received.” I felt like I’d stepped into a real-life episode of 24. And so I thought little about the conversation until I sat down to lunch with Matt the next day. When I brought up the bizarre call at a restaurant, Matt started looking nervous and told me we’d have to leave the restaurant and he’d brief me in his car.
Wow. Now I really felt like I was in an episode of 24. In his car outside the Pizzeria Uno, I learned the grisly details: Madison’s abortionist Dennis Christiansen was going to retire from killing babies at Planned Parenthood, and UW Faculty member Caryn Dutton would take his place. She’d also be secretly moving the late-term abortions to the Madison Surgery Center—a collaborative surgery institute run by the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics and Meriter Hospital. We had to keep our knowledge of these developments on the down low to not tip off the pro-abortion movement that we were on to them.
Over the coming days, I kept in touch with the people at Pro-Life Wisconsin as well as Matt Bowman at the ADF. Needless to say, the ensuing conversations were much less awkward and confusing than the initial ones. I learned that on January 6, the ADF was set to blow the cover off the secret late-term abortion plans of UW Health and Meriter. Vigil for Life had a week to plan a January 8 rally outside the Madison Surgery Center, but we couldn’t tell people when, where or why were rallying until the ADF’s January 6 announcement. With such short notice, I said I thought we could get 25 people out.
Shortly before 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday, January 6, the ADF dropped the bombshell. They distributed a press release and open letter to UW and Meriter leadership laying out the secret plans, describing the way these plans had crushed employee morale at the Madison Surgery Center, and reminding the parties involved that any attempts to use public funding for abortion or coerce pro-life staff into participating were illegal and would result in swift litigation.
By the end of the morning, Pro-Life Wisconsin had issued its own press release, condemning the plans and encouraging Wisconsin residents to contact Meriter and UW officials to protest the plans.
Just two hours later, Vigil for Life dropped a press release of our own—joining the ADF and PLW in condemning the decision, but also announcing the January 8 rally.
War had been declared. UW Health and Meriter had been caught completely off-guard. While pro-life groups from across Wisconsin joined the uproar, Meriter remained silent. And all the UW could do was issue a terse statement that said little more than “Uh, trust us. Our lawyers said it’s ok” and “We promise to only experiment on the harvested corpses of our victims if a medical board approves it”—a statement they’d later deny ever making.
While the public and the media began to digest the story, we had work to do. We announced a demonstration, and now we had to get people there. First, of course, we mobilized our Vigil for Life group. Secondly, we worked through every pro-life or Christian channel we could find. Within hours, the event was announced to every sort of group we could imagine: Church men’s groups, women’s Bible studies, home schooling groups, a newsgroup of supporters of Bishop Morlino. It spread like wildfire, and we express our deep gratitude to Pro-Life Wisconsin and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison in particular, for making it happen.
To say that I was anxious the morning of January 8 would be an understatement. We had spread the word, but still it was a work day. A school day. Parking was practically nonexistent. And to top it off, the wind chill was well below zero. Despite these challenge, more than 100 people turned out. We prayed. We sang. All up and down Park Street we stood witness that the murder of the pre-born would not be tolerated. The media showed up as all four commercial television affiliates and the Wisconsin Radio Network covered the day. Even in the freezing cold temperature, the crowd was slow to break up, with numerous people staying well longer than the hour we had allotted.
The day was a great success. I spent much of the morning calling family and pro-life colleagues who couldn’t make it to share the great news, took a nap to recover from several late-nights of preparation, and settled in to watch the coverage on the evening news. We were flying high.
That evening as the excitement died down I became contemplative. Among the scores of people I met that morning, one face stood out—burned into my memory forever. It was a young girl with Down syndrome. She had greeted me with an exuberant “Hi!” and the biggest, most radiant beautiful smile I’ve ever seen. This girl warmed my heart and brought joy to my day. I suspect she warmed the hearts of everybody she encountered out in the cold.
But in the United States, 90 percent of Down syndrome children just like her are killed in the womb. In fact, while the UW has waffled on their motives for getting into the late-term abortion business, they haven’t wavered from the fact that they want to provide a place to “terminate” babies with abnormalities. They’re looking to sign a large-scale death warrant for children with disabilities. I can’t help but to be reminded of the point in my favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, when Miss Maudie explains the book’s title. She says, “'Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.'"
My young friend here was the mockingbird. She and special needs kids just like her don’t do one thing but SMILE their hearts out for us, and that’s why it’s a sin to kill them. Yet that’s exactly what the UW and Meriter intend to do. It’s a world gone mad.
And so, after I laid my two-year-old son down to sleep that evening, I walked into my hallway, buried my head in my hands and began to cry. The stakes in this battle had suddenly become all too clear.
My wife walked out and asked me what was wrong. “It’s a game to them,” was all I could mumble. She looked perplexed. “This is life and death,” I said. The news papers don’t care. The radio stations don’t care. And the TV news doesn’t care. This story is just another mixed in among stock market reports and basketball scores. By showing up and protesting, we play our part. The media play their part by reporting on us. And life goes on while babies continue to be slaughtered by the thousands.
Whatever the media’s motivations were, it became clear that our efforts those first three days of the controversy won us a resounding victory in the court of public opinion. We’d caught the pro-aborts by surprise. They wanted to keep their treachery secret, and it had been exposed. Even people reluctant to call themselves pro-life wanted answers.
The momentum was growing and it led to a conference call with state pro-life leaders the very next day. This call was the genesis of the majority of the coordinated efforts that have taken place the last two and a half months. In the middle of the call, Senator Glenn Grothman suggested “Let’s hold a rally on January 31 right in the heart of the UW-Madison campus.” Now, we were talking.
Over the next three weeks, things came together quickly. Meriter Hospital heart surgeons Dr. Bill Evans and Dr. Joe Bellissimo met with Meriter leadership to express their disgust that Meriter pours hundred of thousands of dollars into a state-of-the-art neonatal facility that saves babies the same age as those that would be killed right across the street. On January 24, the coalition of pro-life groups ran a nearly full-page ad in the Wisconsin State Journal urging a boycott of the guilty institutions. Senator Grothman and Representative Rich Zipperer led more than 40 legislators in a letter urging that the late-term abortion plan be abandoned.
On January 28, the pro-life coalition gathered in the Capitol rotunda to hold a press conference announcing that in just two weeks, more than 21,000 signatures opposing these plans had been gathered. Twenty-one thousand in only two weeks! The petitions were delivered to Meriter Hospital. Thousands more would arrive in the coming days.
Next up: the January 31 rally Senator Grothman had suggested. The rally had been a challenge to plan from the start. It was beyond complicated to work out the required permits. It was difficult to schedule a date and time. And it was tough to find speakers on short notice. But for every challenge, there were numerous wonderful people who stepped up to provide answers. The coalition did a great job spreading the word. Senator Grothman’s assistant Jolene Churchill and Pro-Life Wisconsin volunteers made arrangements to acquire a stage, sound system, and decorations. The morning of the 31st saw dozens of volunteers turn a cache of equipment into the stage you see behind me in a matter of hours.
Being the nervous type, I was terrified that our attendance would be low. We had mild temperatures, but a biting wind tore through downtown Madison. On top of that, we learned that at some point we’d be confronted by pro-abortion agitators from the International Socialist Organization. And so, with most of setup completed, I secluded myself in the basement of Calvary Lutheran Church—our base of operation—to prepare my speech and try not to worry about potential pitfalls.
However, as I began to meet and greet people in the Calvary basement, I began to sense we would have an excellent turnout. “Where are you from?” I asked a number of folks. “Milwaukee.” “Wausau.” “Iowa.” All over the place. Simply amazing.
And so, as I emerged from the basement, I saw Library Mall filled with pro-lifers of every age, faith, and background from around Wisconsin. As the crowd gathered, a choral group from St. Paul’s University Catholic Center led us in song. They were followed by powerful remarks from a dozen or so pro-life leaders. The best was yet to come from our keynote speakers.
We flew in Shawn Carney, co-founder of 40 Days for Life, and former abortionist, turned pro-life activist Dr. Haywood Robinson. Dr. Robinson recounted how he’d been seduced by money into doing as many abortions as possible every Saturday. He discussed his conversion to Christianity and to pro-life activism. He called for an end to abortion, remarking, “Now that’s change I can believe in!” And he led a captivated crowd in singing “No Woman No Cry, No Baby No Die,” a spin on Bob Marley’s famous reggae song.
Shawn Carney kept the momentum going. He inspired us with tales of pro-life heroes like Mother Teresa and of saints martyred in World War 2 concentration camps. And he called out the UW in particular, with what he called the “Yeah, but” clause. He said that no matter what the UW achieves—whether the achievement be in medicine, academics, or any other field, it would be tainted because “Yeah, but you’re killing babies!”
As Shawn wound down, there had been a change of plans for our march to the Madison Surgery Center. I got up on stage and broke the news to the crowd. “In case you haven’t noticed,” I said. “We had a few more people arrive than we expected.” The crowd of 2,000 people roared. I continued, “So the police are going to escort us for our march!” The crowd went wild.
Now, I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life. But the memory that is most deeply ingrained into my mind doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with abortion, or speeches, or a police escort. My fondest memory is what transpired next. The St. Paul’s kids came back and led all of us in a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” I knelt in front to hold the microphone for them. As I did I took a look around and just listened. Two thousand voices united in song is a beautiful thing. I saw Dr. Robinson, eyes closed, hand in the air, belting it out with a southern flare. I saw my parish priest, Father David Greenfield—who had rushed to join us there after an event that morning—also with eyes closed belting it out. I saw my pro-life colleagues, members of the clergy, lay people, family, friends, total strangers, long-time activists, first-time protesters, Catholics and Protestants united in song. The love these people had for their God, for defenseless babies, and for each other was thick and tangible. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. There really are no folks like pro-life folks.
I suspect that we needed that gigantic group hug to prepare us for what happened next. Our march, which spanned many blocks and stopped traffic throughout the downtown area, met up with the pro-abortion demonstrators at the Madison Surgery Center. With few exceptions, our people remained peaceful, calm and friendly. The opposition’s faces were filled with rage; their voices filled with palpable hate. I think few will forget their chant, “Pray, you’ll need it. Your cross will be defeated.” Their true colors were on display for all to see.
While their actions were despicable in almost every way, I do have to give the socialists credit for one thing. At least they were honest. They wasted no time pretending to be “personally opposed” to abortion. They didn’t argue that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. This group of a few dozen 20-year-olds and a handful of washed up 60s retreads hated us. They hated God. And they loved the thought of killing babies. We stayed for about an hour or so, prayed, sang some hymns and dispersed. A great success.
The following Wednesday, UW Health held a so-called open meeting, in which they debated and voted on the matter at hand. They invited three pro-abortion groups and three pro-life groups. I won’t spend much time rehashing this kangaroo court, but it didn’t take long to learn that the board of directors had made their decision before the event began. The pro-life groups were largely ignored while the pro-abortion speakers went well over their allotted time and received a wildly disproportionate number of questions from the board. At this open meeting, members of the public were not allowed to speak.
As the board closed debate and convened to vote, board President David Walsh commented that he was hearing a lot about the taking of innocent lives and when life begins but that the Supreme Court said this isn’t life. He then exhorted the board to go forward with the plans to provide late-term abortions. Now, this stunning display of cowardice would be morally reprehensible even if Walsh had gotten his case law right. But Walsh’s assertion that the Supreme Court declared a fetus is not a person was patently false. Indeed, the Roe vs. Wade decision explicitly stated that if society ever decided when life begins, that the Roe decision would be voided. That a statement of such gross negligence could be used to direct the UWHC Board of Directors on a matter of life and death should give us grave concern about the competence of UW Health.
And so, the final tally was 11 votes in favor of late-term abortions so grisly that they won’t even do them in Europe and 3 votes against. But what further made me queasy was the tone of the debate. There seemed to be an implicit assumption that of course we should abort babies with disabilities. The real question is whether we can get away with aborting the healthy ones. As you all know, our language has two different words that describe such targeted killing. One is eugenics. The other is genocide.
Of course the ivory tower abortion proponents won’t admit it’s that simple. They’ll describe late-term abortions as “acts of mercy” justified by concern for a disabled person’s quality of life. They truly believe that the value of one’s life is determined by the perceived quality of life.
My friends, every time I hear this argument made, I stop and reflect on an experience that I had—I believe—two years ago this week. My wife and I were living in Chicago at the time, and we were good friends with a couple we’d known from college. The man’s dad had terminal cancer, and when it became clear that his remaining days were few, my wife and I drove across town to spend an evening with the family. We hoped to simply visit, help out, and try to be good friends.
Shortly after dinner, the father—who had been resting—was going to come meet us. He’d had an upset stomach, and on his way up, he was unable to make it to the bathroom. He’d had an accident.
I’m ashamed to say that the words that immediately went through my mind were, “My God, this man has no dignity.”
The next minute changed my perspective on life forever. His wife, who had been patiently caring for him during a long and painful decline, went over to him, sweetly spoke words of comfort to him, smiled at him, and wheeled him to the washroom to clean him up.
I chastised myself immediately. This man was in his final days. Cancer and chemo had ravaged his body to the point that he looked like a Picasso painting. He was confined to a wheelchair, and he’d just soiled himself in front of a house full of guests. Yet his wife’s tender care made him the most dignified man in the world.
Such is the paradox. This moment was wretched and painful. But it was also the purest and truest expression of love I’ve ever seen. It was something that no spouse ever wants to go through, but it was the absolute pinnacle of human love. This moment was the closest I’ve ever seen human love mirror the love of Almighty God.
GK Chesterton calls this the “great lesson of Beauty and the Beast; that a thing must be loved BEFORE it is loveable.” So, too, it is with these babies. The child with spina bifida. The child who will certainly die within a day of birth. My little friend with Down syndrome. Their value is not reduced by their disabilities. They are only unwanted so long as we CHOOSE not to want them. They are only unloved as long as we CHOOSE not to love them.
And that’s why I ask you all to join us in prayer outside the Madison Surgery Center and Planned Parenthood. Truth be told, I hate praying outside of abortion clinics. I’d rather be somewhere else because I’ve never been cursed at in a soup kitchen, and I’ve never been flipped off ringing the bell for the Salvation Army. But I must go to these places of death to pray because this simple act might be the only act of love a child receives in his or her all-too-short time on this earth. So please, join us.
Getting back to our timeline here, the UW Board approved the abortions on February 4. The defeat was bitter and painful. Over the coming days I received numerous broken-hearted voicemails and emails. And driving home that night, I, too, was sinking toward despair myself. At least until I got a phone call from Doctor Thomas Warner.
Most of you may not know Doc Warner. He’s a Madison pro-life hero, and he also happens to be an enigma. He never refers to himself by name—just as the “Irish doctor.” His Irish accent is so thick that I consider it a victory if I can make out half of what he tells me during a conversation. And despite his age, he’s probably the most pugnacious pro-lifer I’ve ever met.
So I answered the phone to hear, “Hello, Steve. This is the old Irish doctor.” He asked how the board meeting went. Filled with self-pity, I mumbled something about how we lost.
His sharp reply caught me off guard. “Of course you lost tonight!” he said. “What did you expect? You haven’t been at this pro-life work very long have you? Now is when we begin to fight!”
It was a William Wallace moment for me. I snapped out of my funk and got back to work. UW and Meriter think that the public outcry will go away. We need to prove it won’t. Fortunately, Pro-Life Wisconsin is unleashing a multifaceted approach to turn up the heat. You’ll see on your handout, that there are many ways to contribute to the effort.
They’ve got a patient letter that you can give your doctor to decline service at the Madison Surgery Center and to request being referred elsewhere. We invite those who can switch their insurance coverage to avoid patronizing Meriter or UW Health to do so. We encourage you to write the officials responsible for this decision as well as the editors of your local newspaper. If you haven’t yet signed the petition, it’s not too late. We urge you to support and encourage pro-life medical staff that you know. We need their leadership!
We also ask you to pray daily and to consider committing to praying and/or protesting outside the Madison Surgery Center. PLW volunteers have done a great job of this so far, and Vigil for Life is rolling out a plan to have hours covered each business day of the week.
Moreover, in the coming days, we’ll be announcing a 40 Hours for Life campaign of 40 straight hours of prayer outside the UW Hospital—culminating at noon on Good Friday. We’ve entered into our own little version of Gethsemane. We weep the bitter tears of betrayal. Let us keep watch at the UW Hospital, even for one hour. Stay tuned for more information.
Finally, starting next week, Pro-Life Wisconsin will be airing television ads decrying the late-term abortion plans. Watch for them. They’ll refer you to noUWabortions.com, a soon-to-be-launched Web site with full details on how you can get involved.
I greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak with you this morning. You’ve been so kind and considerate. And as I wrap up my time with the microphone at this Day at the Capitol, I find it only too appropriate to close with a quote from a great pro-life legislator—the late Henry Hyde who said:
When the time comes, as it surely will, when we face that awesome moment, the final judgment, I've often thought, as Fulton Sheen wrote, that it is a terrible moment of loneliness. You have no advocates; you will be alone standing before God, and a terror will rip through your soul like nothing you can imagine. But I really think that those in the pro-life movement will not be alone. I think there will be a chorus of voices that have never been heard in this world but are heard beautifully and clearly in the next, and they will plead for everyone who fought to defend them. They will say to God, "Spare him because he loved us"; and God will say not "Did you succeed?," but "Did you try?"
My friends, thank you for all the great work you’re doing. Keep it up. Thank you so much, and praise be to the Lord God Almighty!