Joe Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League, died Monday morning at age 93.
He entered the pro-life movement half a century ago after his wife Ann dragged him to a rally in downtown Chicago on a Saturday afternoon. Scheidler knew about activism—he had marched with Martin Luther King Jr.—and the Illinois Legislature was debating an abortion legalization bill, but Scheidler wanted to stay home and watch Notre Dame football.
At the rally, Scheidler listened to the then-majority leader of the state House of Representatives, Henry Hyde, and scrutinized a pamphlet titled Life or Death. On the back cover was a photo of aborted babies in a garbage bag. One looked like Scheidler’s young son, Eric. That night Scheidler, an account executive with a Chicago public relations firm, couldn’t sleep.
In 1974, Scheidler became director of the Illinois Right to Life Committee. He wanted to show photos of aborted children, but his committee did not. So after several years, he formed his own organization, the Pro-Life Action League. Scheidler placed pro-life stickers on lampposts and painted pro-life slogans on sidewalks.
He loved to talk. He had hundreds of sidewalk conversations with women on their way into abortion businesses. His sit-ins in abortion waiting rooms made possible conversations with patients until the police arrived. He filed complaints about abortion facilities with local departments of health.
In Closed: 99 Ways To Stop Abortion (1985), Scheidler showed what he thought was necessary when journalists closed their eyes. He recommended applying psychological pressure through picketing the homes and offices of abortionists: “They usually are not proud of being abortionists, and often they even guard the fact that they are involved in abortion from their community. If it were widely known that they are abortionists, they might be very uncomfortable in their communities.”
Closed included a chapter called “Violence: Why It Won’t Work.” He explained that physical attacks on abortionists hurt the pro-life movement and said, “Some really good friends of mine had been abortionists. Don’t shoot them.”
Still, tensions persisted between Scheidler and those who preferred behind-the-scenes legislative conferencing to Scheidler’s open confrontation. When he brought a box of Closed copies to a right-to-life conference where Mother Teresa appeared, the organizers did not give him permission to promote them. The books did not go to waste: When the 5-foot-tall nun began speaking and the audience couldn’t see her behind the podium, Scheidler placed a box of them behind the podium. She stood on it.
Scheidler was always willing and eager to talk with abortionists and their enablers. His desire to converse sometimes got him into trouble. In 1987, he was scheduled to speak at a rally in Northern California. While there, he visited a branch of the Feminist Women’s Health Centers. It was closed, so he left a business card in the door saying, “Sorry I missed you.” A decade later, that became a court document showing that Scheidler purportedly made death threats.
A legal battle—the National Organization of Women called Scheidler a racketeer and accused him of extortion—began in 1994 and went on for nearly two decades, like a bleak case out of Dickens. Scheidler persevered, even when through a lower court ruling his own home was up for grabs. I visited him there 30 years ago and saw it was nothing fancy, but it was home. Scheidler never wavered in his pro-life testimony, never enriched himself through movement funds, never fell into a scandal that could hurt the pro-life cause.
The U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled 9-0 (NOW v. Scheidler) that protesters who did not aim to gain and do not receive money through their protests cannot be punished for extortion. Scheidler made a joke of it and eventually published an autobiography titled Racketeer for Life. He persevered with vigorous but nonviolent means and did not take himself too seriously.
Once, posing for a photo, Scheidler held a violin case suitable for hiding one of the Tommy guns beloved by criminal syndicates.
When Scheidler turned 90 in 2017, WORLD’s Evan Wilt asked him, “What’s next for you?” His response: “I’m going to keep doing what I do. I get up every day and go to the clinics where I get a chance to talk to the abortionists.” That Q&A contains more about Scheidler’s background (he spent eight years in a monastery).
Joe and his wife Ann—they celebrated their 55th anniversary last year—were fruitful and multiplied: Seven children, 24 grandchildren.