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Joseph M. Scheidler, a longtime pro-life activist who successfully defended himself from the National Organization for Women in a case that was heard three times at the U.S. Supreme Court, died Monday. He was 93.
Scheidler was National Director of the Pro-Life Action League, a national pro-life educational and activist organization headquartered in Chicago. He left a career in public relations to become a full-time pro-life activist shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade opinion in 1973. He and his wife, Ann, founded the Pro-Life Action League in 1980 to recruit and equip pro-life Americans to be a voice for unborn children in their own communities throughout the country and the world.
“My father’s proudest accomplishment was the pro-life work of those he inspired to take an active role in the fight against abortion, the greatest injustice of our time,” said Eric Scheidler, Scheidler’s oldest son, who serves as the League’s executive director. “For years, people have been telling me about the talk or protest where they met my father, and how his words and example prompted them to do more than just talk, but to take responsibility for addressing the injustice.”
Born on September 7, 1927, in Hartford City, Indiana, Scheidler grew up in a Catholic family and was an altar boy. Serving in the U.S. Navy as a military policeman at the end of World War II, he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications at the University of Notre Dame and a Master’s Degree at Marquette University. He spent eight years in religious life, studying for the priesthood at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. After discerning that God was not calling him to the priesthood, he taught at Mundelein College, during which time he chaperoned a group of students on a pilgrimage to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
His death on January 18 this year coincided with the observance of King’s birthday.
“It’s fitting that my father died on the day when Americans remember the legacy of Martin Luther King,” said Eric Scheidler. “Seeing the impact that regular Americans could have by taking action against racial injustice inspired my father to mobilize Americans in the same way in the fight against the injustice of abortion.”
That story and many others from his five decades of pro-life activism are recounted in his 2016 memoir Racketeer for Life: Fighting the Culture of Death from the Sidewalk to the Supreme Court.
Scheidler and his wife married in 1965.
“As they were starting their own family, they were distressed to see abortion being decriminalized in some states,” said a 2010 article in the American Life League’s Celebrate Life magazine. “The U.S. Supreme Court’s dual rulings on January 22, 1973 (Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, which together struck down all abortion prohibitions nationwide), shocked Joe so much that he was ill and bedbound for a few days. ‘I couldn’t believe our country had sunk so low as to legalize abortion,’ he recalled.
“In the aftermath of Roe and Doe, Joe became very active in the pro-life cause in his spare time, along with Ann,” the magazine article continued. “He wrote letters to the editor, placed ads in newspapers, distributed literature in the streets and talked to anyone who would listen. Joe’s boss at a Chicago public relations firm was supportive and encouraged him to become active in the pro-life movement full-time.
“Joe became involved in various pro-life groups, but his street activism did not mesh well with their approach,” American Life League said.
Judie Brown, founder of American Life League, said Monday that the Pro-Life Action League would go on to be “the driving force behind peaceful pro-life action all across this nation, and frankly, the world.”
Reason for Being
Scheidler’s career as a pro-life activist took him to every state in the U.S. and countries on four continents, as well as through countless court battles, including NOW v. Scheidler, which the Pro-Life Action League said was “the longest case in U.S. federal court history and the only one to make three trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, including 8-1 and 8-0 rulings in 2003 and 2006 that fully vindicated him. His 1985 book CLOSED: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, a centerpiece of the NOW v. Scheidler trial, became the manual for pro-life activists throughout the world.”
“Joe was our raison d’etre,” said Tom Brejcha, President, Chief Counsel, and Founder of the Thomas More Society, a law firm in Chicago. “His unduly long, litigious persecution on the part of the National Organization for Women and the nation’s abortion industry — which lasted over nearly three decades in a landmark court battle, NOW v. Scheidler — was the crucible in which our Thomas More Society was forged.”
The suit was brought in 1986 on the grounds of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a law originally enacted to fight the Mafia. Scheidler won NOW v. Scheidler in the lower courts, but the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the Federal Court in January 1984.
After a seven-week trial, Scheidler and the other defendants were found guilty of racketeering by a six-member jury. That finding was finally overturned by the Supreme Court in February 2003.
But NOW appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, so the case made its way back to the Supreme Court in November 2005. The court issued a unanimous decision in favor of Scheidler in February 2006.
NOW continued to wrangle over the details of the final judgment in district court and did not finally conclude until 2014, when NOW was required to pay final costs to the Pro-Life Action league.
Brejcha said that Scheidler “advocated for life by both his word and his deeds. He would bear prayerful witness as well as provide meaningfully sympathetic and compassionate sidewalk counseling outside of abortion facilities, helping to save the lives of countless infants and inspiring so many others to do likewise all over this country as well as abroad. Joe’s 1985 book, Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, was a primer for peaceful yet profound activism designed to combat the violence of abortion, which he bluntly condemned as a grave evil. “
Nicknamed the “Green Beret” of the pro-life movement by syndicated columnist Patrick Buchanan, Scheidler produced the videos Meet the Abortion Providers and Abortion: The Inside Story, featuring former abortionists who testify to what they saw happening in abortion clinics, as well as a video on sidewalk counseling called No Greater Joy.
As a speaker, Scheidler often focused on the moral dimensions of the abortion issue and the effectiveness of direct action.
In addition to his wife and his son Eric, Scheidler is survived by six other children, 26 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Funeral arrangements are pending.