Pro-life 'godfather' celebrated for 38 years of activism

Joe Scheidler Tribute Dinner Photo Credit Prolife Action League 2 CNA US Catholic News 4 6 11 Joe Scheidler speaks at his Tribute Dinner on April 2, 2011. | ProLife Action League

On April 2, more than 400 friends and supporters of Pro-Life Action League founder Joe Scheidler paid tribute to his 38 years of activism at a banquet in downtown Chicago. On the streets outside, his cause continued to provoke the kinds of dramatic responses he's come to expect.

“We had a contingent of protesters outside, screaming their heads off,” Scheidler recalled. “Then a group of kids came out, who called themselves the 'Crusaders.' There were about a hundred kids with yellow balloons that said 'LIFE' on them, and they rolled out a red carpet for us.”

“It's a battle all the time. During the banquet, they were slicing the tires of people who had pro-life stickers on their cars. If it was a gay-rights group that was having a party, and somebody sliced their tires, they'd have the FBI on it. But they treat us like we deserve it.”

Scheidler told CNA that he felt “very much humbled” by the tribute banquet, sponsored by Citizens for a Pro-Life Society.

“It was very touching for me to hear everyone – they had 23 speakers, for three minutes each, just saying how they got to know me. Many of them were there to say, 'You know, Joe got us started.'”

In the early years of the pro-life movement, Scheidler's book “Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion” was a foundational text. He traveled the world speaking on the ethics of abortion and outlining practical forms of activism that he had developed and tested. In the process, he inspired others to follow his lead.

“I would be watching, during my talks, and find the people who were listening most intensely,” he recalled. “I'd talk with them afterward, and suggest they go full-time in the movement. And a number of them did.”

Scheidler's own career as an activist was an unexpected calling, but one he is “absolutely convinced” he was born to fulfill.

“I spent eight years in the seminary, and four years in the monastery, wanting to be a priest,” he said. “But when I was preparing for ordination, I thought, 'Nope –  this is not what I'm called to do.' And then suddenly, everything started to fall together.”

“I read the Roe v. Wade decision, in 1973, and it was an atrocity –  it was a great big lie. There is no 'constitutional right' to kill children. I was working as an account executive for a public relations firm at the time, and I just had to quit and do full-time pro-life work.”

“I rented a cheap little office only a block from my house, and started from there. At that time you could go into the clinics to talk to the girls, and try to talk the doctors out of abortion. We'd pass out thousands of leaflets, and then we started making films of what we were doing.”

“Then we found out how important it was to do sidewalk counseling, because we could talk a lot of women out of abortion. And I started doing a lot of speaking – I took 185 flights one year, running around the country and over to Ireland, Italy, Mexico, just trying to spread activism.”

Scheidler took several steps that were controversial even within the pro-life movement – including a strong stand against contraception as the basis of abortion, and the public display of large and graphic photos depicting aborted babies. The “Face the Truth Tour” continues to show the reality of abortion to Illinois residents on a regular basis.

“Sometimes we get more than 100 people lining the highway with these signs, about six feet tall,” said Scheidler. “We go for 10 days straight, during the summer. And then once a month we go to the Art Institute, or the Civic Center – somewhere that people have to see what abortion is.”

“On one of our tours, we stopped 22 women from having abortions, because they see what it looks like and they don't want that to happen to their baby.”

He believes these forms of direct action and engagement are the most important part of the pro-life cause.

“It's one thing to work in the courts and the political arena – but that's going to take forever, and it's not going to stop abortion. You have to convert people. So that's my whole thing, to try and promote conversion.”

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Scheidler knows from personal experience just how long political and legal battles can take. He spent 21 years in court with the National Organization for Women, fighting charges that his activism was a form of “racketeering” comparable to organized crime.

“I had to found a law firm, the Thomas More Society, to fight this thing for 21 years,” he recalled. The dispute reached the Supreme Court three times, and was resolved in Scheidler's favor in 2006. “We still have this thing called the First Amendment,” he observed, “and even the courts are very reluctant to break the First Amendment rights.”

Scheidler, who was a Naval officer before his four years as a monk, urged young activists to develop a routine of spiritual discipline in order to prepare for their own struggles.

“Number one, you pray. You have to pray all the time. I can't get through a day without Mass, the Rosary, spiritual reading, and meditation. And in between, you work harder than the devil.”

“You need meditation, and prayer, and closeness to God. Christ has to stay on your mind – you offer everything to him, and join your suffering to his.”

He also urged young people to be fearless and unashamed about their pro-life convictions. “Bring the literature with you all the time. On an elevator, at a restaurant, wherever.”

“People sitting next to me on the plane ask me what I do – I say, 'I fight abortion.' Everybody's interested. You talk to them. I always wear some symbol of being pro-life and Catholic.”

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Apart from the lives he has helped to save, Scheidler says his most important achievement has been to “keep abortion on the front page,” ensuring it did not become an accepted part of life in the United States.

“Abortion has not been accepted as the law of the land, even though the Supreme Court tried to make it so,” he said. “We're going to keep stirring the pot, and abortion is going to stay on the front page. Everybody's going to know which politicians are pro-abortion and which aren't.”

“It's got to be an issue. It's the most important issue in the world – human life.”

Looking to the future, he sees signs of hope in the next generation.

“We're gaining quite a bit. Planned Parenthood's scared to death now, that they're going to lose their funding,” he noted. “We're getting the young people. There are more and more of them coming out, and a lot of good, young priests. And all across the country, we're getting good, pro-life bishops.”

At age 83, Scheidler intends to work alongside this new generation of activists as long as he can.

“While you have life left in you, you've got to use it. I can't think of a better cause than saving babies' lives.”