June 1 will mark the 30th anniversary of one of the best-known and most effective pro-life organizations in the country, the Pro-Life Action League.
Since its founding by Joe Scheidler in 1980, the league’s mission has been to keep the ugliness of abortion in the public eye, recruit and train pro-life activists to do battle with the abortion industry in their communities, and take to the streets to persuade abortion-minded women to choose life. Dubbed the “Green Beret” of the pro-life movement by commentator Patrick Buchanan, Joe Scheidler, at age 82, and the league he founded are still going strong.
Scheidler was born into a devout Catholic family. Scheidler was an altar boy and wanted to be a priest: “I thought that was the way I could be closest to Christ, and I wanted to be as close to Christ as I could be.”
He became a Benedictine monk, but decided marriage was his calling instead. In 1965, he married Ann, and they now have seven children.
As he was beginning his own family, Scheidler was distressed to see abortion laws being liberalized in some states. In 1973, when he learned that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision struck down the abortion laws of all 50 states, he was in shock. He recalled, “I couldn’t believe our country had sunk so low as to legalize abortion.”
At the time, Scheidler was working for a public relations firm in Chicago, but he volunteered his spare time to the pro-life movement. He wrote letters to the editor, placed ads in newspapers, distributed literature in the streets, and talked to anyone who would listen.
He decided to work in the pro-life movement full-time. But Scheidler’s in-the-street activism was not a good fit with many pro-life groups, so, in 1980, he founded the Pro-Life Action League. He explained the organization’s name: “We’re pro-life, we’re active, and we work in league with pro-life groups across the country.”
Its purpose was to save the lives of the unborn through nonviolent action. Key activities include prayer and sidewalk counseling in front of abortion clinics, public protests, confronting abortionists, speaking with youth, and spreading the pro-life message through the media.
Scheidler’s oldest son, Eric, serves as the league’s executive director. Eric noted, “We’re different from other pro-life organizations in that we encourage on-the-street activism. And not only are we on the street fighting abortion — we recruit and train others to do what we do. Our ultimate goal is to change the culture in which we live into a culture of life.”
In 1985, Scheidler released the book Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, in which he shares effective ways of stopping abortion. Chapter 1, for example, is about sidewalk counseling: “Sidewalk counseling is, in my estimation, the single most valuable activity that a pro-life person can engage in. When pro-lifers counsel at an abortion clinic they come between the baby who is scheduled to be killed and the doctor who will do the killing.”
Scheidler recalls one day at an abortion clinic in Brooklyn when sidewalk counselors convinced 33 women to walk away from their planned abortion; he recalls another day in front of a Chicago clinic when 22 women turned away from their abortion appointment. He still prays in front of abortion clinics weekly.
Carol Walsh, a former sidewalk counselor trained by the league , observed, “We’re out there to offer help to women who want it. Abortion not only kills babies; it hurts women. Our purpose is to offer them something better.”
Scheidler and the league have raised the ire of many on the pro-abortion side. As Eric noted, “The abortionists and radical feminists hate us because we’ve been so successful in fighting abortion.”
Scheidler was the chief defendant in a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO ) lawsuit filed by attorneys for the National Organization for Women and two abortion clinics. Twice the suit went to the U.S. Supreme Court in which the justices decided 8-1 and 8-0 in his favor.
Chicago has been an ideal location for the league’s headquarters, as Scheidler was already living there, and O’Hare Airport is a hub to reach locations across the country. In the last 30 years, Scheidler has given talks in 48 states. His consistent message: “I say: ‘Abortion is murder, the abortionist is violating his Hippocratic Oath, and we need to work hard to stop abortion.’”
Scheidler remains a committed and prayerful Catholic. When Eric left the Church for 10 years and became a self-proclaimed atheist, Scheidler began going to Mass twice on Sundays, the second time for the conversion of his son. Eric returned to the Church in 1997.
Scheidler’s faith has been central to his continued pro-life activism. He concluded, “I couldn’t go on without it. We see ourselves as fighting for God.”
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.