Pro-Life Leader Joe Scheidler Dies on MLK Day, Family Says its ‘Fitting’

Joseph M. Scheidler, 93, former National Director of the Pro-Life Action League.
Joseph M. Scheidler, 93, former National Director of the Pro-Life Action League. (photo: Pro-Life Action League)

WASHINGTON —The passing of pro-life icon Joseph M. Scheidler, 93, former National Director of the Pro-Life Action League on Martin Luther King Jr.'s Day, is “absolutely fitting,” his son Erik Scheidler told CNA after confirming his father’s death on Monday, January 18.

Joe Scheidler left his career in public relations to devote his life to the pro-life movement in 1973, immediately after the Supreme Court decided Roe v Wade in favor of legalizing abortion. 

He was especially famous for his long legal battle against the National Organization for Women (NOW), which cost him and his wife Anne many years of financial and emotional distress but ended in a landmark decision securing the right to protest abortion facilities around the country.

“The Pro-Life Action League is grieved to report the passing away of our founder, Joe Scheidler, ‘the Godfather of Pro-Life Activism.’ Joe died this morning peacefully, surrounded by the family of which he was so proud,” tweeted his organization on Monday.

His son Erik, Executive Director of the Chicago-based pro-life organization, said “He marched with Dr. King in 1965, and the impact it had in him is to see that regular people can have a real in the cause of justice, and thus decided to recruit regular Americans to the fight in favor of life and against abortion.”

Scheidler started the pro-life “direct action” of protesting and witnessing pro-life options in front of abortion facilities, something many early pro-lifers considered as counterproductive. 

He created the Pro-Life Action League to train regular citizens to learn how to organize and protest locally. 

For that purpose he wrote the original book on fighting abortion, "CLOSED: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion“ in 1985, which he updated in 1993; and produced the landmark video on sidewalk counseling, ”No Greater Joy."

Scheidler was the first proponent of the massive use of large pictures depicting unborn babies and graphic images of aborted babies. The strategy was constantly criticized by the secular media and by some members of the pro-life movement, but Scheidler insisted in its necessity,  arguing that the truth about what actually happens in an abortion was being systematically hidden from the American public. 

To oppose his activism, in 1986 NOW filed a lawsuit against him and other pro-life activists on the basis of  the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO,) a law passed by the US Congress in 1970 with the declared purpose of seeking to eradicate organized crime.

The lawsuit dragged on for two decades and put the Scheidlers on the verge of financial ruin several times. NOW‘s argument was that (RICO) could apply to pro-life organizations protesting abortion clinics even without economic motives, since an organization without an economic motive can still affect interstate or foreign commerce, and thus allegedly  satisfying the Act’s definition of a racketeering enterprise.

According to the official account of the legal battle from the Pro-Life Action League, Scheidler originally won in the lower courts, but the case was sent back to the Federal Court by the Supreme Court in January, 1994. 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. 

Unwilling to concede defeat, NOW appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to undo the Supreme Court’s mandate. The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case again in November 2005 and issued a unanimous decision in favor of Scheidler in February 2006. However, NOW continued to wrangle over the details of the final judgment in district court and did not finally conclude until 2014, when NOW was ultimatley required to pay final costs to the Pro-Life Action League.

His memoir of more than forty years as a pro-life activist, "Racketeer for Life," was published in November, 2016. 

In a conversation with CNA in 2011, on the occasion of his birthday, Joe Scheidler recalled that “I spent eight years in the seminary, and four years in the monastery, wanting to be a priest. 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.”

Erik Scheidler will replace his father in the role of President of the pro-life organization. “I am standing on the shoulder of giants,” he told CNA.

Joe Scheidler at the U.S. Supreme Court, 2005

EWTN to Premiere Documentary on Pro-Life Icon Joe Scheidler

Hosted by Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood facility director and now pro-life activist, the movie follows a legal battle of Scheidler, the godfather of pro-life activism who died in January 2021, and Brejcha, the attorney who defended him against the National Organization for Women.

Joseph M. Scheidler, 93, former National Director of the Pro-Life Action League.

Catholic Schools and a Pro-Life Warrior (Jan. 30)

A new book is looking at the unexpected success of Catholic schools in Massachusetts and asking some hard questions about Catholic education. This week on Register Radio we are joined by Cara Candal, co-editor of the book A Vision of Hope: Catholic Schooling in Massachusetts. And then, we have just marked the anniversary of the infamous Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision, and Register contributor Mary FioRito and Catholic Woman’s Forum joins us to remember the pro-life legend Joe Scheidler and to assess the pro-life cause at this moment in our country.