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Requiem for the ‘Godfather of Pro-Life Activism’

Countless people are alive today thanks to the work of Joseph M. Scheidler. Those who oppose abortion owe him a debt of gratitude.
Joseph Scheidler

Legendary pro-life activist Joseph M. Scheidler breathed his last on the morning of January 18, 2020, at the age of 93, surrounded by his family. Known to the movement as the “Godfather of Pro-Life Activism,” Scheidler fought abortion from the sidewalk to the Supreme Court (as the subtitle of his memoir Racketeer for Life memorably put it), and during his career he met everyone from President Ronald Reagan to Pope John Paul II. To know Joe even a little was to love him, and to lose him is to mourn a hero who fought for the lives of the unborn for nearly half a century. It is hard to believe he is gone.

Scheidler was always offended by injustice, and during his involvement with the civil rights movement, he marched from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. King. He had a thriving career in public relations when, in November of 1972, he was confronted by the reality of abortion. At the suggestion of his wife, Ann, Scheidler attended an anti-abortion rally in Chicago headlined by Congressman Henry Hyde. He was given a pamphlet, and inside was a photo taken at a Canadian hospital of a garbage bag filled with dead babies. One of them, he told me when we last spoke, looked just like his son Eric (who now runs the Pro-Life Action League in his father’s place). It was the catalyst for a lifetime of activism.

Scheidler began working full-time with Illinois Right to Life, but his bold tactics made less confrontational activists uneasy. Scheidler, with his signature fedora and bullhorn, wanted to wake America from her lethal slumber. He publicly displayed photographs of abortion victims; he gave speeches; he picketed clinics (some shut down); he relentlessly dragged reluctant eyes back to the truth that most preferred to forget. Patrick Buchanan called him the “Green Beret” of the pro-life movement. In 1980, he founded the Pro-Life Action League. His organization would eventually spawn copycat groups across the country, and in 1985, Scheidler published his first book, titled Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion.

Scheidler describes many extraordinary moments in his 2016 memoir, but the most powerful is his account of retrieving garbage bags filled with aborted babies with fellow activist Monica Miller. One by one, he and the other rescuers photographed the dead children. One stuck with him: “It was a baby boy of at least six months gestation, cut to pieces by the abortionist,” he wrote. “We took him and laid out his broken body on a paper towel.” On May 6, 1987, pro-life activists carried the aborted children they had taken from the trash by hearse to the front of the clinic where they had been killed and gently laid them out on long tables. Passersby—and the press—were stunned.

In a culture where children are treated as trash, Scheidler understood, Christians must become trash collectors.

“It was emotionally disturbing to see the tiny people,” he told me decades later. “There were twins…Monica photographed hundreds of them.” These photographs would be used by activists across the country and around the world to expose what was going on behind closed doors and inspire countless men and women to get involved, including many leaders who would rise to prominence and reshape the abortion debates in their respective countries.

The abortion industry hated Joe Scheidler, and along with several other pro-life activists, he was the chief defendant in a RICO lawsuit brought by two abortion clinics and the National Organization for Women. NOW v. Scheidler was filed in 1986, and after an initial victory in the lower courts, the case was sent back to federal court by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994. Scheidler and his fellow activists were found guilty of racketeering by a six-member jury—a ruling that was finally overturned by the Supreme Court in 2003. NOW appealed to the Seventh Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Scheidler’s favor in 2006. According to the Pro-Life Action League, NOW continued to fight over details of the judgment in district court, and it wasn’t until 2014—decades after the case began—that the organization was finally forced to pay costs.

When I interviewed Joe in 2019, I asked him about the highs and lows of his long career. The lows, he told me, were the many disappointments that came from religious and political leaders who claimed to believe in God but betrayed the pro-life movement. The highlights, he said, were the people he had met—the young people coming into the movement, and the many heroes who had already gone before him. And of course, there were the many babies saved from abortion because of Scheidler’s work. He was always modest about his impact, but pro-life leaders around the world have stories about Joe and how his commitment, his activism, and the relentless love he had for his fellow human beings inspired them to follow his example.

Until the end, Joe Scheidler used his voice for those who had none. In his 90s, he was still giving speeches, meeting with other pro-lifers, and attending events whenever he could. “It’s such an important issue to me, I just can’t let it go,” he told me. “It’s been my life. It’s a battle I have to stay in until I can’t work anymore, or until I die.” His message for fellow activists was a simple one: “You’re glad you’re alive. Try to keep someone else alive.”

Countless people live today because of Joseph M. Scheidler. Many of them do not even know his name, or that he fought for them. But we do, and we are grateful for his life and for his legacy. We miss him already.

Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.