Last week, pro-lifers across the country were saddened to learn of the passing of pro-life activist Joe Scheidler. Scheidler, who started the Pro-Life Action League, is thought of as the godfather of the direct action wing of the pro-life movement. Scheidler’s tactics, which included pickets of abortion facilities, graphic image displays, and public events featuring former abortionists, succeeded in placing a human face on unborn children and generated a great deal of publicity. During his life, Joe Scheidler succeeded in raising the salience of sanctity of life issues and persuaded many people to join the pro-life movement.
The pro-life movement has not always devoted a great deal of resources to chronicling its own history. As such, many are unaware of the risks and sacrifices that early pro-life activists like Joe Scheidler made to pursue full time pro-life work in the 1970s. Indeed, when Scheidler devoted to himself to the pro-life cause after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, he took a real leap of faith. He was working in a stable advertising job with a wife and children. At this time, it was by no means clear how one could raise money to engage in full-time pro-life work. The internet was not around and direct mail was in its infancy. Thankfully, Scheidler was able to receive some compensation from Illinois Right to Life and then successfully launched the Pro-Life Action League in 1980.
Additionally, when Scheidler started doing pro-life work, there was no clear pathway forward to restore legal protection to the preborn. While Scheidler did not dismiss the importance of politics, he thought that direct action was necessary to keep the abortion issue in the public eye. As such, as he describes in his fine book Racketeer for Life, he largely improvised. He would call talk shows and try to get some airtime to discuss sanctity of life issues. If he learned of an abortion facility opening, he would organize a protest. He would often meet with abortionists directly and persuaded many to quit doing abortions. Scheidler’s book Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion documents numerous tactics that succeeded in closing down abortion facilities.
I still remember the last time I saw Joe Scheidler in person. It was the March for Life weekend in 2020. Even though Joe was 92 years old, he made the trip to Washington, D.C. and his schedule was full. We attended the Pro-Life Leadership Mass and reception sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. We then shared an Uber to head downtown to the Law of Life Summit sponsored by Americans United for Life. Joe and his wife were as lively and as gracious as ever. He will certainly be missed. Rest in peace, Joe.
Michael J. New, PhD is a Research Associate at the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New