CHICAGO, Illinois, December 12, 2016 (LifeSiteNews)—A former seminarian, college professor, journalist, and ad man, Joe Scheidler has lived pro-life activism around the clock and then literally wrote the book on it, providing the basis for many of the tactics used to fight abortion in North America and the world.
Scheidler, 89, has written another book, this one a personal account of his 40 years of activism, because getting close and personal is the defining characteristic of his approach. Published by Tan Books, the memoir is called Racketeer for Life: Fighting the Culture of Death from the Sidewalk to the Supreme Court.
He begins his story in the middle, musing in the courtroom where his pro-life activities landed him, facing a racketeering charge that would hang over him until 2014, seeing projected on the courtroom wall a friendly note he left on the door of a shuttered abortion clinic for a surgeon he had hoped to meet, take out to coffee, and possibly lure into a different business.
The note read, “Sorry I Missed You.” Now it was being presented as evidence of a death threat.
“How did a guy from Hartford City, Indiana, population 7,000, end up a defendant in a federal racketeering trial?” Scheidler pondered. “Chicago has a long history of mob bosses. But me? I didn’t know the first thing about running a national crime syndicate. But here I was, sitting in the Dirksen Federal Building at the defendant’s table, watching a jury study my handwriting, and hearing my life’s work described as a wild, decades-long crime spree.”
The National Organization of Women’s famous racketeering and extortion suit against Scheidler and his interstate coordinating group called the Pro-Life Action League certainly marked for him the sad tragedy of America’s cultural war — the huge chasm in values that now split the country. Scheidler repeats his courteous note as a lament for an earlier America. “To those who champion abortion as a right, I’m sorry we missed you. We were on the same street, and we didn’t connect. Our literature never found its way into your hands.”
“‘Sorry I missed you”’ speaks to our whole society. Those of us who got involved in the pro-life movement in the early days thought it would take just a few years to reverse course and bring Americans to their senses. We were convinced that, with the right tools and the right people, we could remind the nation that self-determination should never come at the cost of killing another innocent, sovereign self.”
As for many Christians, Scheidler was vaguely pro-life up the point when he wasn’t. That point came when he saw a photograph purloined from a Toronto hospital of a black garbage bag full of aborted babies.
“One face in the picture stopped me dead in my tracks — the baby in a corner of the plastic bag looked like my son Eric’s baby picture. The shock of recognition made abortion suddenly personal. Here was a bag full of dead babies. These were real children whose only crime was being unwanted.”
He was “riveted,” he said, but more than that he was transformed, gradually working himself into the job of full-time agitator for life. It has taken far more than a few years to undo the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that launched the country’s million-baby a year abortion industry.
While other leaders and organizations have focused on legislation — and made inroads — Scheidler’s work with the Illinois Right to Life Committee and later the Pro Life Action League has always been street activism. He pioneered sidewalk counseling, sit-ins, picketing, and clinic occupations. From 1984 to 1997, PLAL ran national conventions to train activists and to coordinate them for simultaneous “National Days of Amnesty and of Rescue.”
Operation Rescue, 40 Days for Life’s round-the-clock vigils, and then the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform’s graphic Genocide Awareness Project arguably stem from these conventions and Scheidler’s 1985 landmark book, Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion.
He counts many successes from personal encounters. When a Chicago daily paper featured a full page of abortion clinic ads, he invited two Catholics in the ad department to lunch and threw down an array of graphic photos of aborted babies, demanding they stop the ads. They couldn’t stop the ads, but they offered him a large space on the facing page to rebut, whenever they appeared.
The facing page, carrying his organization’s phone number, began to attract women expecting abortion services, some of whom his assistant was able to dissuade over the phone. When a visiting salesman heard his assistant giving her pitch, he decided to expand on the idea and set up one of the first pregnancy crisis centers situated intentionally next to an abortuary. Not only can women’s minds be changed by these close encounters but even the minds of abortion workers, says Scheidler, hence his note to the abortionist, “Sorry I missed you.”
His work energizing activists nationally led to the claims from NOW under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). That legislation enables victims of organized crime to claim civil damages against them. The case went a record-setting three times to the Supreme Court, the final time in 2006, ending with victory for Scheidler. But NOW fought for another seven years before finally paying his costs.
Summarized Scheidler: “My youngest son, Matthias, was four years old when I was sued by NOW and the abortion clinics. He was 32 when the case was finally over.”
Though the claim against Scheidler was that he organized violence or threats of violence to shut down abortion clinics across America, even his critics admit he eschewed violence from the first, and more or less codified its rejection in Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion.
Scheidler’s book is an illuminating, personal and highly readable account of one man’s important involvement in the pro-life movement that manages also to provide an invaluable survey course. Who could have told it better?