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Joe Scheidler, founder of Pro-Life Action League, dies at 93

Scheidler’s family and allies remembered him Monday as a particularly effective and passionate leader — but one also targeted by opponents in litigation that lasted decades and landed repeatedly before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Joe Scheidler, longtime national director of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, has died. Here, he’s shown at an anti-abortion protest in Lake Zurich in 2011.
Joe Scheidler, longtime national director of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, has died. Here, he’s shown at an anti-abortion protest in Lake Zurich in 2011.
Sun-Times file

Joe Scheidler, who decades ago began the Pro-Life Action League and later became known as the “godfather of pro-life activism” after finding inspiration in Chicago, died of pneumonia Monday, according to the organization he created.

He was 93 and is survived by his wife, seven children, 26 grandchildren and one great granddaughter.

Scheidler’s family and allies remembered him Monday as a particularly effective and passionate leader — but one also targeted by opponents in litigation that lasted decades and repeatedly landed in the U.S. Supreme Court. His son, who followed in his footsteps, said he and his father viewed such opposition “as a sign that we’re doing something right.”

“It’s been an unusual life,” said Eric Scheidler, executive director of his father’s organization.

Joe Scheidler gave at least partial credit for that life to a rally in the heart of Chicago’s downtown back in 1972. Eric Scheidler said his father saw a picture there of aborted babies — and one of them reminded Joe Scheidler of Eric. Not only did the abortion issue become personal to him then, but similar photos became a staple of Joe Scheidler’s work.

Former U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski praised Scheidler for “drawing attention to laws that put unborn children outside the protection of our Constitution.”

“His efforts to educate the general public and to protest the killing of unborn children earned the admiration of millions of Americans across the country,” Lipinski wrote.

Born in Hartford City, Indiana, in 1927, Joe Scheidler served in the U.S. Navy as a military policeman at the end of World War II and later studied to become a priest. After he ultimately decided not to enter the priesthood, he moved to Chicago, according to his son.

Eric Scheidler said his father was “very, very proud to be a Chicagoan” and gave great tours of the city that included Buckingham Fountain, as well a statue at Montrose Harbor where he proposed to his future wife in 1965.

In 1986, the National Organization for Women named Scheidler in a lawsuit that alleged violence had been used to interfere with abortion clinics. The legal claims were based on the federal racketeering law. The case worked its way through the courts for 20 years, ending in what the Pro-Life Action League called a “decisive victory” at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006.

Mary FioRito, an attorney and fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said Scheidler had likely been targeted in court because he had built an international reputation in the pro-life movement. Not only that, but he had “a certain degree of effectiveness in turning women away from abortion clinics.”

FioRito acknowledged some controversy over the use of graphic photos in Scheidler’s demonstrations. But she said such images “can inspire people to rethink issues.”

Perhaps most crucially, FioRito said Scheidler set out to help people in the pro-life movement understand those who worked inside abortion clinics. She said Scheidler would help former clinic workers share testimony about their work — and what prompted them to leave it.

FioRito said Scheidler “really did have a desire to understand and show compassion to the other side.” And Eric Scheidler said his father “could befriend anybody,” regardless of whether they agreed with his anti-abortion position.

Joe Scheidler once told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I have more respect for people that have enthusiasm, even for the wrong thing, than people who are indifferent.”

Joe Scheidler at a protest in Joliet in 2005.
Joe Scheidler at a protest in Joliet in 2005.
Sun-Times file