Pro-life leader Joe Scheidler spent eight years as a Benedictine monk in Indiana, and though he discerned he wasn’t called to the priesthood, the founder of the Pro-Life Action League never stopped living the order’s motto of ora et labora (prayer and work) during his many years in the pro-life movement, said his oldest son, Eric.
Joe Scheidler, who inspired many pro-life leaders and was chief defendant in a decades-long lawsuit filed by the National Organization for Women against pro-life efforts, died of pneumonia on Monday at his Chicago home surrounded by his family. He was 93. Scheidler is survived by his wife, Ann, seven children, 26 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
“He saw prayer as a foundation that you build work upon, the labora part, the work part,” said Eric Scheidler, who serves as executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, which recruits and equips pro-life Americans to help save unborn children through nonviolent direct action.
“He wanted to encourage people to do the work and to join him on the front lines. And the No. 1 work for him was going outside of abortion facilities because that’s where our witness is the most powerful.”
Recognized as an expert on the abortion culture, sidewalk counseling, battling the courts, fetal experimentation, the spiritual dimension of pro-life activism and the Church’s responsibility to fight abortion, Scheidler, easy to recognize in his trademark black fedora, also was a devout Catholic and daily Mass attendee, according to son Eric, who added that his father “very much saw what we were doing as a religious work, even though it has a public character, and it has a political character and we’re out in the public square. It was always rooted in faith. And he was passionate about sharing that faith, especially with his family.”
Scheidler was born in 1927, in Hartford City, Indiana. After serving in the U.S. Navy as a military police officer at the end of World War II, he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications at the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree at Marquette University.
He spent eight years studying for the priesthood at St. Meinrad Seminary in St. Meinrad, Indiana. After discerning he was called to married life, Scheidler taught at Mundelein College in Chicago. During that time, he chaperoned a group of students on a pilgrimage to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.
Scheidler first got involved in the pro-life movement in 1972; and shortly after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, he became a full-time pro-life activist. He founded the Pro-Life Action League (PLAL) in 1980 and wrote several books. For much of his life in the pro-life movement, he also could be found sharing the truth about abortion on street corners.
In 1986, the National Organization for Women and a network of abortion facilities sued Scheidler and the Pro-Life Action League on racketeering charges for conspiring to deprive women of the right to abortion, according to the organization’s website. The case  went to the U.S. Supreme Court three times before Scheidler won the case there in 2006, via a unanimous decision. The case didn’t completely end until 2014, however, when the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court order instructing the National Organization for Women to pay the defendants more than $63,000 to compensate them for their legal costs.
Attorney Thomas Brejcha began working with Scheidler in 1986, when he took on the case. Brejcha, who went on to co-found the national public interest law firm the Thomas More Society with Scheidler , described him as a “towering figure” and compared him to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
Scheidler persevered as the court case dragged on and will be remembered for his advocacy in the face of persecution and oppression by litigation, Brejcha said of his longtime client and friend.
“He stood up and stood firm,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times people told him to settle the case, give in, make peace with the opposition, and he refused steadfastly to do so.”
The nonprofit Chicago-based Thomas More Society, which seeks to restore respect in law for life, family and religious liberty, was founded during Scheidler’s case and from it, Brejcha said, adding that he learned how to fight major pro-life cases, including those against investigative journalist, David Daleiden, who exposed illegal activities of the abortion industry and for whom the society is currently providing legal services, due to Scheidler’s court battle.
Scheidler’s fight in the court case was a fight for the whole movement, and he can be considered a white martyr, said Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut in Hartford, Connecticut.
“Something happens in a man when you give your whole life to something good and suffer for it,” Wolfgang said. “You just have this sort of presence about you, and people recognize that. That’s what everyone responded to whenever they were in a room with Joe Scheidler. You could feel his love for the unborn child. You could feel the purity of the man’s intention.”
‘A True Hero’
Scheidler also recognized the danger of new threats to religious liberty from the Obama administration’s contraception mandate introduced in 2012. He and the Pro-Life Action League organized simultaneous religious-liberty rallies across the country, Wolfgang said.
“I think they had an effect that, in some ways, continues to this day,” said Wolfgang, who added that Scheidler impacted his decision to work for the pro-life movement.
“It was Scheidler who rose manfully to the challenge of the 2010s, just as he did to the abortion challenge in the ’80s.”
Abby Johnson, founder and director of the pro-life apostolate And Then There Were None, remembered Scheidler on Facebook:
“Joe Scheidler was a true hero, someone whose opinion mattered in this fight for the unborn,” she wrote. “He was a giant in my own life, and I’m so grateful to have spent time with him and to have listened to his wisdom.”
Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, and Janet Morana, Priests for Life’s executive director, honored Scheidler in a statement on Monday:
“I have countless memories of Joe, whether we were together fishing on Lake Michigan, praying to the Lord inside the Supreme Court as they were hearing his case, or saving babies in front of abortion mills,” Father Pavone said. “Every conversation with him was an inspiration to double my pro-life efforts.”
Morana called Scheidler the “godfather” of the pro-life movement. “In our early years, he was one of the people who taught us how to be pro-life activists,” she said. “He was an inspiration to us and gave us practical advice drawn from his many years as a passionate and fearless champion of the unborn.”
Scheidler’s passing on Jan. 18, the day when Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy was remembered, is fitting because King’s work helped inspire the pro-life leader to activism, just as he went on to inspire others, Eric Scheidler said. “Seeing the impact that regular Americans could have by taking action against racial injustice inspired my father to mobilize Americans in the same way in the fight against the injustice of abortion.”