Joseph Scheidler, an early leader and icon of the pro-life movement, passed away on Monday at the age of 93. He began the fight against abortion shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 and founded the Pro-Life Action League in 1980 to recruit and equip pro-life Americans to speak out for unborn children. Yet Scheidler also fought a decades-long court battle for his right to free speech in opposition to the abortion industry, a battle that birthed the Thomas More Society.
“My father’s proudest accomplishment was the pro-life work of those he inspired to take an active role in the fight against abortion, the greatest injustice of our time,” Eric Scheidler, Joe’s oldest son and executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, said in a statement Monday. “For years, people have been telling me about the talk or protest where they met my father, and how his words and example prompted them to do more than just talk, but to take responsibility for addressing the injustice.”
Born in 1927 in Hartford City, Ind., Joe Scheidler served as a military policeman in the U.S. Navy toward the end of World War II, graduated from the University of Notre Dame and earned a master’s at Marquette University, and spent eight years studying for the Catholic priesthood. He rejected that path, however, and became a teacher at Mundelein College. While teaching there, he led a group of students to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
Scheidler’s pro-life activism took him to every state in the U.S. and to countries on four continents. He also faced a politically-motivated legal attack in the notorious case National Organization for Women v. Scheidler (2006).
NOW v. Scheidler became the longest case in U.S. federal court history and the only case to reach the Supreme Court three times.
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In 1985, Scheidler published the book Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion. Scheidler urged pro-life citizens to undertake a national crusade against the abortion industry. Yet the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) brought an antitrust action against Scheidler, claiming that the book represented a conspiracy to achieve an “unreasonable restraint of trade.”
As the Thomas More Society explains, Scheidler’s book had “a wholly legitimate goal clearly analogous to the goals of those who urge boycotts or legal bans against the commercial sale of morally objectionable products or services (e.g., gambling, tobacco, narcotics, pornography, body parts, foie gras, etc.). … The antitrust laws were clearly intended to regulate economic behavior within lawful markets, not moral and political efforts to get entire markets themselves legally banned or boycotted on public policy grounds.”
Yet it took five years to convince a federal trial judge to throw out the antitrust claim. Later, NOW took up the case, bringing new claims under federal racketeering (RICO) laws.
I came across NOW v. Scheidler while researching the SPLC for my book Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. NOW v. Scheidler gave a vital clue to the SPLC’s transformation from a noble civil rights organization to a far-left smear factory.
Thomas Brejcha, a partner in a Chicago law firm whom Americans United for Life (AUL) hired to defend Scheidler in 1986 and who is now president and chief counsel at the Thomas More Society, told me about the SPLC’s involvement in the case. He said the SPLC used its 1981 case protecting a group of Vietnamese fishermen from harassment as a model.
“I thought it was a totally bizarre use of the antitrust laws,” Brejcha told me in Making Hate Pay. “They were politicizing this as an attempt to go after terrorism and they didn’t quite allege that Scheidler was a terrorist, but that he had organized pro-life activists all over the country to engage in illegal acts. And of course, the illegal acts were peaceable non-violent direct action.”
“Their model, as they publicized it, was to create a counterpart to Klanwatch whereby a nationwide injunction would be entered and they would go and force the nationwide injunction whenever there was a terrorist attack—arson and bombing—against an abortion clinic,” Brejcha said.
The SPLC used a similar injunction strategy to shut down Glenn Miller’s follow-up organization to the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the White Patriot Party.
While Scheidler had said “that he wouldn’t shed a tear whenever an abortion clinic was put out of commission, saying it’s like Auschwitz or whatever,” the author “advocated nonviolent means and he did so in his book. He certainly wasn’t any kind of conspirator and that was so ruled later on by the judge who inherited the case,” Brejcha said.
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In fact, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2014 that NOW and the abortion clinics that filed the original suit had to pay attorneys’ costs to the Thomas More Society because the lawsuit was frivolous.
While the SPLC was only involved in the case for a short time, from 1986 to 1988, Brejcha said the similarities between the SPLC attack on Scheidler and its later use of the “hate group” label to demonize conservative and Christian organizations are “very obvious.” The SPLC’s “hate group” accusations have demonized and marginalized conservative and Christian organizations across the country, providing an excuse for Big Tech, the legacy media, and Democrats to exclude or attack people for their religious or political convictions.
In 2016, Scheidler published a fittingly-titled memoir Racketeer for Life: Fighting the Culture of Death from the Sidewalk to the Supreme Court.
In NOW v. Scheidler, the Supreme Court rightly defended pro-life speakers from an attempt to silence them using RICO laws. The ultimate failure of this racketeering attack paved the way for peaceful pro-life activism to flourish in America. Pro-life advocates across the country owe a great debt to Scheidler.
After Scheidler’s death, Brejcha noted that ” Joe was our raison d’etre — the only reason and sole cause for the Thomas More Society’s coming into existence. His unduly long, litigious persecution on the part of the National Organization for Women and the nation’s abortion industry — which lasted over nearly three-decades in a landmark court battle, NOW v. Scheidler — was the crucible in which our Thomas More Society was forged.”
“Thomas More Society’s battling to restore respect in law for life, family, and religious liberty was not only born out of the necessity of defending Joe as well as his Pro-Life Action League and fellow activists Andrew Scholberg, Tim Murphy and other nationally prominent pro-life leaders, but it was also inspired by Joe’s own eloquence and activism,” Brejcha added.
“Joe advocated for life by both his word and his deeds. He would bear prayerful witness as well as provide meaningfully sympathetic and compassionate ‘sidewalk counseling’ outside of abortion facilities, helping to save the lives of countless infants and inspiring so many others to do likewise all over this country as well as abroad. Joe’s 1985 book, Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, was a primer for peaceful yet profound activism designed to combat the violence of abortion, which he bluntly condemned as a grave evil,” the Thomas More Society founder added.
Scheidler’s decades of pro-life advocacy and his victory in NOW v. Scheidler earned him the title of “Godfather of the Pro-Life Movement,” Brejcha said. “With the death of Joe Scheidler, the pro-life movement has lost a warrior champion, and we have lost a dear friend. Joe believed in defending the innocent lives of babies in the womb, and this was a lifelong calling that he lived so faithfully to his last breath.”
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.