During the past few years, there have been several fine books chronicling different aspects of the pro-life movement. Dr. and Mrs. Jack Willke’s Abortion and the Pro-Life Movement provides a thorough history of political and legal efforts to protect the unborn. Daniel K. Williams’s Defenders of the Unborn nicely chronicles pro-life efforts prior to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Monica Miller’s Abandoned provides information about the 1980s rescue movement.
Joseph Scheidler’s new memoir, Racketeer for Life, is a very welcome addition to this genre. While his memoir is not a history of the pro-life movement as a whole, it provides an exceptionally detailed and thorough history of the movement’s direct action wing. A great deal of pro-life activism is political—electing like-minded people and enacting pro-life laws. However, some pro-lifers have pursued a strategy of direct action where they engage in public demonstrations either to dissuade women from seeking abortions or to shift public opinion in a more pro-life direction. Scheidler can be thought of as the father of the direct action wing of the pro-life movement.
Indeed, when the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973, there was no clear game plan for pro-life activists. Previous pro-life efforts mostly consisted of local efforts to lobby state legislatures that were considering liberalizing abortion laws. While Scheidler did not dismiss the importance of political work, he thought that direct action was crucial to keep the abortion issue in the public eye. Scheidler creatively used a number of methods to raise the profile of abortion as an issue. These included funerals for the unborn, the use of abortion victim photography, and panels where former abortionists spoke about their work.
Scheidler first became interested in the abortion issue after attending a pro-life rally in 1972. However, it was not until the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that Scheidler dedicated himself to full-time pro-life activism. His time in a theological seminary and his previous work as a teacher of journalism provided him with excellent skills to advance the pro-life cause. Scheidler concluded that the first priority of pro-lifers was to make sure that abortion remained in the public eye. To advance this goal, Scheidler wrote letters to the editor, called talk shows, picketed abortion clinics, and designed pro-life ads for newspapers. His efforts gave him some notoriety in the Chicago area, and Illinois Right to Life Committee (IRLC) hired him on a full-time basis in 1974.
Some of Scheidler’s early efforts paid handsome dividends. In 1978, The Chicago Sun-Times, a newspaper that supported legal abortion, ran a series entitled “Meet the Abortion Profiteers.” They published several articles that graphically described the unsanitary and unsafe conditions in many Chicago abortion clinics.
That said, some of Scheidler’s tactics—particularly his graphic displays of aborted children—caused tension and controversy within the pro-life movement. To this day, there are robust internal debates among pro-lifers about whether the use of abortion victim photography is appropriate. Illinois Right to Life fired Scheidler in the late 1970s. He then went on to start the Pro-Life Action League (PLAN) in 1980, an organization whose sole focus would be on direct action.
Much of the book is organized thematically and covers various aspects of Scheidler’s involvement in the pro-life movement. For instance, there are chapters devoted to Scheidler’s experiences on college campuses, his efforts to train pro-life activists in other countries, and his attempts to convert abortion providers. There is even a chapter about what it was like raising a large family as a full-time pro-life activist. Scheidler’s travels and the frequent pickets by supporters of legal abortion were sometimes tough on his children. In fact, when Scheidler’s daughter Sarah was in the second grade, she said that she wished her dad was a dentist. However, all of Scheidler’s children came to believe in their father’s mission and found different ways to support his pro-life work.
The pro-life movement has not always done a good job of chronicling its own history. By reading this book, young readers will learn about pro-life activists who took considerable risks and made significant sacrifices to pursue full-time pro-life work. Scheidler, for example, quit a stable job at an advertising agency to dedicate himself to full-time pro-life activism, even though he had no means to support himself and his family. Similarly, lawyer Tom Brejcha, who now runs the Thomas More Legal Society, quit a lucrative job at the law firm of Abramson and Fox so he could devote himself to defending Scheidler in court. Joan Andrews and others spent years in jail for their pro-life activities.
The work these activists undertook was arduous. In Racketeer for Life, Scheidler candidly details the arbitrary and unfair treatment that he and other pro-lifers received from courts and law enforcement. He also discusses his frustrations with the mainstream media, clergy, and politicians. And he mentions some conflicts he had with other pro-life leaders. In the late 1980s, Scheidler confronted Randall Terry of Operation Rescue. Scheidler doubted that Terry’s plan of mass arrests would be effective over the long term and wanted him to consider other ideas for pro-life activism. Terry responded by disinviting Scheidler from Operation Rescue.
That said, many of Scheidler’s activities were successful in raising the profile of the abortion issue and promoting the pro-life position. His numerous success stories in the Chicago area gave him a national reputation as a pro-life activist. He was asked to lobby delegates to the 1976 Republican Convention to adopt a pro-life plank in their party platform. In 1984, he and several other pro-life leaders met with President Reagan before the March for Life. In an editorial, syndicated columnist Pat Buchanan called Joseph Scheidler the “Green Beret of the Pro-Life Movement.”
Supporters of legal abortion were well aware of Scheidler’s effectiveness. He often received hate mail and phone threats. Additionally, there were often pickets and protests outside his home. However, starting in the 1990s, abortion rights activists decided to pursue a strategy of litigation. The National Organization for Women (NOW) sued Scheidler and several other pro-life activists, arguing that their efforts to dissuade women from obtaining abortions was a violation of a federal racketeering law known as the RICO Act. The litigation went on for twenty-four years.
Although Racketeer for Life devotes quite a few pages to the lawsuit, its handling of the litigation could have been better. For instance, additional background about the RICO Act would have been welcome. The RICO Act was passed by Congress in 1970 to make it easier to prosecute organized crime. The notion that these laws were intended to prosecute pro-lifers or any other non-profit group is laughable. In fact, during the case, the author of the RICO law, Notre Dame law professor Robert Blakely, testified that since there was no financial gain on the part of the defendants, RICO could not be invoked. Furthermore, other non-profit advocacy groups that engaged in direct action, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), filed amicus briefs on Scheidler’s behalf.
The book does a nice job detailing the testimony that was provided in the NOW v. Scheidler trial, which was litigated in 1998 in a US District Court in Chicago. The book details the frustrations Scheilder’s attorneys had with the judge and the numerous discrepancies between the testimony given by NOW’s witnesses and actual police records. The book also nicely demonstrates how NOW’s attorneys tried to mislead jurors into thinking that Scheidler supported clinic violence. That said, the book offers little detail behind either the original District Court ruling, which went against Scheidler, or the two subsequent US Supreme Court rulings in 2003 and 2006, which went in Scheidler’s favor.
However, this is a minor complaint. By carefully documenting his unique contribution to street-level pro-life activism, Scheidler has done an exceptionally fine service both for his readers and for the pro-life movement.
Michael J. New is a Visiting Associate Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_J_New