By Jonathon Van Maren
Legendary pro-life activist Joseph M. Scheidler breathed his last on the morning of January 18, 2021, at the age of 93, surrounded by his family. Known to the movement as the “Godfather of Pro-Life Activism,” Scheidler fought abortion from the sidewalk to the Supreme Court (as the subtitle of his memoir Racketeer for Life memorably put it), and during his career he met everyone from President Ronald Reagan to Pope John Paul II. To know Joe even a little was to love him, and to lose him is to mourn a hero who fought for the lives of the unborn for nearly half a century. It is hard to believe he is gone.
Scheidler was always offended by injustice, and during his involvement with the civil rights movement, he marched from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. King. He had a thriving career in public relations when, in November of 1972, he was confronted by the reality of abortion. At the suggestion of his wife, Ann, Scheidler attended an anti-abortion rally in Chicago headlined by Congressman Henry Hyde. He was given a pamphlet, and inside was a photo taken at a Canadian hospital of a garbage bag filled with dead babies. One of them, he told me when we last spoke, looked just like his son Eric (who now runs the Pro-Life Action League in his father’s place). It was the catalyst for a lifetime of activism.
Scheidler began working full-time with Illinois Right to Life, but his bold tactics made less confrontational activists uneasy. Scheidler, with his signature fedora and bullhorn, wanted to wake America from her lethal slumber. He publicly displayed photographs of abortion victims; he gave speeches; he picketed clinics (some shut down); he relentlessly dragged reluctant eyes back to the truth that most preferred to forget. Patrick Buchanan called him the “Green Beret” of the pro-life movement. In 1980, he founded the Pro-Life Action League. His organization would eventually spawn copycat groups across the country, and in 1985, Scheidler published his first book, titled Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion.
Scheidler describes many extraordinary moments in his 2016 memoir, but the most powerful is his account of retrieving garbage bags filled with aborted babies with fellow activist Monica Miller. One by one, he and the other rescuers photographed the dead children. One stuck with him: “It was a baby boy of at least six months gestation, cut to pieces by the abortionist,” he wrote. “We took him and laid out his broken body on a paper towel.” On May 6, 1987, pro-life activists carried the aborted children they had taken from the trash by hearse to the front of the clinic where they had been killed and gently laid them out on long tables. Passersby—and the press—were stunned.
In a culture where children are treated as trash, Scheidler understood, Christians must become trash collectors.