'Godfather' of pro-life movement Joe Scheidler dies at 93

Joseph Scheidler paints a pro-life sign on an official graffiti wall in Cape Town, South Africa in 1995.
Joseph Scheidler paints a pro-life sign on an official graffiti wall in Cape Town, South Africa in 1995. | (Photo: TAN Books)

Joe Scheidler, the man known as the "godfather" of the pro-life movement, has died at the age of 93. 

Scheidler died of pneumonia at 9:45 a.m. on Monday, surrounded by his family at his home in northwestern Chicago. He is survived by his wife, Ann, seven children, 26 grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.

In 1980 — seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that abortion was constitutionally protected nationwide under the right to privacy in the due process clause in the 14th Amendment — Scheidler founded the Pro-life Action League to equip pro-life citizens to be a voice for the unborn in their communities. 

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“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,” said Eric Scheidler, the eldest son of the deceased advocate, who now serves as the League’s executive director, in a statement to The Christian Post on 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.”

He added that it was "fitting" that his father died on Martin Luther King Day.

“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,” he said. 

Scheidler's decades of activism are told in the 2016 book, Racketeer for Life: Fighting the Culture of Death from the Sidewalk to the Supreme Court.

The longtime advocate earned the title "godfather of the pro-life movement" due to his ultimate victory in the Supreme Court case NOW v. Scheidler, a legal dispute that was protracted over the course of many years. 

The high court ruled in its original decision in 1994 that the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) could apply to enterprises without economic motives and pro-life advocates protesting outside of abortion clinics could be prosecuted under the statute. Organizations without economic motives could still affect interstate or foreign commerce and satisfy the law's definition of a racketeering entity, the decision held. 

But the lawsuit was contested many times and stretched across many years, resulting in a victory in 2003 for Scheidler at the Supreme Court in an 8-0 ruling. The Supreme Court chastised the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals for disregarding a previous ruling in Scheidler's favor. 

Pro-life leaders are mourning the loss of a tireless friend and advocate. 

"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," said Tom Brejcha, the president, chief counsel, and founder of the Thomas More Society in a statement emailed to The Christian Post. 

"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. We rejoice in the truth that Joe so fully deserved to hear these words, 'Well done, good and faithful servant.'"

Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director turned pro-life advocate whose story was told in the 2019 film "Unplanned," described Scheidler as "a true hero, someone whose opinion mattered."

"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. There aren't many people who I hope to earn their respect in this life but Joe was one of them," she said.  

"I don't know if I ever did earn his respect but I know he always had mine. Not only was he influential in the pro-life movement but he was also a giant in the pro-choice movement, framing many of the decisions they made. My prayers are with his family." 

Johnson is also the director of And Then There Were None, a nonprofit organization that helps abortion clinic workers leave the abortion industry and find other employment. 

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