CATHOLIC BUSINESS PROFILE: Joseph “Joe” Scheidler

By Joseph O'Brien


Devout, good-spirited Catholic, former advertising man, and the man whom some dub “the Godfather of the pro-life movement,” Joseph Scheidler, passed away on January 18, 2021 at age 93. But his memory and the enormous good he tirelessly did for the unborn throughout his life will not be soon forgotten. May he be ushered into heaven by a host of unborn for whose right to life he fought.

In 2016 the Catholic Business Journal interviewed Mr. Scheidler. We repost the interview here.

Out of the dark days following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe V. Wade decision legalizing abortion, the pro-life movement sprang to life. Foremost among those who defined this movement is Joseph Scheidler. Today, 43 years and 58 million murdered children later, many in the United States can’t remember a time when abortion was not legal.

Out of the dark days following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe V. Wade decision legalizing abortion, the pro-life movement sprang to life. Foremost among those who defined this movement is Joseph Scheidler. Today, 43 years and 58 million murdered children later, many in the United States can’t remember a time when abortion was not legal.

But they should remember Scheidler.

Public-relations-man-turned-street-activist, Scheidler founded the Pro-Life Action League (PLAL) in 1980. Organized on the principle that actions speak louder than words, PLAL was one of the first groups to defend life with publicity it garnered through prayer-centered demonstrations against pro-abortion foes. Scheidler also won a major legal batter in 2006 for pro-lifers everywhere. And he hasn’t slowed down since.

Catholic Business Journal spoke by phone with Scheidler from his PLAL office in Chicago about his past work, present pursuits, and the future of the pro-life movement.

Catholic Business Journal (CBJ): What first inspired you to found the Pro-Life Action League?

Joseph Scheidler (JS):  As soon as I read the decisions, as soon as Roe V. Wade and Doe V. Bolton came down from the Supreme Court, I knew I had to fight and concentrate on reversing these decisions because they were so outlandish and inhuman. For the U.S. to take on the killing of its posterity as a right was so contrary to reason and morals that I had to drop everything and start fighting. So I did. I quit my job doing public relations for a company, I lost interest completely in anything else and started reading anything I could get a hold of on prenatal development, the methods of abortion…. It was a compulsion; I had to do this. It wasn’t a question of whether to do it or not. I couldn’t keep out of it. I started a little pro-life group on my own and [then in the mid-1970s was] hired by a pro-life group – Illinois Right to Life – as their executive director. I worked with them for a while and decided that I had to have more control – and publish and organize marches and protests, even more than they wanted. So I started PLAL.

CBJ: What PR company were you working for before Roe V. Wade?

JS: For about eight or ten years before going into pro-life work, I was working for a PR company called Selz/Seabolt [in 1999 renamed Publicis Dialog Chicago] which had some very important clients – businesses that were counting on them, names like Shakespeare fishing tackle. Selz/Seabolt had clients who sold things that people used a lot – and I think I had, off and on, about 12 clients at the time I quit. I was enjoying my clients, going to their factories and meeting with them and having lunch with them, getting to know their projects, and being very personally interested in selling their products, alerting the public to them.

CBJ: How did you use your PR skills in the fight for life?

JS: It wasn’t that I didn’t like the type of job I was doing; it’s just that when abortion became the law of the land, it started wheedling into everything – the hospitals were selling abortions, Planned Parenthood was counseling women to have abortions, and these women would be messed up after they destroyed a life. We could see what it was doing to women, causing deep depression and suicidal tendencies. We knew what it was doing to the medical profession – where doctors were selling their expertise, their knowledge of the human body, where nurses were going to be helping in these abortions, instead of being healers. It was a whole attack on the medical profession, on reality and on humanity, the future. It was so clear to me that fighting that sort of thing was more important than the PR work I was doing for these companies.

CBJ: What made you decide that the pro-life movement would find its stride in the streets instead of in committee conference rooms?

JS: I first had the Chicago office for pro-life publicity, because I thought the public had to be educated. We tried to get ads in the paper and paid for some ads – but found out it was better to make news than ads, to go out in the streets to keep the issue alive. Then I helped to get investigative reporting done by [Pam Zekman, Pamela Warrick and Ellen Warren of] the Chicago Sun-Times. They did a 23-part series [in 1979] “The Abortion Profiteers.” That helped a lot because it got a lot of information out to the public through the Sun-Times. We were also busy all the time on the streets because I knew we had to go to the streets to counsel women and have meetings with abortionists to talk them out of abortion. It was a full time job to keep abortion on the front page.

CBJ: Did you ever have any doubts in taking on this work?

JS: Not really because I knew it had to be done and I knew other people across the country were doing things like we were doing in Chicago. There were groups in Cleveland, in Pittsburg, Philadelphia, and we all got together and formed Pro-Life Action Network [since renamed the Pro-Life Action League] with annual meetings reviewing what we were doing and how we were doing it. We would start a program and everyone would take part in it, going to clinics, blocking the entrances, digging up bodies from the garbage and having burials. I never felt alone, so if I would begin to feel overwhelmed, I would call some of these other groups, commiserate and go right on doing the things we were doing. It was exhilarating when we started having planned conventions; we’d meet in the cities and go out to the clinics. We’d get ideas from each other and carry them on. The movement would strengthen and grow – and we thought the movement was the activism, saving lives. We inspired others, including the things going on with [the Center for Medical Progress founder] David Daleiden and [Live Action founder] Lila Rose, who are the children of the activist movement. They’ve done some fantastic things, Daleiden showing the body parts being sold, and how body parts are saved for that purpose, and Lila Rose going in and doing undercover interviews in the clinics. All of them are keeping the abortion issue very negative for the public and that’s what you have to do.

CBJ: With the recent news of David Daleiden’s indictment on racketeering charges for allegedly using a false ID to gain access to places he videotaped, how do you think he’ll fare in the courts?

JS:  I think he’ll do fine. The charges are phony and little things that don’t amount to anything. David is a smart guy and he’s got the goods on Planned Parenthood – and embarrassed the abortionists quite a bit with the selling of body parts, which is much more of a crime than having a fake ID. He has really sharp lawyers, too – Thomas More Society is dedicated to pro-life and they’ve seen just about everything. Before it was Thomas More, its founder, Thomas Brejcha, represented me in my own racketeering case.

CBJ: Why did you decide to use graphic pictures as part of your strategy?

JS:  You can’t let abortion become an acceptable thing – it must remain very ugly, bloody and negative. That was part of our mission – that’s why we used the pictures. We had Truth Tours and we’d blow up the pictures to 5 ft. by 5 ft. and take them out to the highways and byways, downtown Chicago and all over the country. There were also guys driving around in trucks with the pictures on them. We’re a graphic society so we have to see the problem and not just talk about it. Really, that was part of our modus operandi at the very beginning – make people look at abortion. It was hard to get space – we tried – we would go to the bus station and transportation system in Chicago, the Chicago Transit Authority, and try to buy space, but of course they wouldn’t sell it to us, though they might sell abortion advertising to the abortion clinics. We would blot those ads out or paste them over with our pictures. Sometimes we would introduce a picture we wanted published to put on the trains and at the bus and train stops. They wouldn’t accept it, but we would have that picture and show the picture as something they rejected and get a little publicity that way. Anything we could think of to make people aware of the evil and ugliness of abortion was grist for our mill. We would try to do this in unison with other groups around the country.

CBJ: Prior to becoming a pro-life activist, what kind of experiences and skills did you bring to your pro-life work?

JS:  I had been a reporter for the South Bend Tribune [IN] years before…after I graduated Notre Dame. Then I kept writing and when abortion became legal, I put the skills to work I had. I went to the Sun-Times and got them to start their investigation and got ads in the Tribune and we had our own radio program for a while. I had been in the journalist and communication world and taught communication arts at Notre Dame, and tried to use those skills to get into the media and help other organizations become media savvy.

CBJ: Tells us more about the Chicago Sun-Times 23-part series.

JS:  Pam Zekman was a reporter for the Sun-Times, and we weren’t real good friends. She wasn’t with me philosophically on abortion but she was an investigative reporter. I went over to [the Sun-Times] offices one day with a lot of the information we had about the corruption in the clinics – the fact that the clinics were unsanitary and that women left their worse off than when they went in, things we knew form our own investigation about the abortionists. I spent the afternoon talking with her about the information we had and she said that, if she did anything, I’m not to take any credit for it. So we didn’t as such. I would mention I met with Pam, but she included us in their report, two of the 23 part series were about our pro-life activities – blotting out the abortion signs at the metro stations, crossing the third rail and crossing out the phone numbers of abortion clinics. But the series was powerful and they reprinted it, and we bought hundreds of the reprints and sent them all over the country to start the same sort of thing in other cities.

CBJ: How did PLAL become a family project? Was that planned?

JS:  My family just took to it. We needed people and they came out. My son Eric was very active early on at our pickets and protests, as were Peter, Joey and Matt to a certain extent, and my daughters Sara, Kathy and Annie have all helped too. It’s in the family and Eric’s now the PLAL executive director and I’m kind of the old man – but I’m still a full timer – I’m still on the job…We’re a very pro-life family and done a lot of things together with 100 percent support – although that support is not necessarily all through the family. Some of the in-laws and cousins think we go to far and we’re fanatical, but that’s their problem.

CBJ: While you have family members who were Catholic bishops, at the same time you were not afraid to criticize the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). What led you to do so?

JS:  I used to meet with the bishops and go to their meetings and so on. At one time, we more or less picketed the bishops for not being outspoken. Some of them would meet here in Chicago at the Palmer House [hotel] and we set up a stage across the street with a large graphic picture of an aborted baby on a cross. We had a sign too which read “USCCB, why have you forsaken me?” We only got one or two bishops to talk to us… They were good men, but they didn’t want to get involved in such a way that they might get sued. My cousin was a bishop of the Diocese of Dallas at the time, Bishop Thomas Tschoepe (1969-1990), and he went out with us one time and went to the clinic and talked to the woman who managed the clinic, and we got one woman not to have an abortion because we were at the abortion clinic entry. Also, my uncle Bishop Leo Pursley of the Diocese of Fort Wayne (1956-1976) was pro-life. Both bishops did fight for the unborn and they were supportive and helped us get some money. Bishop Leo helped us get some money from Our Sunday Visitor’s office. I never really came down on the bishops hard but I just didn’t think they were doing as much work as they could.

CBJ: Why does your Catholic faith play such an important part in the work you do?

JS:  Growing up, we were brought up with Catholic Action. You don’t just believe something, but you take it out to the highways and street corners. The Catholic Church has been so strong on the issue, making no exceptions, and it had to be made clear that the Church still stands strong against abortion, because so many of the mainline Protestant churches had relaxed their position and even accepted abortion. The Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, so many churches have allowed for the woman’s right to have an abortion. We couldn’t even have the appearance of the Catholic Church giving in. So we urged the bishops to stand strong and emphasized the fact that in the Catholic Church abortion is an excommunicable sin.

CBJ: Philosophically and theologically, why are Christians on the forefront of the pro-life movement?

JS:  Catholics and evangelical Christians take the words of Christ literally, especially regarding the sanctity of the individual soul. The values that the Catholic Church upholds are human values. It’s in our teaching and we have a tremendous dedication to the Incarnation. After all, God’s greatest creation is the human person – and to demean that and allow it to be used or thrown away is totally against the teachings of the Church.

CBJ: Do you see contraception playing a part in the abortion debate?

JS:  Contraception is basically abortion – when you come right down to it, so many of your contraceptives are abortifacients. They prevent the implantation of the fertilized egg, or make the possibility of a pregnancy almost impossible, and that’s not God’s plan. He has worked it out himself that a woman doesn’t always get pregnant, but we have no business at all preventing a pregnancy that would take place. I’m as much against contraception as I am against abortion because it also goes against the pro-life mentality. I’ve always taken the position that contraception and abortion are what we call kissing cousins.

CBJ: The case you won against the National Organization for Woman (NOW) took 20 years (1986-2006) to go through the courts – right on up to the Supreme Court. In this case, NOW sought to bring racketeering charges against you and your organization, alleging that you extorted money from abortion providers. But they lost the case because they could not prove that you were making any money on the so-called “racketeering.” What gave you hope through those 20 years of court battles?

JS:  I knew they were trying to stop us and make us look ridiculous but they were the ones who sued us and tried to get us to stop what we were doing because we were hurting their abortion business. As representative of the abortionists in the country, NOW saw we were causing a lot of people not to have abortions and public opinion was turning against abortion. So they sued us in federal court. What could we do?… If found guilty, racketeers are charged with triple damages because they make money in an illegal way, and we weren’t making any money, for one thing, and racketeering is a ridiculous instrument to use against us, but I figured we could win it. It was such a weird thing to charge pro-lifers with…. I always look for the PR element in these things and what better way to get media and keep the issue alive and abortion a negative thing than to be in federal court before the SCOTUS and have your case studied, and people trying to explain it, and big names being brought in on TV and other media? I saw the law suit as a real boon in the pro-life movement, because it kept it on the front page.

CBJ: How has the pro-life movement changed over the years?

JS:  I think the way young people have gotten into it is new. For a long time, it was an old-person and middle-aged person movement. But now the young people have really blossomed and taken hold of it. When they have the marches such as the annual one in Washington, so many high school and grade school kids carry the banners and balloons, and have the chants. They are dedicated to life and the unborn because they’re the survivors and a lot of them know their friends have been aborted, those who would have been their pals. That’s one way they took over the movement to a great extent. Then there’s the fact that so many of the new pro-life leaders are former abortionists and abortion clinic workers. They had to quit such work and they had to take leadership roles against something they were involved in.

CBJ:  You’ve written an autobiography, tentatively titled “Racketeer for Life.” Why did you feel the need to write about your life at this point?

JS:  The pro-life issue is so important in our society – the greatest thing we have is our life. We work out our salvation through our life. To have the government fail so miserably that they would allow abortion on demand to become the law of the land, there had to be people fighting it. We were one of the first. There were others too who deserve credit, but we were one of the first to take up the cudgel and fight it with everything we had, from all angles, no quarter and no exceptions. The story is basically about that, how we fought it, how we did it, and how it was picked up and carried on and is still a live issue, as long as abortion is still legal in this country…. So people asked me about how it all happened and urged me to write my story. I wanted to put it all down anyway at some point. So I don’t expect it to be on everyone’s shelf, but certain people will want to know about one of the most important cultural and political battles that went on for the last quarter century and into this next century. I just got started writing it and it was easy to write.

CBJ: As a prolife leader, what advice do you have for business professionals today?

JS:  They have to keep attuned to their business, whatever that is, and that they read the books and journals that deal with their business so they stay current. It’s important they do a good job at their job. As for their place in pro-life, there’s always something to be done—people they work with need advice or help. Be sure they have the proper values and when you’re out at lunch, don’t just talk about work, but talk about the society we’re living in and sustaining. It’s a constant program of education and involvement. Stay involved in the things that are important to you – and of course nothing is more important than human life and human reproduction. As far as we know it, we’re the only planet in the universe with people – and that’s our greatest resource – people. We have to keep that clear in our minds for the betterment of society, for people and ultimately for our salvation.
Inspired?

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Does Joseph Scheidler—a businessman who broke ranks with the secular world and became a pro-life warrior—inspire you to do more about the voiceless unborn? Feel free to let us know in the Comments section (you must register first to prevent spam), or on our FaceBook page.
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Joseph O’Brien is a Catholic Business Journal correspondent. You may reach him at jobrien@catholicbusinessjournal.biz

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  1. Avatar
    Anonymous

    Joe Scheidler

    Joe and his wife, Ann are my heroes. When we started our Massachusetts pregnancy center (Problem Pregnancy of Worcester, Inc.) in 1982, Joe was our first fundraising banquet speaker. It was held in a small K of C hall with 60 folks. We are 34 years old this year and Joe and Ann are a little older too. Great interview! Thanks.

    Rod Murphy

  2. Avatar
    Anonymous

    Joe Scheidler, an Inspiration to all

    Joe Scheidler and his family have been a continuing inspiration to pro life people. We, in California, have much for which to thank him as he continually returned to California to help train people in pro life work and in the use of the media.

     

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