Remembering the legacy of pro-life pioneer Joseph Scheidler

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Joe Scheidler, the founder of the Pro-Life Action League, is seen in this 2016 file photo outside a new Planned Parenthood building in Washington. He died at his Chicago home Jan. 18, 2021, from pneumonia. He was 93. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

I first met Joseph M. Scheidler, the director of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, as a young lawyer, newly chosen by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to direct the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Respect Life Office. Although I had served for two years as the president of the pro-life club at Loyola University’s School of Law, I was still very much an unknown quantity among Chicago’s pro-life leaders, as my involvement had been limited to academic debates and not public advocacy. Joe called to welcome me and, with his trademark lack of subtlety that you either loved or you hated, ended our call by saying, “Well, I sure hope that you’re an activist.”

Scheidler’s days of his own activism came to an end when he passed away Jan. 18 at his home, surrounded by his family. He was 93. Scheidler’s death marked the end of an era for a movement that was often defined by his style of advocacy — advocacy that was so effective that the National Organization of Women brought lawsuit after lawsuit against him to try and stop it. After decades of litigation that nearly bankrupted him, the Supreme Court handed him two decisive victories — by votes of 8-1 and 9-0.

This past Monday, a funeral Mass was held at Chicago’s St. John Cantius Church. It was followed by interment at All Saints’ Cemetery. “Joe was a piece of work,” quipped Father Richard Simon, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and host of the popular radio program “Father Simon Says,” as he began his homily.

The congregation laughed. The capacity crowd, restricted by COVID regulations, included many of the pro-life movement’s national leaders, more than a dozen priests and Bishop Mark Bartosic, an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese. The crowd understood well that Father Simon’s description of Scheidler was not an insult but rather a gesture of affection and respect. To be called “a piece of work” in Chicago is a compliment, as it denotes a person who speaks for the little guy, but who is also bold, courageous and who pushes polite boundaries for the sake of others — unafraid of what that might cost him in terms of human respect.

Scheidler’s wake and funeral Mass brought together a wide variety of people. For whom else would you find religious sisters in full-length habits, Dominicans, Carmelites, diocesan priests and long-time grassroots pro-life activists all waiting to pay their respects at the funeral home, standing alongside former abortion providers and women who had had abortions — and who say that they owe their conversion from the pro-choice to the pro-life position in part to Joe’s public witness and influence?

John DeJak, president of Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, met Scheidler as a college student in Chicago. He drove four hours each way for the viewing service, where the line snaked outside the funeral home and the wait time was almost 90 minutes long.

“I couldn’t imagine not coming to say goodbye to Joe,” he said. “His integrity, his love for his family and his love for all people — including his enemies — was a tremendous example. I have no doubt that there was a chorus of incalculable millions advocating for him as he approached his Lord. He was one of the greatest men I ever knew.”

Former Congressman Dan Lipinski and his wife, Judy, were also present to pay their respects. “Joe Scheidler was an inspiration to all in the pro-life movement because he had the toughness to take on the most difficult tasks,” Lipinski said. “Joe knew that a vocal presence along with peaceful protest could change hearts and minds. His interest in advocating for the voiceless began when he marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma. From that point forward, he believed he was answering God’s call in his life to draw attention to the horror of abortion.”

I was often asked for my opinion about Scheidler since my own form of pro-life advocacy was so different from his own. Some thought that because our approaches were different, I would disapprove of his. My standard response was that while I focused on a more academic approach, Joe had the courage to go where angels fear to tread. The most poignant example of that courage was Joe’s retrieval of fetal remains from garbage dumpsters in the back of the Vital-Med pathology laboratory in suburban Chicago. Joe learned that the fetal remains of hundreds, if not thousands, of aborted babies were stored in 50-gallon drums and left on the loading dock. For several months, Joe and a group of friends retrieved the remains and stored them respectfully until Cardinal Bernardin consented to preside at a Mass and burial ceremony for the babies.

The late Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde, himself a giant of the pro-life cause, once reflected: “When the time comes, as it surely will, when we face that awesome moment of final judgment, I’ve often thought, as Fulton Sheen wrote, ‘that it is a terrible moment of loneliness.’ You have no advocates; you are there alone standing before God — and a terror will rip your soul like nothing you can imagine. But I really think that those in the pro-life movement will not be alone. I think there’ll be a chorus of voices that have never been heard in this world but are heard beautifully and clearly in the next world — and they will plead for everyone who has been in this movement. They will say to God, ‘Spare him, because he loved us!”

I have no doubt that this was the case for Joseph Scheilder.

Mary Hallan FioRito is an attorney and the Cardinal Francis George Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the deNicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. She writes from Chicago.

Mary Hallan FioRito

Mary Hallan FioRito is an attorney and the Cardinal Francis George Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.