“Racketeer for Life”: Joseph Scheidler on the pro-life movement’s earliest days

In his new memoir, the pro-life trailblazer details the beginning of the modern pro-life movement.

Joseph M. Scheidler is a former Benedictine monk and journalism professor who became a public leader in the pro-life movement when the US Supreme Court allowed abortion on demand with its 1973 Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton rulings. Sued by the National Organization for Women under federal racketeering laws and found guilty in 1998, Scheidler has triumphed twice in appeals before the Supreme Court, in 2003 and again in 2006.

Mr. Scheidler’s new autobiography, Racketeer for Life: Fighting the Culture of Death from the Sidewalk to the Supreme Court (TAN, October 2016), tells the story of his journey into pro-life activism and his role in the history of the movement. Conversations, protests, and battles—with clinic directors, doctors, politicians, judges, media personalities, and even other pro-lifers—are woven together in this account of the efforts of Scheidler and other activists to publicize the realities of abortion and influence legislation.

In December, I interviewed Mr. Scheidler by email about his new book.

CWR: Why did you write this book?

Joseph M. Scheidler: The story needed to be told. The legalization of abortion and the battle to restore protection to the unborn is an important part of American history. I thought my perspective, getting into the fight shortly after Roe v. Wade and choosing to take the issue to the streets, was essential to reaching the hearts and minds of Americans.

CWR: What aspects of your personal background come out most strongly in this autobiography?

Scheidler: My Catholic faith, my belief in justice, my love for children, and the need to protect them.

CWR: Who are you writing for? 

Scheidler: Those who have fought in this conflict with me, young pro-lifers who would benefit from understanding the background of the battle, and anyone who loves history. I was also writing for the abortionists.

CWR: The title of your book is Racketeer for Life. What does this title mean to you?

Scheidler: I was willing to accept hostile reaction to my pro-life work. I knew I could face legal ramifications for my aggressive approach, but had not expected RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) charges. When I was found guilty of “racketeering” on April 20, 1998, I was proud to bear the title. My attorney, Tom Brejcha, commented that it gave new respectability to the term “racketeer.”

CWR: Your subtitle is Fighting the Culture of Death from the Sidewalk to the Supreme Court. What does the phrase “culture of death” bring up for you?

Scheidler: John Paul II used the term to describe our society. It means that our society has gone from being life-centered to being willing to use even death as a means of gaining “happiness.” Our society has sunk that low.

CWR: What is the “sidewalk” mentioned in your subtitle?

Scheidler: The sidewalk in front of the abortion clinics, but also the whole “public square.” We take our message out to the streets and sidewalks, bringing the truth about abortion to our fellow citizens.

CWR: Your subtitle also refers to your case before the US Supreme Court. What is significant about this case for the pro-life movement?

Scheidler: The NOW v. Scheidler case shows the determination of the abortion supporters to silence pro-life speech. Their aim was to punish anti-abortion efforts and intimidate us into silence. It didn’t work.

CWR: What is the message of your book?

Scheidler: Evil must be resisted, and when you see a grave evil, like abortion, you are bound to use every legal means to fight it. You must use all the methods available that will effectively stop it.

CWR: Looking back on your life, from childhood to today, what are some positive things you’ve learned from your own experiences about how to value human life?

Scheidler: As a child I worried about smaller, more defenseless children. I needed to protect them. This sense of protecting the helpless never left me. The unborn are simply the most helpless.

CWR: You are a former Benedictine monk and journalist. What led you away from the monastery and into journalism?

Scheidler: That’s hard to say. I had majored in journalism at Notre Dame before going into the seminary. But I had felt a call to the priesthood, and I loved many aspects of the monastery, but when it came time for ordination, I felt totally unworthy to be a priest. I just felt strongly that it wasn’t what I was supposed to do. Teaching journalism at Notre Dame was a gift. It was a time I treasure.

CWR: What led you to leave journalism and become a pro-life activist at the time of Roe v. Wade?

Scheidler: By 1973, I was working for a public relations company. I became obsessed with abortion and the urgency of the situation required full-time commitment. But my journalism background came in very handy in writing press releases, newsletters, and op-ed articles and in working with the media.

CWR: How has your Catholic faith grown or evolved over the years?

Scheidler: The pro-life work has strengthened and expanded it, and led me to daily Mass, Rosary, and more spiritual reading. My faith has been my motivation in my pro-life work.

CWR: Who have been the biggest influences, living or dead, on your Catholic faith?

Scheidler: My mother, my brother, Bob, my cousin Father Leo—mostly family—an uncle who was a bishop and a great source of strength and encouragement in the early days of the pro-life battle, teachers in the seminary, and later, my wife and my own children.

CWR: How has the US pro-life movement evolved during your five decades in the movement?

Scheidler: The movement has grown exponentially. It has become more specialized and sophisticated, as well as more respected by the general public and the media. In the early days we did everything—pickets, protests, lobbying, interviews, classroom talks, sidewalk counseling, etc. Now the pro-life movement has more full-time people on all fronts, impacting every aspect of the culture. And the number of pro-life pregnancy centers has grown to over 3,000, four times the number of abortion clinics.

CWR: What are your hopes for the future?

Scheidler: To see Roe v. Wade overturned, so that abortion is not the law of the land. This would take the fight back to the states where we can enact more restrictions. The Church being more vocal about abortion on a local level—in the parishes. A culture that truly values life and rejects arguments that abortion is a right.

CWR: What regrets do you have about the past?

Scheidler: I wish we could have done a better job exposing the evils of Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry. I wish I could have reached more abortion providers and brought more of them out of the abortion business.

CWR: What is your favorite Bible passage and why?

Scheidler: There are two:

St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1:31): “Brothers, you are among those called. Consider your situation. Not many of you are wise, as men account wisdom; not many are influential; and surely not many are wellborn. God chose those whom the world considers absurd to shame the wise; he singled out the weak of this world to shame the strong. He chose the world’s lowborn and despised, those who account for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who were something.”

I think St. Paul describes those of us who have taken up pro-life work.

The second is St. Peter’s first letter (5:8): “Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour, whom resist ye strong in faith.”

We constantly see the work of the devil in the fight against abortion, sometimes in situations that seem to pit pro-lifers against each other.

CWR: Some critics like to point out that “religious people” make up the majority of pro-lifers in the United States, suggesting that the pro-life position on abortion depends upon theological reasoning not open to outsiders. How do you respond to this perception?

Scheidler: There’s some truth to this. We have to believe that in an abortion a human being is killed. A religious person is disposed to believing this since he is used to believing in a divine creator and in truths that cannot be seen. However, science completely backs up our belief that human life begins at fertilization. One does not have to be a religious person to recognize this truth.

CWR: If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about the US pro-life movement on this 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, what would it be?

Scheidler: Join us on the sidewalk and pray with us. Talk to a woman going into an abortion clinic. Then recommend that every Catholic take a turn on the “sidewalk” before they die. I would ask him to thank those who step out of their comfort zone and speak up for the unborn.

CWR: What do you want people to take away from your life and work?

Scheidler: An awareness of the injustice of abortion, the need to do whatever they can to stop it.

CWR: Any final thoughts?

Scheidler: The proper object of the mind is truth. The truth is that abortion is murder. The object of the human will is the good. Killing the innocent unborn is evil. Abortion is against all that makes us human.

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About Sean Salai 13 Articles
Dr. Sean M. Salai, D.Min, is the culture reporter for The Washington Times. A former Jesuit, he holds a doctorate in evangelization and digital media from The Catholic University of America and is an author of multiple books on Ignatian spirituality.

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