‘Pro-lifers’ new guerrilla commander’
Gannett News Service
Chicago – Joseph Scheidler strolled into the abortion clinic as if it were his home.
Sauntering through the waiting room in his pinstriped suit, he looked over people squirming in their seats and then pulled from his pocket a plastic model of a fetus. “Any of you waiting for a young lady who is having her baby killed?” he bellowed.
Before anyone could throw him out, his words forced patrons out of the room.
“You are murdering your child,” he told men waiting for their girlfriends. “You’re an SS trooper guarding a death camp,” he told the officer who asked him to leave.
As he left, Scheidler promised to target the clinic for future protests. Then, he broke into a cheery whistle. “That’s all you can do in a pinch,” he said.
Scheidler had proven again that by himself, he can disrupt an abortion clinic. With thousands, he thinks he can cripple the entire industry. “No social movement goes anywhere without going to the streets,” he said.
More than anyone else, Scheidler is leading it there.
He pushed the movement into activism with help from people such as John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe, a pro-life liberal who taught conservatives the protest tactics of the left.
Some pro-lifers are more radical, such as Pastor Norman Stone of Appleton, Wis., who is walking across America with a dead fetus. Others are more willing to risk jail sentences, such as John Ryan of St. Louis, who has been arrested more than 300 times at clinic sit-ins.
“It takes more than martyrdom to move this thing,” said Thomas Roeser, a conservative business executive who once worked with Scheidler. Although Roeser fired him from a pro-life group for using undignified tactics, he now believes Scheidler was right. “He’ll be known as the Martin Luther King of the movement.”
Whirling around the country with his pro-life pep talks, Scheidler, 58, has become a human tornado, upsetting every clinic in his path. Since 1983, he has taught more than 160 workshops, inspiring activists to invade clinics and picket doctors’ homes. Those who cannot attend the meetings can read his book, CLOSED: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion. He berates “Wimps for Life,” his term for the vast majority of pro-lifers who prefer to fight abortion through education and politics.
By now, Scheidler devotees own the basic tools: a bullhorn for shouting “Murderer!” at clinic directors and a garbage can for protests – full of dolls splattered with red paint. They know about the truth teams who pose as patients, then pretend to decide against abortion during loud discussions inside clinics. They have learned how Scheidler hired a detective to find an 11-year-old considering abortion.
What Scheidler teaches now is how to get around the roadblocks. Can’t march outside doctors’ homes anymore because there’s a new injunction banning residential picketing? Drive motorcades through their neighborhoods, led by a hearse, and decorate all the cars with anti-abortion signs. Can’t take picket signs into hospitals that perform abortions? Print T-shirts that say, “This Hospital Murders Babies” and walk through the lobby.
“This is psychological warfare,” he said. “You’re in control, not them. They do the killing. They make the money. But you have control over their business. How long can they last? At what point does peace of mind overtake financial gain?”
At 6 foot four and 235 pounds, the bearded Scheidler can intimidate some people by simply standing still. Outside clinics, he wears a derby hat, which makes him taller, and he wields his bullhorn like a pistol, aiming at the passersby to shout about abortion in a deep, booming voice.
“I want them to be afraid of me,” he said of doctors and clinic staff. “I want them to be afraid of something. They don’t fear God.”
Scheidler’s holy war began on Jan. 22, 1973, the day the Supreme Court ruled abortion legal nationwide.
A former Benedictine monk who rejected the priesthood because of liberal trends in the Catholic Church, Scheidler was stunned. He knew that feminists and others had been working to liberalize abortion laws, but he never expected the court to declare abortion a private matter not subject to government prohibition.
Within a year, he had quit his advertising job and become executive director of the Illinois Right to Life. He tried to work with legislators, but soon was organizing demonstrations and persuading women entering clinics to continue their pregnancies.
Before long, he painted over abortion clinic ads in Chicago subway stations and disrupted a Catholic college graduation with his bullhorn to protest the commencement speaker, former Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh, who is pro-choice.
He got fired from two pro-life groups for his behavior, but he didn’t care. “This kind of zany stuff is fun and effective,” he said.
In 1980, he founded the Pro-Life Action League, which tripled in size during the past year and now has 8,000 members. It is a clearinghouse for the Pro-Life Action Network, which Scheidler helped organize this spring to coordinate activities of the nation’s 200,000 activists.
Scheidler was not the only one who took his cause to the streets. While he was making headlines in Chicago, East Coast liberals who opposed abortion were discussing how Dr. Martin Luther King’s methods could be applied to a civil rights movement for the unborn.
Cavanaugh-O’Keefe, a young Harvard graduate, helped lead the way, planning the first clinic sit-in in 1975, then orchestrating a succession of 15 invasions around the country in early 1978. Rather than aggravating doctors out of performing abortions, Cavanaugh-O’Keefe said he wanted to convert doctors by showing that pro-lifers would risk arrest for their beliefs.
Pro-lifers became the first conservatives to adopt tactics used by ’60s left-wing protesters after listening to such liberals as Cavanaugh O’Keefe.
Their successes diminished around 1980, however, as pro-lifers campaigned for Ronald Reagan and a constitutional amendment restricting abortion.
In June 1983, their lobbying efforts collapsed. Congress rejected the constitutional amendment and the Supreme Court reaffirmed its 1973 decision, invalidating laws that restricted abortion in 20 states.
Many began looking for something new, and Scheidler was ready.
The more speeches he gave, the more invitations he got from pro-life groups interested in clinic invasions. “Once they did it, they couldn’t stop,” he said. “When you save someone, that’s when you get hooked. Direct action gets in your blood.”
Droves of people turned to direct action, but they were not just pro-lifers defeated in Congress. These were new converts, millions of evangelicals who suddenly became obsessed with the issue.
All the evangelicals could talk about, Scheidler said, was A Time for Anger, a 1982 bestseller about abortion by Christian author Franky Schaeffer. Others were inspired to activism after Ryan got the first substantial jail sentence for an abortion clinic sit-in: five months in prison.
“We’re the last line of defense for the unborn,” said Ryan, who views sit-ins as rescue missions, not protests. “Picketing is not the proper response to murder.”
In 1983, activists started planning their first national convention for the following spring. “In the process of making plans, we started doing more things,” Scheidler said. The number of protests tripled.
The rash of clinic bombings in 1984 made Scheidler’s movement even stronger. “We use the bombings,” he said. “It’s pretty cheap publicity and it makes them afraid.”
Scheidler said he’d never bomb a building because “it’s an admission you can’t close a clinic any other way.”
He won’t harass patients or follow abortion doctors’ children to school either, Scheidler said. But he won’t stop others from such activities.
“Different things work in different places,” he said. “I’m not going to risk stopping someone from doing something that might save a life.”
Leaders say they want to counsel patients, not harass them. “But if I upset them, it’s not a bad thing,” said Cavanaugh-O’Keefe. “It’s a sin to kill somebody surrounded by tea and cookies. Better for a death within the family to take place in a troubled atmosphere.”
One of the leading theorists of non-violent abortion protest, Cavanaugh-O’Keefe thinks it’s OK to destroy clinics and medical equipment. What matters is the pro-lifers’ spirit, he said, that they attempt to teach clinic workers that abortion is murder.
Thus, pro-lifers could bomb a clinic consider it non-violent if they politely told the abortionist the reasons for their actions – and make sure no one would be injured in the explosion.
“There is no such thing as a disproportionate response to abortion, short of trying to stop it with nuclear weapons,” Cavanaugh-O’Keefe wrote in his treatise, “Nonviolence is an Adverb.”
But he says it is impractical to communicate with bombs, so mainly he promotes sit-ins.
Scheidler reaches more pro-lifers, though, pushing them into activism rather than presenting intricate theories. Activism has closed 32 clinics in 20 months, he said, and averts 2000 abortions annually in Chicago, his hometown. Sitting in his office facing a large portrait of a stern Jesus Christ, Scheidler holds court on the telephone, planning protests outside pro-choice fundraisers, which he calls “discos for death.”
Sometimes, he said, he gets tired of being put on display in strange cities, of the pressure to prove repeatedly that he can rattle abortionists. “But when I drive to a clinic, the adrenaline starts pumping and I feel like jumping out of the car before it stops.”
He will never retire, he said, and knows he will win. “There’s an imponderable in this battle. We act like we’re in charge, but we really believe God is.”
A devoutly religious man, Scheidler laughs at feminists who call him America’s Hitler and say he’s part of an anti-woman, anti-sex plot.
“They’re so wrong, they’ll never understand our motivation and therefore they’ll always underestimate us. And that’s good.”