Over the next several days, pro-lifers across the country will gather to mourn the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Thousands will join peaceful vigils outside abortion clinics or march in state capitals. Although the March for Life in DC will be much smaller this year—it was announced last week the event was going “virtual”—a small group of pro-life leaders will nonetheless give prayerful witness to the unborn in our nation’s capital.
There will be one notable absence this year: pro-life hero Joseph M. Scheidler, who died January 18—fittingly, Martin Luther King Day—at the age of 93. Scheidler was involved in the pro-life fight from the very beginning. Shortly after the Roe v Wade decision, he left his career in public relations to fight abortion full time. In 1980, he founded the Pro-Life Action League, which pioneered the use of non-violent direct action—praying, picketing, counseling, media, civil disobedience—to stop abortions.
Because of Scheidler’s success, he became the target of the abortion industry’s legal efforts to keep pro-lifers away from abortion clinics. In 1986, the National Organization of Women (NOW) sued Scheidler and Pro Life Action League under federal racketeering charges, for conspiring to deprive women of the right to abortion. Scheidler refused to give up, and, incredibly, NOW’s lawsuit dragged on for almost twenty years before it was finally rejected by the Supreme Court in 2006. (The title of Scheidler’s memoir, Racketeer for Life: Fighting the Culture of Death from the Sidewalk to the Supreme Court, published by Ignatius Press, directly references the lawsuit and charges.)
Although Scheidler devoted an enormous amount of time to the lawsuit he would ultimately win, his most lasting achievements were in street-level action. “He taught us how to fight abortion completely outside the political arena,” says Katie Short of the Life Legal Defense Foundation. “He opened our eyes to the fact that abortions happen one at a time, as one woman after another walks into an abortion clinic. And each of those women can be turned around.”
Headlines around the world announced Scheidler’s death this week. The leading lights of the pro-life movement weighed in publicly, with dozens of articles and blog posts, Twitter and Facebook tributes. Articles in the secular press—from his hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, to the New York Times—were remarkable for their respectful and even affectionate coverage.
For two suburban St. Louis moms, far from the public spotlight, Scheidler’s death felt deeply personal. It marked the end of an era for the self-described “nobodies,” who enjoyed a remarkable friendship with the man many call a giant of the pro-life movement.
In the late 1990s, Elizabeth Daub Purgahn and Camille Murphy Daub were among a group of young pro-lifers— many of them Franciscan University of Steubenville students—working with the fledgling Crossroads Pro-Life organization. Crossroads teams spent—and still spend—their summers walking coast to coast in a prayerful pilgrimage and witness to the sanctity of life. It was through Crossroads that the two met Joe Scheidler. “He was one of the first to get behind Crossroads and support it,” says Purgahn, lending his reputation and his time to the organization. He became a beloved figure to those early generations of Crossroads volunteers, many of whom still refer to him as “Uncle Joe.”
The friends moved on to work with a variety of local and national organizations, including a four-year stint with American Life League. But they stayed in touch with Scheidler. Purgahn says the three “just forged this bond,” a “beautiful, inexplicable friendship” that endured for over twenty years.
Despite hectic schedules filled with writing, speaking, protests, pickets, and sidewalk counseling, the three kept in touch. Purgahn recounts “we would work together but he also just made time for us. If he was coming in town we always made sure we met up somehow. It was always as if no time had passed. I have multiple pictures from a 20-year span and they are almost all identical: Camille and me on either side of the giant, the two of us beaming.”
At conferences, Purgahn recounts, they would “sneak out” for ice cream or sightseeing. Scheidler was adamant that fun was important to guard against burnout, “so after a protest we usually ended up eating ice cream sundaes.” This was typical of his philosophy: as he told Touchstone magazine in 2013, “the key to this is to make the work look sort of fun. I even have a chapter in my book (Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion) titled ‘Have Fun.’ Enjoy what you do. After you have been out all evening putting up posters in front of abortion clinics, try to spend some time together.”
A typical memory from that time is of a pro-life conference in New Orleans. “Mrs. Brown (American Life League’s Judie Brown) actually said ‘You need to stop hijacking my employees,’ recounts Purgahn. “As she walked away, Mr. Scheidler said ‘Lobby. 15 minutes.’ “We simply started out to join him for his Rosary walk” but wound up on a six-hour tour of the French Quarter. Daub picks up the story: “He treated us to coffee and beignets at the Café du Monde. It was late at night but Elizabeth and I felt safe, one of us on each side of him, the three of us walking arm in arm.”
Were the two star-struck? Most definitely. Purgahn says “We would chat and visit as friends but the entire time I was completely cognizant of the fact that I was in the presence of a great man and the privilege was entirely mine.”
They viewed it as an unlikely friendship, but it’s easy to see why Scheidler took time for them: they represented the “new breed” of pro-life activists who would carry on from the pioneers of the movement. These young leaders promised “to be even more determined and better equipped to end this slaughter than we old-timers were,” he said in a 2012 article on his website.
That new breed included his own children and even grandchildren, many of whom remain active in the organization he founded. Todays, Scheidler’s son, Eric, heads Pro Life Action League. Purgahn observes, “He didn’t lose his children in the battle; his passion didn’t overshadow them. He somehow passed the same passion on to them. That’s an important part of his legacy.”
Purgahn recalls a Crossroads speaking engagement at a Catholic Church with Scheidler in 1997. “There was a large group of us, mostly under the age of 25,” she recalls. “The church was quite modern and after Communion we all knelt even though there were no kneelers. Mr. Scheidler with his bad knees knelt with us. The priest tried to admonish us afterwards and Mr. Scheidler very calmly and kindly put him in his place. And then I remember him putting his arms around a few of us and saying ‘These are my people.’”
Scheidler, she adds, was “completely at peace spending the day with a bunch of college students who didn’t have a dime or any connections, because he believed what we were doing was effective enough to save lives.”
In addition to his love for youth, Scheidler had a soft spot for Purgahn’s hometown, St. Louis, which had been what he called a “hotbed of pro-life activism” in the early days of the movement. Scheidler noted that he himself had learned from early St. Louis activists. “We got to know these people and began using their tactics,” he said. “We looked to St. Louis for pro-life leadership.” Scheidler valued young leaders and, as such, he frequently asked Purgahn and Daub to speak along with him at speaking engagements. There was sometimes resentment as their names were added to a lineup of prominent speakers. “People would ask, ‘Who are you, I mean what have you done, that I could mention when I introduce you,” says Purgahn.
Who were they? Purgahn and Daub say they were just typical twenty-somethings. “In the worst of times, we would kind of pop up, a little oblivious, to the pressures and fears he was facing. Maybe he needed that at the time.”
One of her most poignant memories, says Purgahn, is of the day Scheidler flew into Washington DC for the Supreme Court’s final decision on the decades-long racketeering lawsuit. “They were on the verge of taking his home, cars, everything he owned, because he dared to stand up and save lives. We took the day off work so we could sneak off and surprise him at the airport. When he came off the plane it was the two of us holding a massive sign that said ‘Our Racketeer.’ Mr. Scheidler was dragging … he looked so heavy-hearted; his entire ability to do his work and provide for his family was on the line. So we spent the whole time doing our best to cheer him up.” Scheidler insisted that the two be in the courtroom as the decision was handed down. “We were able to watch Scalia, Thomas, Suiter, O’Connor and Ginsburg among others in action,” she recounts. “It was amazing.”
The two remember a man whose Catholic faith and piety was “absolutely central” to his life, who frequently said the Rosary with them or stopped into church to pray. “We often made spontaneous church visits with him. Once he asked what we wanted to pray and Camille and I both said ‘could we do the Memorare novena?’ He said ‘Awww, I knew I loved you girls for a reason. That is one of my favorite prayers.’”
And it was Scheidler who suggested “planting” Miraculous Medals at a Planned Parenthood construction site in St. Louis, chuckling “if they could see me now, just think what they would say in court.” Purgahn feels “it’s no coincidence” that “right before he died [the state of] Missouri was declared abortion free.” (A January, 2021 survey from Operation Rescue reported that Planned Parenthood is no longer performing abortions in Missouri.)
Daub remembers that Scheidler had a special appreciation for crucifixes. “He would say that when he walked into a church he needed to see that crucifix so that he had something to identify with.”
His tall (6’4”) figure easily spotted in his trademark fedora and trench coat, Scheidler clearly relished his larger-than-life persona. Vilified by Planned Parenthood, who dubbed him “the Godfather,” he “embraced the total image,” says Purgahn. “He always said that when he became a member of the Church Triumphant, he would long for the days he could rabble rouse with the Church Militant.”
Yet he never took himself too seriously. At a conference where he was speaking along with Mother Teresa, he was selling his book, Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, recalls Purgahn, who heard the story many times. When the diminutive nun approached the podium to speak, he realized that she was too short for the mike. “So he took a box of his books and helped her stand on them so she could be heard. He was so proud of that story.”
The younger pro-lifers were a ready audience for Scheidler’s reminiscing, from his days as a teacher in Indiana when he “loaded up students and took them to Alabama to march with MLK” to his beginnings in the pro-life movement. As Purgahn tells it, “The day of the Roe v Wade decision he walked in to his boss’s office and requested a few months off so he could end abortion. After some time his boss said, ‘I think this is going to take longer than you think so you’ll need to decide if you’re coming back.’ He quit that day and started the Pro-life Action League.”
Despite his many setbacks, including the ruinous NOW lawsuit, Scheidler radiated joy. “I think one of his most important traits was his joy in the face of the fight,” says Purgahn. “Few worked as tirelessly: he was in the eye of the storm. Yet somehow, he still found time to visit, to love, to include others. And to find and share humor.”
“Even something as horrific as abortion,” adds Daub, “kind of got lost in the background when I was around him because he was so full of joy and so focused on doing God’s will, and completely confident in God’s final victory over all of it.”
Daub recalls that Scheidler was “fearless and calm” in the midst of the non-stop activity, and sometimes downright chaos, that frequently swirled about him, “It was truly remarkable. He bore the weight of Christ’s cross in a special way.” Purgahn continues, “I was always amazed how in the midst of the storm, while he was fighting for his home and livelihood and fighting against injustice, he always found a way to center himself, and amazingly, others.”
“He was never threatened by new and good ideas,” Purgahn notes. “Never worried about a threat to his own donor base or identity. If he believed you sincerely wanted to save lives he stuck by your side come hell or high water. This was such a personal fight, and so much of the beginning and the methods were developed by him, that he began to take responsibility for those he met along the way. Truly in some ways like a Godfather. He was there for anyone who genuinely wanted to save babies.”
Scheidler kept in touch as both women married and settled into family life. Purgahn excitedly showed “Mr. S” her engagement ring, only to be dismayed when he insisted on calling her fiancé to vet him. “He came back, handed me the phone and said ‘Surprisingly, I approve.” Apparently the decisive question involved posting bail if she was ever arrested (she wasn’t.) Today Daub and Purgahn are homeschooling moms and sisters-in-law, continuing their pro-life efforts with kids in tow. To honor Scheidler’s legacy, treats and fun always follow prayers at Planned Parenthood.
The last time the two saw Scheidler was in 2017 at a fundraiser for St. Louis’s Defenders for Life organization. At 89, “he seemed tired” noticed Daub. “I remember having the feeling it might be the last time I would see him.” Adds Purgahn, “More than once, he mentioned his coming time to meet God.”
At that last meeting, Scheidler quoted, as he did frequently, Shakespeare’s Henry V: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…” He had a deep love for those words. As he wrote in 2003, “Those who have been in the battle know the strange camaraderie that grows within the group, know the sense of achievement, know the reason for the battle and that human lives are saved because we fought…”
Purgahn remembers “he made that speech feel big and powerful, a force to be reckoned with.” With the recent news of his passing she says with emotion, “It feels fewer. Less powerful.”
She texted her siblings the morning Scheidler died: “I have a true confidence that he is in heaven. He always told us that he was pretty sure he would be greeted by all the babies he fought to save, and they would plead his case.”
Her sister-in-law added, “Things I admired most about Mr. Scheidler: his fedora and warm smile, his strong and comforting Christ-like presence, his perseverance and abandonment to the will of God for his life’s mission, and his fearlessness. He had a complete confidence in God that all would be as it should in the end, because Christ has already won the victory and that we just have to keep up the good fight.
“He always compared praying outside an abortion clinic to the Blessed Mother kneeling at the foot of the Cross as Christ died. She couldn’t take him down, but she gave witness, and when we pray at the clinic we give witness to the dignity of the unborn. Rest in Peace, Mr. Scheidler. You are my hero.”
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