The League at Ground Zero

Huge prolife crowd

A thousand pro-lifers gather for the Sept. 15 Jericho March Finale and pro-life clergy press conference, typical of the outpouring of opposition to Planned Parenthood’s massive new facility in Aurora, Illinois [Photo by Jim Johnson]

For the past year, the Pro-Life Action League has been at the center of the biggest abortion battle to be seen in the United States in years, over a new Planned Parenthood abortuary in Aurora, Illinois. Even the pro-abortion side has called this fight “Ground Zero” in the abortion war. The tremendous media attention we’ve received along with unprecedented levels of local involvement have given new hope to pro-life activists across the country.

Tip-Off from Pro-Life Contractor

We first learned about Planned Parenthood’s new facility in Aurora at the end of June 2007, when we received a tip from a contractor, by way of his parish priest. He had been recruited to work on the 22,000 square-foot project, but refused when he realized that the large number of recovery rooms, surveillance cameras and bulletproof glass could only mean one thing: an abortuary.

After receiving this tip, I visited the construction site on Oakhurst Drive on Aurora’s east side, only a few miles from my home on Aurora’s near west side. I took photos of the site, including the contractor vehicles and a sign that read “Gemini Medical Office.” There was no mention of Planned Parenthood anywhere.

The building presented a puzzle: It was too big to be a typical stand-alone abortion facility, but we know that Planned Parenthood prefers not to be a tenant—they are not welcome by other businesses. But in addition to our tip, we had found an advertisement on Planned Parenthood’s website for a “reproductive health assistant” for a center opening in Aurora in Fall 2007—clearly something was going on here.

Headline in the Aurora Beacon

A July 26, 2007 Aurora Beacon story by Kristen Zambo confirmed the rumors that Planned Parenthood was coming to town [Photo by EJS]

Planned Parenthood Deception Exposed

After this initial investigation, I contacted Karen Nickels, organizer for several years of the pro-life presence at an abortuary on Aurora’s west side that had closed in late 2006. Karen was dismayed to think abortion might be returning to Aurora. She got the word out to all the local pro-lifers, which proved to be key in breaking the whole story.

Local pro-lifers barraged Aurora’s City Hall with questions and objections about the possibility that Planned Parenthood was coming to town. Local pro-life zoning attorney Vince Tessitore—who had been a sidewalk counselor at Planned Parenthood’s downtown Chicago location—acquired all the permit applications related to the property in question through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Planned Parenthood’s name appeared nowhere on these documents—only “Gemini Office Development.” We smelled a rat.

All this activity drew interest from the press, and on July 26, 2007 the story broke in the Aurora Beacon News that Planned Parenthood was opening a major regional center in Aurora at the Oakhurst site. The next day, a story in the Chicago Tribune filled in the details: the center would open on September 18, and it would be the largest Planned Parenthood medical facility in the nation.

Moreover, the Tribune reported that Planned Parenthood had deliberately kept their plans “under wraps” in order to avoid objections from the pro-life community. Planned Parenthood/Chicago Area CEO Steve Trombley was quoted as saying, “Frankly, I’m surprised we were able to keep it a secret for so long”—words he would live to regret.

League Launches 40-Day Vigil

As soon as we learned that Planned Parenthood was only weeks away from opening their largest abortuary in Aurora, we took action. First, I rented space for a community meeting to be held August 16, and arranged for Jim Sedlak of STOPP Planned Parenthood International to speak. I also decided to launch a round-the-clock Vigil for the 40 days before the scheduled opening of the center. I could see that only prayer on a biblical scale would be adequate to prevent the opening of this nearly-completed abortion center.

I e-mailed several dozen Aurora-area activists and invited them to attend a Vigil planning meeting on August 6. Over 80 people attended the meeting, despite the short notice and having to face torrential rains that evening. This was the first sign of the unprecedented fervor this battle would inspire within the pro-life community of the Aurora area, now under the name Fox Valley Families Against Planned Parenthood.

Our Vigil began August 9 at 8:00 a.m. on the sidewalk on the west side of Oakhurst Drive, facing the back of the Planned Parenthood building. We drew the immediate interest of both the police and the press. Articles on the Vigil were printed in both the Daily Herald and the Aurora Beacon News, and Aurora Police Chief William Powell was on site for the first half hour of the Vigil.

First Signs of Trouble with Police

The chief spoke with me and laid some ground rules for the Vigil, including that we not block the sidewalk and that we “keep moving”—a blatantly unconstitutional demand. I assured him we would not block the sidewalk, and he responded that he’d seen several people cross the street to avoid our group, numbering about thirty that first hour.

Prayer vigil outside Planned Parenthood

The historic Vigil begins the morning of Aug. 9, 2007 [Photo by EJS]

I pointed out that the group was so large only because it was the opening hour of the Vigil, and that it wasn’t our fault if people chose to cross the street—we weren’t blocking them. Our conversation was civil, but the chief’s confrontational tone was troubling. As soon as he left, I contacted Tom Brejcha of the Thomas More Society Pro-Life Law Center to see if he could set up a formal meeting with the chief. I would spend many hours on the phone with Tom in the coming months.

As the Vigil got underway, police began to give confusing and contradictory directives. One officer would insist that we not stand on the parkway between the sidewalk and the curb, while the next would tell us to keep off the sidewalk and stand on the parkway, which was quite muddy at that time. One sergeant would suggest we stand on pieces of plywood to keep off the sidewalk without getting wet feet, while another would demand that we remove the plywood.

Community Meeting Draws Hundreds

On August 16, one week into the Vigil, we held an afternoon press conference and protest at the Planned Parenthood site featuring Jim Sedlak, Denise Mackura of Ohio Right to Life, and myself. Just before the press conference, police insisted we remove the white memorial crosses that someone had installed shortly after the Vigil began. However, Mackura, who is an attorney, convinced them that the crosses were allowed under the city’s sign ordinance, a copy of which Ann Scheidler happened to have on hand. Police had been giving us trouble about our small signs that read, Keep Abortion Out of Aurora, sometimes requiring us to hold them, other times allowing us to prop them against trees.

At the press conference, the print media, which had already been covering the story, were joined by several radio stations. I had sent an e-mail alert out early that day, and more than 200 pro-lifers responded—an overwhelming level of commitment that would be repeated as the Aurora story unfolded. I told the crowd, “Whether it’s 40 days of prayer or 40 years of effort, we will shut down the Abortion Fortress of Aurora.”

Next we moved on to the Fox Valley Park District’s Prisco Center for a community meeting. Earlier that day, the Fox Valley Park District Police Chief had called me, worried about counter-protests and threatening to cancel our contract. I calmed him down and assured him he had nothing to worry about. Fewer than twenty pro-aborts showed up to protest outside the meeting, while we packed the room with over 400 pro-lifers.

Candlelight Vigil

Candlelight vigil after the community meeting, Aug. 16, 2007 [Photo by Diane Pietrzak]

I emceed the community meeting, which featured a great pep talk by Joe Scheidler, a rousing exposé on Planned Parenthood by Jim Sedlak, legal advice from Denise Mackura and Thomas More Society attorney Jason Craddock. Volunteers Larry Johnson, Margie Breen and Jane Fonner shared stories of their experience with the Vigil to inspire others to participate. And for the first time we saw TV cameras, as the event was covered by Fox News Chicago. After the talks, we held a candlelight vigil out at the building site.

The community meeting was a tremendous success and played a decisive role in our successes through September. Not only were all who attended fired up by the event, but we were able to recruit “Day Captains” for all the open days on the Vigil, ensuring coverage throughout the forty days. And we transformed a suggestion by Denise Mackura that we fight Planned Parenthood through local zoning ordinances into a major part of our battle—one which continues to this day.

Conflict with Police Escalates

On August 23, Tom Brejcha drove out to Aurora to see if he and I could get a meeting with Commander Joe Groom of the Aurora Police Department. Tom had tried to set up a meeting with Chief Powell, but was referred instead to Groom, since Planned Parenthood is in his area. Groom had not returned Tom’s calls, so we presented ourselves at his office at police headquarters.

However, Groom would not see us. He said he had to confer with the city attorney, Alayne Weingartz, and would call Tom on his cell phone later. So we went to the city law office to see Weingartz. She spoke to us through a glass partition, and was quite rude to Tom. She denied that our First Amendment Rights were being infringed, but said she would fax a memo to Tom to clarify the situation.

Neither Groom nor Weingartz contacted Tom again, so we had no choice but to file a complaint in federal court—a complaint which has since been amended to include additional violations of the First Amendment.

Four Front Rally Draws over 1,000

As the Vigil gained ground and hundreds of people began to get involved in pro-life activism for the first time, I saw the need for a major protest at Planned Parenthood. As my chosen date of August 25 drew closer, it became clear that the protest was going to be huge. More and more people were signing up for my daily e-mail messages, and the new “Families Against Planned Parenthood” website I had launched was nearing 1,000 visits a day.

Working with my colleague John Jansen, I put together a “Battle Plan” for the day, which included four spheres of activity: an “old school picket,” a Face the Truth Tour, a leafleting campaign and a beefed-up vigil. Kathy Meier from the pro-life group at Our Lady of Mercy Church (a mile away from Planned Parenthood) set up parking and a shuttle bus. New Life Baptist Church also provided parking and a shuttle. I recruited a dozen experienced activists to act as Rally Captains.

August 25 Protest

Some of the 1,300 who attended the Aug. 25, 2007 rally [Photo by Sam Scheidler]

Early on the morning of August 25, I met with my Rally Captains and distributed copies of the five-page “Battle Plan”, including detailed maps. Soon the crowds began to arrive, and the numbers were amazing—shuttle after shuttle dropped off pro-lifers by the score, and the picket lines soon swelled into the hundreds. We handpicked veteran activists for the Truth Tour down the block at New York Street and Eola Road and soon had 80 signs up, plus another 20 Life and Jesus signs across the street from the picket.

We had to add a second picket line and ran completely out of signs, but some enterprising participants bought posterboard and markers nearby and made their own. At their height, the picket lines alone boasted 900 participants. More than 250 were praying in the Vigil, 50 fanned out into the neighborhood to distribute “Why We Oppose Planned Parenthood” flyers, and 100 or more were holding large signs—plus hundreds more moving from one area to another, or taking pictures or video. Several videos of the rally were posted online at YouTube, print and radio coverage was great and we saw more TV cameras too. Several carloads of baby supplies were collected at a “Baby Shower” organized during the protest by Dawn Kararo.

City Council Gets Pro-Life “Crash Course”

With our round-the-clock Vigil going strong and our Rally breaking records, it was time to storm City Hall to expose the deception practiced by Planned Parenthood in their permitting and applications process and to demand an investigation. I put out the call and over 400 area residents packed City Hall for the August 28 City Council meeting. More than 100 signed up to speak during the public comment period.

Many pro-life speakers highlighted specific acts of deception by Planned Parenthood. On permit after permit, Planned Parenthood hid behind the name of “Gemini Office Development”. “Gemini” claimed that the tenant of the building was “unknown” not only on permits but at a November 16, 2006 Planning and Development Committee meeting—thereby lying to the aldermen. And there was Trombley’s admission that they tried to keep the project “secret”.

Other speakers talked about the harm that abortion does to women and society, and the negative impact of having an abortion facility in the area. Many shared the anguish of abortion they’d experienced in their own lives—as pro-life counselors, doctors and nurses and post-abortive mothers. And all 122 pro-life speakers called for a formal, open investigation into fraud and deception by Planned Parenthood. Only two people spoke up in favor of Planned Parenthood.

The public comments ran into the middle of the night. At their conclusion, Mayor Weisner said that an investigation would be conducted.

Youth for Truth Rally

Yvonne Florczak-Seeman addresses the Youth for Truth, Sept. 1, 2007 [Photo by EJS]

Young and Old Protest Planned Parenthood

One of the many pro-lifers drawn into the fight against Planned Parenthood was a high school student named Danny Schleitwiler. He and his parents had participated in the Vigil and attended the community meeting and other events. Danny decided that it was time for more youth to get involved, so he called together a group of friends from several area high schools and formed Youth for Truth. I was privileged to attend their first meeting at Rosary High School, along with Generations for Life Co-Director John Jansen, where plans were drawn up for a big youth rally.

The rally took place on September 1 at Planned Parenthood and was a huge success. Five hundred high school and college teens attended, along with several hundred family members. As I pointed out in my remarks to the group, unlike Planned Parenthood, we don’t believe in separating young people from their families—so this was a family event. Five hundred Youth for Truth T-shirts were passed out, with a design I helped prepare for print, paid for by donations from Annunciation Church in Aurora and the League.

Pro-life speaker Yvonne Florczak-Seeman spoke to the group about her experience having five abortions at Planned Parenthood, pleading with them to hold fast to their faith and never fall into the kind of life that she had. As the event concluded, several teens were interviewed by the local press, including seventeen-year-old Mary Kate Guest, whose powerful testimony on virginity aired on WBBM radio.

The Battle in Our Front Yards

On September 3, yard signs began to appear here and there reading This Family Supports Planned Parenthood. This was the first sign that Planned Parenthood realized they were in trouble in Aurora—they had finally abandoned their plan of completely ignoring us.

I quickly learned that Planned Parenthood was putting these signs up with the same deceptive tactics they’d used to sneak into Aurora in the first place. I received an e-mail from a couple whose neighbors had one of these signs up, having been told Planned Parenthood helps poor women with health care. When they learned from this pro-life couple that Planned Parenthood does abortions, they tore up the yard sign. In another case, a sign was put up in the yard of a woman with Alzheimer’s disease! I also learned that someone was calling around saying, “I’m from your church” to get people to put up the signs.

Eric Scheidler and daughters holding a Planned Parenthood yard sign

Eric Scheidler and his six daughters pose with a “captured” yard sign, changed to read “This family supports Planned Parenthood—NOT!” [Photo by Sam Scheidler]

Three days later, on September 6, Planned Parenthood Federation of America CEO Cecile Richards sent out a national e-mail alert, declaring, “Ground Zero in the fight for women’s access to reproductive health care just landed in . . . Aurora, Illinois.” The previous day, I had sent out my own e-mail in which I wrote, “Aurora, Illinois is becoming Ground Zero in the fight against Planned Parenthood.” I don’t know if Richards was reading my e-mail, but we were agreed that Aurora had become the epicenter of the abortion war.

I had already initiated plans for pro-life yard signs when the Planned Parenthood signs began to appear, but their deception drew so much outrage that I was able to raise over $2,500 in 24 hours to pay for signs reading, Planned Parenthood: BAD for Aurora and Planned Parenthood: BAD for Fox Valley. These signs, along with a Spanish language version, began to appear everywhere starting on September 8.

In a few weeks, over 3,000 pro-life signs were put up around the area, distributed by churches and at the Vigil—a grassroots effort headed by volunteer Andrea Heeg. Planned Parenthood hired a professional call center to push their signs, but it was rare to see one, while you couldn’t drive a block without seeing a pro-life yard sign.

Prayer on a Biblical Scale

Even as we took our battle to City Hall, the media and the front yards of our neighborhoods, the center of our entire effort remained the prayer presence at the Planned Parenthood site, bolstered by overwhelming support from area churches and dioceses. Critical help was provided by my neighbors Roger and Elizabeth Earl, who took over the day-to-day duties of running the Vigil so I could concentrate on these other matters.

On September 7, several hundred faithful responded to Joliet Bishop Peter Sartain’s call for a pro-life day of prayer by attending an ecumenical candlelight Vigil at Planned Parenthood. Then on Sunday, September 9, we began a seven-day “Jericho March” around the block occupied by Planned Parenthood, inspired by the famous biblical story in the Book of Joshua. Four hundred prayer warriors, including a large group from Aurora’s Hispanic parishes, gathered for that first twilight march around the block in prayer, headed by a red cross banner borne by representatives of Youth for Truth.

I had to make my 1.25 mile march quickly in order to make it to a friend’s house to watch an exposé of Planned Parenthood on Hannity’s America on the Fox News Channel. The report featured our battle in Aurora, and included an interview with me from the Vigil site recorded at the end of August. It was a major black eye for Planned Parenthood in the national media.

Aurora Beacon add attacking pro-lifers

Planned Parenthood’s Sept. 10 full-page ad in the Aurora Beacon linking the pro-life leaders of Aurora with abortion clinic violence

Planned Parenthood Lashes Out

With their yard sign campaign floundering and the entire community mobilizing against them, Planned Parenthood grew desperate. On September 4, Planned Parenthood’s Steve Trombley mailed a letter to the Mayor and City Council in which he attempted to justify their deception of the people of Aurora as a reasonable response to fear of violence from Joe Scheidler and the Pro-Life Action League. Trombley even went so far as to repeat some of the most outrageous accusations against my father from the NOW v. Scheidler trial—never bothering to mention that my father ultimately won that case in two decisive Supreme Court decisions!

Then in full-page Open Letter ads in the Aurora Beacon on September 6 and 10, Trombley repeated his accusation that the leaders of the protests in Aurora have a “well documented history of advocating violence”. He even printed a photograph of an abortuary burned down in Michigan in the 1980s—a crime that was never solved.

As troubling as it was to be publically defamed by Steve Trombley, I was encouraged to see how desperate Planned Parenthood was becoming. And of course, my attorneys and I immediately began to move forward with a libel suit to clear our names of Trombley’s outrageous lies.

Jericho March

The Jericho March Finale gets underway, Sept. 15, led by Mary Kate Guest of Youth for Truth [Photo by Sam Scheidler]

Citizens Demand Authentic Investigation

On September 11, the pro-life community returned to City Council to respond to Steve Trombley’s lies about us in his letter to our mayor and aldermen, and to demand that the investigation launched by Mayor Weisner be truly independent and thorough. We had good reason to suspect that the mayor wasn’t interested in a real investigation.

In fact, the first investigator appointed by the mayor, attorney Richard Martens, was found to have close ties to the city’s outside law firm. Several aldermen objected to his appointment, and he was removed—or so we thought. Two aldermen then worked together to find another investigator, and finally proposed attorney Phillip Leutkehans, who took over the investigation.

Despite this disruption to the investigation, the mayor insisted in a memo to the aldermen that it must be completed before Planned Parenthood’s scheduled opening date of September 18, even though he had explicitly promised me on August 28 that no deadline would be imposed—a promise caught on videotape and broadcast on YouTube.

Planned Parenthood now knew what was at stake, and they pulled out all the stops for the September 11 City Council meeting. I received a tip that they were closing their downtown Chicago office early that day to bring their staff out for a rally at City Hall. Some of their supporters were seen in cars with out-of-state license plates.

Outside City Hall, the pro-life and pro-Planned Parenthood groups squared off. Planned Parenthood passed out pink t-shirts and signs to their supporters. I supplied the pro-lifers who weren’t able to get inside the building—including my parents—with Stop Abortion Now and Planned Parenthood: Bad for Aurora signs.

Before the public comment period at the September 11 City Council meeting, Mayor Weisner assured us that adequate time would be given to the investigation into whether Planned Parenthood defrauded the city, even if it meant they wouldn’t open on time. Then the City Council voted to limit public comment to three hours, clearly dreading another late-night meeting. Aurora voters took note of which aldermen opposed the motion.

So for three hours, members of the public spoke out: 56 of the 67 speakers—over 80%—voiced opposition to Planned Parenthood. Many urged the council not to believe Steve Trombley’s lies about pro-life violence, pointing out that the only acts of violence committed during the entire campaign were attacks on participants at the Vigil by abortion supporters, resulting in two arrests.

Cameras at the Jericho March

The pro-life clergy press conference at the Sept. 15 Jericho March Finale earned massive media coveage [Photo by Sam Scheidler]

Holy Spirit Confounds Our Enemies

During an interview with a local television reporter the next morning, I learned that a small group of clergy had held a press conference in downtown Chicago, 40 miles away, to express their support of Planned Parenthood and “pray” that the facility would open. I was getting a great deal of my news directly from reporters those days, with scant time to read the papers myself, and this was the first I heard of the pro-abortion clergy statement.

It couldn’t have come at a better moment. For weeks, activists Mary Vilim, a Catholic, and Mary Faye Vasen, a Protestant, had been gathering signatures from clergy throughout the Fox Valley for a public statement opposing Planned Parenthood. The statement was drafted by Pastor Jeff Moore of Aurora’s First Presbyterian Church and beautifully laid out by a Catholic graphic designer, Michelle Dellinger, who donated her talents to the effort. The statement was set to be published in two local papers that Sunday.

I told the reporter about the statement—with 120 clergy signatures—and on the spot decided that our group would hold a clergy press conference of our own that Saturday, during the finale of the week-long Jericho March. In trying to beat us to the punch with their own clergy statement, Planned Parenthood actually heightened media interest in the pro-life clergy statement and helped ensure major media coverage for the Jericho March.

Aurora Tries To Halt Jericho March

Two days later—Friday, September 14—the City of Aurora likewise played into our hands when their lawyers went into federal court in Chicago to try to halt the Jericho March. For five evenings in a row, 200-400 prayer warriors, organized by local activist John “Little John” Thorne, had been peacefully marching around Planned Parenthood’s block, with about a third of the circuit passing through a residential neighborhood. The plan was to conclude the Jericho event the morning of Saturday, September 15 with seven trips around the block, like the biblical armies of Joshua.

Claiming that our Jericho March was forbidden by a city ordinance against picketing private residences, the city’s lawyers asked Federal Judge Virginia Kendall to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) against our group. The judge refused, explaining that the city was essentially asking her for permission to enforce their own law, which is not the role of a federal judge.

Attorney Jason Craddock then petitioned the judge for a TRO to prevent the city from arresting pro-lifers during the march, and I took the witness stand to testify about this creative exercise of our constitutional right to pray and protest. The judge also refused this petition, saying that the city’s concerns about the march through a residential neighborhood were reasonable.

This left us at an impasse, and both parties met in a conference room to work out a deal. The city was reluctant to arrest people for praying, while we didn’t want to expose our volunteers to such an ordeal. In the end, we agreed to march each prayer “battalion” around the block only once.

Jericho March Blessed a Thousandfold

In the end, this compromise worked dramatically in our favor. A thousand pro-lifers came out that morning for the finale and began marching around the block in battalions of 100, each led by a lieutenant bearing a red cross pendant sewn by my mother Ann and assembled by my sons Nate and Sam. The “only once around the block” rule ensured that when the press conference took place at 10 o’clock, a thousand pro-lifers were all gathered together in the vacant lot across from the Planned Parenthood building.

The effect was stunning. A long bank of television cameras was thronged by a ring of triumphant pro-lifers as representatives of the Protestant and Catholic clergy spoke out against Planned Parenthood and in favor of the Gospel of Life. Special guest Johnny Hunter, from the Life Education and Resource Network (LEARN) brought a group of black pastors and deacons to the event, and spoke about Christ’s command to help the “least of His brothers”, the unborn child.

In plotting to foil us, Planned Parenthood and the City of Aurora served only to make the Jericho March Finale a tremendous success. The clergy statement was published the next morning in the Aurora Beacon News and Naperville Sun accompanied by front page stories on the march and press conference. You couldn’t pay for that kind of exposure.

Planned Parenthood versus Aurora

The whirlwind continued the next week when Planned Parenthood sued the City of Aurora in an emergency hearing in federal court, Monday, September 17—just one day before their planned opening. I went into Chicago for the hearing at the Dirksen Federal Building, during which Planned Parenthood tried to convince Federal Judge Charles Norgle to immediately order the City of Aurora to issue an “occupancy permit”, the final permit they needed to open the next day.

Eric Scheidler speaks at the Jericho March

Eric Scheidler thanks God for keeping Planned Parenthood shut on the eve of their intended opening date, Sept. 18 [Photo by Sam Scheidler]

Attorneys for Aurora argued that it was their right, as a municipality, to conduct a thorough investigation into the questions raised about Planned Parenthood’s permitting process. I had to wonder how much the widespread media coverage of our Jericho March played into the City’s decision to stand their ground against Planned Parenthood.

The Judge set a hearing date of September 20 to allow both the City and Planned Parenthood to make their arguments more thoroughly. His refusal to order the city to immediately issue an occupancy permit meant that Planned Parenthood would not open yet. This was a tremendous victory, and after sharing my joy with the throng of reporters in the press corral, I raced back to Aurora to share the news.

That evening, several hundred faithful pro-lifers answered a last-minute e-mail invitation and came out for an impromptu gathering at the Planned Parenthood site. Viewers across Chicagoland saw our peaceful prayers of thanksgiving to God for keeping Planned Parenthood shut—a powerful sign of what God can do when we trust in Him.

During our celebration, I announced the decision I reached with Vigil captains Roger and Elizabeth Earl that the Vigil should go on past the 40-day mark. We would continue the round-the-clock Vigil until a final decision had been made about Planned Parenthood’s fate.

Father Pavone

Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, one of many pro-life leaders to visit Ground Zero, prays at the Vigil, Sept. 25 [Photo by EJS]

The Vigil Goes into Overtime

As the 41st day of the Vigil began the next morning at 8 a.m., hundreds of pro-lifers came out to pray and celebrate Planned Parenthood’s doors remaining shut—only they weren’t quite shut after all. Though they did not open for business, Planned Parenthood staffers appeared at the site, in blatant violation of the law.

I soon learned the staffers were there to set up for a “Meet and Greet” event that evening. While attorney Vince Tessitore tried unsuccessfully to get the city to enforce the law, I organized a last-minute picket of the event. For the first time the pro-life group made use of the roadway immediately across from Planned Parenthood’s entrance—a site that would soon become the center of intense controversy.

Aurora Celebrates “Amazing Grace”

The morning of September 20, a group of Fox Valley stalwarts gathered at my home on the west side of Aurora to drive into Chicago for the hearing in Planned Parenthood v. Aurora. We crammed into my fifteen-passenger van and drove the 40 miles to the Dirksen Federal Building singing hymns of praise—in harmony. There we met dozens of other Fox Valley pro-lifers and I quickly arranged for my next-door neighbor, Ann DeCleene, to send shifts up to the courtroom so that everyone would have a chance to attend the hearing; those who remained behind outside the building kept a picket going with a supply of yard signs I’d brought from Aurora. Up on the 23rd floor the courtroom was crammed with press, as well as a handful of Planned Parenthood staffers. On seeing pro-lifer Sylvia Keppel with her infant daughter Anne, one of them sniffed, “Oh look, they brought babies.”

The hearing got underway. Planned Parenthood’s attorneys argued that the only reason they were being investigated was because of some citizens’ opposition to abortion, a “constitutionally protected service”. Attorneys for the City argued that even by their own admission Planned Parenthood had tried to keep their identity secret, and their investigation ought to be allowed to continue. They produced the minutes of a November 16, 2006 meeting in which representatives of Planned Parenthood’s Gemini subsidiary pretended not to know who their tenant would be, which the judge called “obfuscation at best.”

After over an hour of testimony from both sides, Judge Norgle refused to order Aurora to issue Planned Parenthood an occupancy permit, pending the results of the investigation. Planned Parenthood would remained closed at least for the rest of the week!

Eric Scheidler addresses the press at Federal Court

Eric Scheidler talks to the press after the Sept. 20 federal court hearing that kept Planned Parenthood shut [Photo by Sean Grismer]

God’s providence was on display yet again on this great day, not only because the abortuary would remain shuttered, but also because we had planned weeks in advance to hold a thank-you dinner for our Vigil participants that very evening. Volunteer Michelle Dellinger had been making the arrangements for the dinner with the theme of “Amazing Grace”.

I had invited 40 Days for Life director David Bereit to speak at the dinner. David had been prepared to console the volunteers in the event Planned Parenthood had opened, but instead he was able to help us celebrate our tremendous victory with a talk on the theme, “Now is the time”.

Pro-Lifers Drop Bombshell at City Council

At 11:00 p.m. September 24, I received a call from attorney Peter Breen, director the pregnancy resource network Woman’s Choice Services. Peter and his wife Margie had captained one of the early days of the Vigil, and Peter had taken a keen interest in Planned Parenthood’s zoning violations. He had just discovered a provision in the Aurora Zoning Ordinance (AZO) that required a “special use permit” for any “non-profit health related service”—a permit that required public notice, public hearings, and a super-majority vote in the City Council!

The timing of this discovery was—again—providential. The very next day, we were set to make our third trip to the City Council, this time to demand that the results of the City’s investigation be made public and discussed in the Council, and any action taken be voted on. There was sure to be major media coverage when we dropped the bombshell that Planned Parenthood had failed to obtain this required permit.

The scene outside City Hall that evening was like a circus. Planned Parenthood’s Steve Trombley was there, looking miserable after his big loss in federal court the week before. His throng of pink-shirted supporters shrieked whenever a passing car responded to their Honk for Choice signs, while our pro-life group split into two battalions—one picketing for life, the other offering prayers for the meeting. I did interviews with several TV stations on the special use permit issue.

The City Council voted, once again, to limit the time for public comment, this time to two hours. Fortunately, I had signed up early and was one of the first to speak. I explained the special use permit requirement and then called for nothing less than the demolition of Planned Parenthood’s new building. Many other pro-lifers asked why Planned Parenthood gets to break the law, and even one abortion supporter railed against Steve Trombley in her remarks.

Reaching Planned Parenthood’s Neighbors

Our campaign against Planned Parenthood was further bolstered the next morning when we mailed over 100,000 postcards to every address in Aurora and nearby Naperville about “Your new neighbor, Planned Parenthood”. The postcards highlighted Planned Parenthood’s fraud, abortion record, sheltering of child predators and other facts. Interestingly, the League received more hate mail from this purely factual postcard than on any other project we’ve ever done—a sure sign that our message was hitting home.

Some local residents were further rankled when Missionaries to the Preborn, a pro-life activist group from Milwaukee headed by Pastor Matt Trewhella, descended on a major intersection near the Planned Parenthood site with a Face the Truth Tour on September 27.

I had taken the day off to celebrate my birthday with my family, so I wasn’t there for the Missionaries’ Tour. When a local reporter asked me about it, I commented that any city that plays host to the nation’s largest abortion facility can expect pro-life activists to come from all over to protest. The past year has validated my remark, with visitors from Rock for Life, Stand True, Priests for Life and Students for Life of America coming to the site to pray and protest during the past year.

Mayor Weisner betrays the people of Aurora

Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner announces on Oct. 1 that Planned Parenthood may open—a profound betrayal [Photo by JT Eschbach]

Mayor Weisner’s Stunning Betrayal

On the morning of October 1, I drove to the Kane County Court in Batavia to file a libel suit against Planned Parenthood and Steve Trombley for their lies about us back in September. I was parking my car when a reporter from the Daily Herald called to get my reaction to the news that Mayor Tom Weisner would be holding a press conference that afternoon to announce the results of the City’s investigation into wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood.

As I filled out the necessary paperwork to get the libel case filed, my phone began to ring off the hook with calls from reporters. One of them told me that Planned Parenthood officials had told her that they had been informed by the City they would be allowed to open soon. This was corroborated by word from Vigil stalwart Bruce Sutcliffe that activity by staffers at the site had been on the rise over the weekend. Also troubling was the news that Weisner’s press conference would be closed to the public. I smelled a rat.

At the closed press conference that afternoon, Weisner announced that “three independent investigators” had cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing, and that the city would be issuing their occupancy permit immediately. Planned Parenthood would open the next day.

Mayor Weisner had profoundly betrayed the trust of the people of Aurora. We had all been led to believe that the results of the independent investigation would be made public, and action deliberated in the City Council. Yet even Alderman Rick Lawrence, who had been our pro-life champion on the Council, had to wait outside the mayor’s office for hours to get a copy of the report, which he received only minutes before the press conference.

Three Deeply Flawed “Investigations”

It was clear that Mayor Weisner had been pulling for Planned Parenthood all along. His reference to “three investigators” made that all too clear—as did the many critical omissions and irrelevancies in their reports.

Protest outside City Hall

Pro-lifers picket outside City Hall on Oct. 9, 2007 after Mayor Weisner’s betrayal [Photo by EJS]

The first investigator turned out to be Richard Martens. After he had been replaced over conflict of interest concerns, the mayor secretly told him to continue his work anyway. Martens did little more in his report than describe the documents we already knew about, and note that more investigation would be required. He said nothing about the special use permit.

The second investigator was Phillip Leutkehans, the attorney picked by the aldermen, who noted that he did not have access to many crucial documents or statements from key city staff. His report appeared to have been completed in great haste, riddled with typos and “redline” text. He offered only the shallowest dismissal of the special use permit question.

The third investigator was State’s Attorney John Barsanti, who was asked to look into criminal wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood. This was nothing more than an attempt by the mayor to pad his case; nobody had accused Planned Parenthood of criminal wrongdoing, but rather civil fraud—which Barsanti admitted was outside his jurisdiction.

A Dark Day: Planned Parenthood Opens

We were blindsided by the mayor, and it would take days for my attorneys and me to digest and respond to the fatal flaws in these three reports. Meanwhile, we had to act to either keep Planned Parenthood closed or begin a new phase of our campaign to deal with their opening.

On October 2, pro-lifers gathered early at the Planned Parenthood site to mourn the opening of the facility we had been fighting for two months. Minutes before the 10 a.m. opening, attorney Peter Breen filed an appeal at the Zoning Board of Appeals in City Hall. Under state law, this should have initiated an immediate stay of the occupancy permit. It didn’t happen. Planned Parenthood opened their doors.

Pro-Life Campaign Shifts Gears

Our only consolation when Planned Parenthood finally opened was that the delay apparently disrupted their ability to get up and running quickly with their abortion operation. They didn’t begin to actually see patients for several days, and abortions did not begin for at least two weeks.

My Vigil team and I decided the time had come to suspend the exhausting round-the-clock Vigil and concentrate on providing prayer and sidewalk counseling at Planned Parenthood during all their open hours. The Earls dubbed this project “Life Support” and they began contacting local churches with the help of Mary Vilim and Mary Faye Vasen to find sponsors for all the days of the month when Planned Parenthood would see clients.

A week after the opening, pro-life citizens packed the City Council for the fourth time to denounce Mayor Weisner’s betrayal. Thanks to the generosity of the League’s donors, I was able to obtain the technology needed to transmit live reports from the City Council Chambers to the Families Against Planned Parenthood website, allowing hundreds more pro-lifers to follow the meeting. Ten-year-old Tess Foral received a standing ovation for her comments, during which she asked, “Mr. Mayor, is it okay to lie?”

Sidewalk Counseling Seminar at Our Lady of Mercy

Trainees at Ann Scheidler’s Nov. 17, 2007 sidewalk counseling training seminar [Photo by EJS]

Clinic Witness Commences

From the time that Planned Parenthood opened, our Life Support crew had stationed themselves across the roadway from their parking lot, along the edge of a vacant lot owned by Safeway Corporation. Planned Parenthood staff were infuriated, and tried to get the police to order us off. They even erected “No Trespassing” signs in the lot, without Safeway’s knowledge. Finally, they began a nationwide phone campaign to convince Safeway to ban the pro-life prayer witnesses.

On October 11, Safeway bowed to pro-abort pressure and erected a chain-link fence around the lot—a situation which endangered our counselors by depriving them of room to avoid traffic. Hundreds of pro-lifers in the area responded by turning in their Dominick’s “Fresh Values” cards, since Dominick’s is owned by Safeway.

On October 20, my mother Ann conducted the first Fox Valley Families clinic witness training seminar at Holy Angels Church to give two dozen newly activated pro-lifers the tools they need to help mothers and fathers choose life for their babies. We held the next training seminar less than a month later.

Alderman Seeks Parental Notification

When pro-life Aurora Alderman Rick Lawrence first learned about Planned Parenthood coming to town, he was shocked to discover that his two teenage daughters would be able to get medical care there—or even get an abortion—without his consent. He sought to remedy that situation by sponsoring a citywide parental notification ordinance, with co-sponsers Aldermen Richard Irvin and Chris Beykirch.

On October 23 Fox Valley Families had made our fifth trip in a row to the City Council to advocate for Lawrence’s ordinance and speak out further on the harm that Planned Parenthood was now doing to our community. However, the ordinance got held up in the Government Operations Committee, and only made it to the Council later in the watered-down form of a Parental Nofication Resolution sent to the Capitol in Springfield, which passed 11-0 on November 27.

“It’s Not Over. We’re Here for Life.”

Despite the success we were having getting prayer coverage and training sidewalk counselors, I could sense that the pro-life community was badly in need of a boost. So I called together a team of local leaders and planned a rally for October 27, under the theme, “It’s not over. We’re here for life.” Over 1,000 pro-lifers attended the peaceful rally, which featured a Jericho-style prayer walk, two massive picket lines, a “Life Tour” along New York Street, and a display of memorial crosses which rally participants had decorated on behalf of babies lost to abortion—crosses which were later desecrated by City workers.

Eric Scheidler and Jason Craddock speak with Police Chief Powell

Police Chief Powell (left) harangues Eric Scheidler and Jason Craddock [Photo by Sam Scheidler]

The morning would have been a complete success were it not for the outrageous intervention of Police Chief Bill Powell and Corporation Counsel Alayne Weingartz. As Stand True’s Bryan Kemper began to offer a concluding talk, some pro-lifers crossed the street to hear better, since Safeway’s new chainlink fence around the vacant lot restricted the open space. Powell and Weingartz came on the scene and started to order the pro-lifers back across the street, saying they were violating an ordinance against “residential picketing”, though few of them even had signs at that point.

Police squad cars then blocked the street, which we all interpreted as an open invitation to move into the street to hear the talk. We were mistaken; Powell had ordered the squads there to help herd people back off the residential east side of Oakhurst Drive. I tried to get the chief to talk to attorney Jason Craddock, who was on the scene, but he refused. Some pro-lifers later declared that Powell and Weingartz seemed bent on inciting a riot. But we maintained our peace.

Planned Parenthood Scared Off Campus

The big October 27 rally set the tone for the fall and winter months. We were determined to stick it out, protesting, praying and counseling at Planned Parenthood.

A powerful vindication of that spirit came on November 12 when Planned Parenthood canceled a Q&A event at Waubonsee Community College on hearing that the Pro-Life Action League would be there. As usual, they cited “safety concerns”, but we knew the truth—they didn’t want to have to answer questions from the pro-life public about their fraud and deceit.

Our pro-life determination was also on display the following day when we visited the City Council—for the sixth time—to speak out against the confusion wrought by Chief Powell and Counsel Weingartz at the “We’re Here for Life” rally. In a blatantly staged maneuver, Alderman Shakita Hart-Burns asked Powell to explain his actions, and he stood up to rail against how uncooperative we pro-lifers were being and assured us that from now on he wouldn’t be so easy on us.

Peter Breen, Tom Brejcha, and Rich Baker at the ZBA

Pro-life attorneys (from left) Peter Breen, Rich Baker and Tom Brejcha at the Nov. 28 Zoning Board of Appeals hearing[Photo by EJS]

Pro-Lifer Ordered Not To Pray

Powell’s threats came to bear at our first regular monthly protest on November 17, attended by over 200 pro-lifers—an amazing number for a routine abortuary protest. One of those not participating in the protest was Roger Earl, who had chosen instead to stroll with his baby daughter Isabelle along the sidewalk across the street, in prayer support of his wife Elizabeth who was sidewalk counseling. He was approached by a police officer who asked what he was doing, and when he said he was praying, she asked him what he was praying about!

The officer ordered Roger to cross the street if he was praying about the Planned Parenthood clinic—the most egregious civil rights violation yet. Roger was later able to tell his story to Federal Judge Virginia Kendall during a Settlement Conference with the City of Aurora over violations of our civil rights.

After the protest, 80 pro-lifers gathered for a sidewalk counseling seminar by Ann Scheidler at Our Lady of Mercy Church. The protest and seminar were aided by the help of my new assistant, Matt Yonke, who came on staff on October 22 to help me with the growing workload in Aurora.

Zoning Board of Appeals Does a “Pilate”

On November 28, the Aurora Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) finally met to hear our appeal of the city’s decision to issue an occupancy permit to Planned Parenthood. Over 100 pro-lifers were there to observe the hearing, each wearing a red carnation supplied by the League as a token of solidarity. Though the meeting dealt only with procedural matters, it was exciting to finally have the zoning case underway.

The ZBA board met twice more, on December 12 and January 7. At the January 7 meeting they granted the City’s Motion to Dismiss, on the bizarre grounds that our appeal was too late. They said we should have filed the appeal back in 2006 when Gemini received their final approval from the Planning and Development Committee—though nobody knew back then that Gemini was really Planned Parenthood!

Though disappointing, this decision by the mayoral appointees on the ZBA was expected, and on February 11, we filed our case in state court, where it continues to move forward to this day—a painfully slow but extremely critical legal effort to shut down Planned Parenthood once and for all.

Picket line outside Planned Parenthood

Monthly protest Dec. 15 at Planned Parenthood in the snow [Photo by Sam Scheidler]

Meanwhile, we continued to focus on street-level activism. On December 15, 200 pro-lifers faced cold and snow to join the monthly protest, and the same number joined in a Christmas Caroling Tour of four west suburban abortuaries, concluding at Planned Parenthood Aurora.

Aurora Activism Going Strong in 2008

The new year dawned promisingly with over 100 stalwarts facing subzero temperatures at the January 19 monthly protest, which was followed by an “Action Speaks” seminar on pro-life activism. The snow and chill continued through the February 16 monthly protest, which again was attended by well over 100 faithful pro-lifers.

We have continued to see these kinds of numbers at our monthly protests through the spring and summer, and we have continued to hold regular sidewalk counseling seminars. Several of these have been conduced by veteran counselor JT Eschbach, who also wrote an invaluable booklet on the particular challenges of counseling at the Aurora facility. With JT’s training, our counselors have saved at least a dozen babies from abortion that we know of.

Defending Our Civil Rights

On March 26 the Earls and I, along with attorneys Peter Breen and Tom Brejcha met in the chambers of Federal Judge Virginia Kendall to try to work out a settlement agreement with the City of Aurora over the ongoing violations of our civil rights by police. The city finally got the message that we were not going to be intimidated into abandoning our pro-life witness.

Both the judge and the attorneys for the City—the same ones who had appeared before Judge Norgle in September—agreed that there had been some serious problems—especially the time Roger Earl was told not to pray on a public sidewalk.

When we next met with the judge on July 8, after several delays and postponements by the City, also in attendance was Connie Betz, one of the most faithful counselors at Planned Parenthood. On April 18, Connie had been arrested for the “crime” of trespassing on what Planned Parenthood considers their side of the street. Again, the judge and attorneys for Aurora could see this was a major problem.

On July 21 the parties met again, this time without the judge, to discuss our remaining problems. We’re scheduled to bring a Settlement Agreement to the Judge in mid-August.

Planned Parenthood Claims Immunity from Libel

As the zoning case moves slowly towards trial in state court and as we work towards a civil rights agreement with the City, the really exciting—and volatile—legal action has been in our libel case against Steve Trombley and Planned Parenthood. Nearly every other week throughout the spring and summer my lawyers and I have been slugging it out in the courtroom of Kane County Circuit Court Judge Judith Brawka with Planned Parenthood’s high-profile attorneys.

Planned Parenthood is claiming total immunity from any defamatory statements made about the Scheidlers, the Pro-Life Action League, and the other activists fighting Planned Parenthood in Aurora. The basis of this claim is a new Illinois statute, the Citizens Participation Act, which was passed in order to shield citizens from lawsuits designed to scare them away from petitioning the government for favorable action.

In Planned Parenthood’s version of the story, we pro-lifers filed our lawsuit not to protect our good name from defamation, but to intimidate Planned Parenthood! As outrageous as that sounds, the judge seems willing to consider that reading of the new law—which would impose huge legal fees on the 20 pro-life plaintiffs in the suit if we lose. A hearing in this critical case is scheduled August 22.

Rainy Days and 40 Days: Our Fight Continues

As the one-year anniversary of our fight in Aurora approached, the Pro-Life Action League’s Face the Truth Tour came to Aurora for its final day. Despite heavy rain, more than 150 pro-lifers came out for the first site at the Abortion Fortress. My team and I judged it too rainy to bring out the big graphic signs, so I dispatched my assistant Matt to our nearby storage facility to get our waterproof picket signs.

For 45 minutes, we picketed in the rain, an inspiring scene of umbrellas and pro-life signs—plus the smiling faces of so many pro-lifers eager to face the bad weather to do God’s work. Finally the rain abated and we brought out the big signs. We were again hassled by police over a sign showing Jesus and a flag held by my father, Joe Scheidler, on the southeast corner of Oakhurst Drive and New York Street. He was clearly facing New York, not the townhouses behind him, but the police claimed he was in violation of their ordinance. But when Joe and I didn’t immediately buckle under, they walked off to confer and before they returned we had concluded our time there.

Balloon launch at April protest

“Balloons for Life” launch at the April 26 protest at Planned Parenthood [Photo by Sam Scheidler]

The overwhelming turnout for the Aurora Truth Tour site, along with the continued trouble from the police, convinced me that Fox Valley Families Against Planned Parenthood ought to participate in the national 40 Days for Life campaign, running September 24-November 2. Our settlement talks with the city have dragged on too long; the 40 Days campaign gives us a clear deadline for securing our civil rights. And even though our fight against Planned Parenthood is going strong, many of those who participated in the Vigil before Planned Parenthood opened need a special reason to return to the front lines.

For if there is one thing I have learned over the past year, it is that the single most important work we do as pro-life activists is to pray and witness at the abortuaries. Our prayer siege at Ground Zero in Aurora has drawn tremendous blessings. Not only have we seen the rise of the most vibrant local pro-life activist community in the nation, but we have learned how to confront Planned Parenthood’s 21st Century strategy of building huge, upscale Abortion Fortresses all around the country—knowledge my father and I are already sharing with activists across the nation.

Planned Parenthood may believe they’ve won in Aurora, but their victory will not stand. As I said back in August 2007, “Whether it’s 40 days of prayer or 40 years of effort, we will shut down the Abortion Fortress of Aurora.”

For the latest developments in Aurora, or more details on the first year of our siege of the “Abortion Fortress”, visit FamiliesAgainstPlannedParenthood.org.

[Return to Part 1]

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