Front page of the Buffalo Courier Express, January 23, 1973
January 22, 1973. Anyone familiar with the abortion battles in America knows that date. This year we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the infamous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling issued on that day.
But in 1973, the front page of newspapers across the country were full of other momentous news. Former President Lyndon Johnson died on January 22, 1973. Richard Nixon had just recently announced an end to hostilities against North Vietnam, and the Paris Peace Accords were being brokered.
My husband Joe Scheidler was down with the flu on January 22, 1973. I was pregnant with our fourth child, who turned out to be our first daughter, Cathy. Our three boys—Eric, 6; Joe, 5; and Peter, 3—occupied most of my attention. I didn’t look at the front page of the Chicago Tribune until late in the day on January 23. Joe didn’t read it until the next day.
But as we read the news we were incredulous. Illinois was a pro-life state in those days. Attempts to ease restrictions on abortions here had easily been defeated. We weren’t paying attention to the national fight to legalize abortion and did not even know there was a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
We simply could not believe such a thing could happen. With a stroke of a pen, all abortion laws were struck down and unborn babies, like Cathy, just 4 ½ months in my womb, were dependent solely on their mothers for their right to be born.
Joe immediately flew into action. He read the decision and was dumbfounded at the illogic and ignorance of scientific reality written into Justice Harry Blackmun’s Opinion, representing seven of the sitting judges. Only two Justices—William Rehnquist and Byron White—dissented, with White referring to the decision as “an exercise in raw judicial power.”
The following Sunday, we went to Mass at our parish, Queen of All Saints, expecting to hear outrage from the pulpit and to be given some sort of marching orders. There was no mention of Roe v. Wade. And when we talked with family and friends, they agreed that it was a bad ruling, but no one else seemed to feel any obligation to fight it.
We looked for some way to get connected with someone who cared. We had contributed to Illinois Right to Life when they fought in Springfield to keep abortion out of Illinois, so we called them. They had a meeting scheduled for the following week.
We went to the meeting, expecting to find the room packed with concerned citizens. Hardly anyone was there. And it slowly dawned on us that we were a minority, those of us who reacted with horror at Roe v. Wade.
Still, we believed that if people only understood the humanity of the unborn baby, American people would rise up and oppose abortion-on-demand. Joe started researching anything he could find on fetal development, methods of abortion, the background on the movement to legalize abortion. He spent so much time on it, he couldn’t focus on his work at a public relations job.
Finally his boss, a pro-life Catholic, suggested that his real passion lay in fighting abortion, and that he should pursue it as his full-time job. He said he would help him by keeping him on the payroll and with health insurance coverage until our baby was born.
Joe enlisted my father’s help in starting the Chicago Office for Pro-Life Publicity, with the aim of publicizing facts on abortion and fetal development and educating the public to build opposition to abortion. But raising funds for such a venture proved a real challenge.
In January of 1974, Illinois Right to Life decided it needed to hire a part-time director. Joe took the job, which quite quickly became a full-time job. We both still expected our pro-life mission to be short term. We still believed that Americans would not settle for such callous disregard for innocent, defenseless human life.
In that way, God was being good to us. Had we known we were in for a lifelong battle, we might have given up. In fact, Joe went to hear Fr. Paul Marx, founder of Human Life International, give a talk at a hotel in downtown Chicago. When he came home he reported that Fr. Marx thought we were in for a long fight—that it would be at least five, perhaps ten, years before Roe v. Wade would be overturned.
I was furious at such a pessimistic outlook. But Fr. Marx had been fighting the pro-death lobby for several years already. He knew it was deeply entrenched in the culture. And he was being ridiculously optimistic in his five to ten year projection. Now we know, of course, that we will be in this battle for the rest of our lives. And we thank God for entrusting this mission to us.
Joe spent five years with the Illinois Right to Life Committee. But he had a street fighter’s approach. He had joined Martin Luther King on his march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965. Illinois Right to Life had a more academic approach to fighting abortion. They found his aggressive tactics a little embarrassing and, at a contentious, board meeting, demanded his resignation.
Joe and a couple of pro-life colleagues from IRLC decided to form another group. They called it Friends for Life. But right from the beginning the friends were at each others’ throats. Friends only lasted a little over a year. Joe and I decided to focus principally on direct action—protests, sidewalk counseling, events that would attract media attention. So, in June 1980 we stepped out completely in faith and founded the Pro-Life Action League. Joe worked out of our basement, with six active kids under foot. Apparently it was the right move.
Joe wrote his book, CLOSED: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, which attracted the attention of not just pro-life activists, but pro-abortion activists as well. In 1986 the National Organization for Women filed its lawsuit against Joe and the Pro-Life Action League—NOW v. Scheidler.
The national attention to such an unprecedented attack on a protest movement—the use of RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) to stifle freedom of speech—actually raised the profile of the Pro-Life Action League, giving it more national recognition. The case went to the Supreme Court of the United States three times!
The landmark victory in NOW v. Scheidler put an end to attempts to use RICO to stop pro-lifers. The unintended consequence of NOW’s lawsuit, thanks to the genius of our defense attorney Tom Brejcha, was to forge an alliance among protest groups of all kinds, conservative and liberal, to protect our constitutional right to freedom of speech.
The pro-life movement has changed a lot since January 22, 1973. It has become more sophisticated. We have moved from the electric typewriter and a mailing list on 3 x 5 index cards to sophisticated Facebook pages, social media, email updates, nationwide coordinated projects, and a political landscape where every candidate has to have a position on abortion.
And on this 40th anniversary we are far closer to overturning Roe v. Wade than we ever were in 1973 when in our naiveté we thought it would be a two-year battle.
Building a Culture of Life takes time. We’re willing to invest that time, however long it takes. And we know we will win.