The activists standing outside Albany Medical Surgical Center, the Family Planning Associates Medical Group clinic on North Elston Avenue often differ depending on the day of the week.
If it is a Thursday, Joe and Ann Scheidler, the founding couple of Chicago’s pro-life movement, may be there with signs and pleas to patients entering the doors. On Saturday, it is far more likely to be Ryan Bouse, who cut his protest teeth in Joe Scheidler’s office, but is now in the midst of writing his own script for ending abortion in the city.
Bouse and the Scheidlers represent two schools of tactics in the anti-abortion movement. While Bouse and his cohorts counter what they see as today’s culture of biblical immorality with narratives heavy on sin and redemption, the Scheidlers are focused on the immediate “save” of pregnancies about to be ended.
Both, however, have made the clinic on Elston a regular stop when it comes to their mission.
“I need to come every Thursday to remember,” said Joe Scheidler. “I need to come at least once a week to reaffirm the reality of abortion. This is a place where a woman is going in with a live child, and inside they will terminate that life.”
It’s hard to believe that Joe Scheidler, even at 87, is in danger of forgetting anything. When I visited his office at the Pro-Life Action League in August, it was a shrine to his more than 40 years of trying to stop legal abortion.
One wall was covered in pictures of popes, bishops and politicians supporting Scheidler’s crusade and letters of commendation for his efforts in the pro-life movement. Directly behind his desk chair hung a large portrait of a brightly haloed Jesus.
A curio cabinet was filled with memorabilia from his decades palling around with and organizing the most notorious anti-abortion activists in history. On one shelf rested a coffee cup declaring “The World’s Best Dad.” Next to it: a copy of the infamous “Have a Blast!” photo from a 1985 Pro-Life Action Network conference in Appleton, Wisconsin, of which the Pro-Life Action League and Scheidler was the key organizer.That photo depicts group members holding signs demanding the jailing of “baby-killers” while standing in front of a kiosk that read “Welcome Pro-Life Activists, Have a Blast!” It was one of many pieces of evidence in the landmark suit generally known as National Organization for Women (NOW) v. Scheidler. In the case, Scheidler and other anti-abortion activists were accused of racketeering to intimidate and commit violence, including clinic bombings and arson, against abortion providers. After being decided in favor of NOW in 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict in 2006.
“We’ve had trouble with other pro-lifers,” Scheidler said as we sat in his office and I looked through his extensive collection. “We had those who went off the deep end, and then started shooting and bombing and all that stuff. We knew these people, and we had meetings with them. We even have met them after they get out of prison, and so on. They’re still pro-life. They just went too far.”
In the corner stood a television and VCR and DVD player at the ready. With it, Scheidler shows guests tutorials about the “Chicago Style” of “sidewalk counseling,” the term abortion opponents have given to their attempts to talk a patient out of an abortion just before she enters a clinic. Other videos on his playlist include interviews with former abortion providers who have changed their minds, left their jobs and joined the pro-life movement. But Scheidler’s favorite, “Holy Terror,” is a mid-’80s NOW documentary about him and other Pro-Life Action Network members. He finds the film so enjoyable that he urged me multiple times to sit down and watch the whole thing.
“See, I am the ‘Holy Terror,’” he joked.