By Paul Tuns
The Interim

The 14-year fight against a dubious lawsuit has forced a prominent American pro-lifer to put up his own home as bond while the case winds its way through the courts.

Joseph Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League of Chicago, is still fighting a lawsuit launched by the National Organization of Women (NOW) in 1986. Initially NOW and two abortion providers brought an antitrust suit against Scheidler, the Pro-Life Action League, and others, charging there was a “conspiracy” among pro-life activists to “restrain trade” in abortions. Over the next few years, the suit was amended to eventually include charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations laws (RICO).

RICO’s chief architect, G. Robert Blakey, a law professor at Notre Dame University, said the act was designed to thwart organized crime and drug cartels, not stifle free speech. He said it was never designed to be used against organizations which do not profit financially from their demonstrations and that pro-lifers should never be subject to anti-racketeer legislation.

Kelly Shackleford, chief counsel for the Liberty Legal Institute, said the lawsuit “is a clear attempt to intimidate or scare people from speaking the truth.”

In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Scheidler could be charged under RICO in a civil suit as long as there was potential for violence. This reasoning was required so that the Supreme Court could override the intention of RICO author Prof. Blakely. The court accepted the abortionists’ claim that peaceful prayer and sidewalk counselling by pro-lifers incites anti-abortion violence.

On April 20, 1998, Scheidler was found guilty of “extortion” and faced a fine of at least $US 85,000. To continue fighting the decision, he had to meet a bond, forcing Scheidler to put his house in escrow so that he could fight the case and continue to speak out against abortion.

The case is now being appealed to the 7th Circuit Court in Chicago. Although the court did not accept six of the eight amici curiae (friends of the court) briefs, Scheidler is confident that the decision will be reversed. He said that the only reason the case has gone on so long already is that the courts are willing accomplices of abortion groups in the persecution of pro-lifers. He admits, however, that the case is likely to go to the Supreme Court no matter who wins this appeal.

Many pro-lifers say abortion supporters are using such lawsuits to bankrupt pro-life organizations and individuals. Indeed, the costs to Scheidler and the Pro-Life Action League have been great, as damages awarded to abortionists have thus far cost $400,000, plus the expenses of full-time lawyers, developing briefs, and sending investigators around the country to look into the claims of abortionists for almost 15 years. Furthermore, the Pro-Life Action League continues its work of producing pro-life videos, literature, speaking to students, putting up billboards and providing ultrasound machines for prenatal clinics. “We have gone ahead with our activities,” Scheidler said. “This lawsuit could have shut us down but we have continued on.”

Scheidler still puts on a happy face, in part because of his incurable optimism, in part because in some ways, the lawsuit “has been a blessing.” He is pleased with the support he has received from pro-lifers from across the United States and Canada during this lawsuit. “The lawsuit is unifying the movement, bringing people, Protestants and Catholics, together.”

It has also brought the family closer together. Because of the financial costs of the lawsuit, Scheidler said one of his daughters finished her university degree in three-and-a-half years to save costs. His wife, a paralegal, works for the League and the legal firm Scheidler set up to fight the lawsuit. Also several of his children are involved in pro-life work.

If he is ultimately successful he said he is planning a national rally, “Bringing America Back to Life,” to re-energize pro-life activism. He envisions a new rescue movement that will focus on prayer and counselling, but not blocking access to clinics. “Our peaceful witness,” he explained “is our number one tool to save the lives of the babies.”

If NOW wins the suit, he says that it will not silence him. He promised to volunteer for a new organization (if the suit is successful, the League will close, the plaintiffs will have a life-long lien on his earnings, and the final damages including legal fees will be in the millions) because “I could never stop doing pro life work.

“I can’t tolerate the injustice of killing babies,” he said. “How could anyone kill them?”