Eric Scheidler was constructing a massive playhouse for his eight children in June of 2007. While working on the backyard project, Scheidler received a confusing phone call from his father.
“Hey, have you heard anything about Planned Parenthood opening up near a high school?” Joseph Scheidler, co-founder and current National Director of the Pro-Life Action League, asked his son.
After informing his dad that he was not aware of that, Scheidler was given the address of the site and rode his bicycle through the familiar streets of Aurora, Illinois to the nearby location. On the property stood a nearly completed building with a handful of workers drywalling, painting and landscaping behind a seemingly innocuous sign with the developer’s name: Gemini Office Development. Scheidler would quickly discover, however, some of this property’s more disquieting details.
“All of these recovery rooms, two surgical rooms… bulletproof glass, bulletproof drywall and all of these sensors and cameras everywhere. What’s this all about? It didn’t seem right. He thought maybe it was an abortion facility,” Scheidler said in reference to a local contractor who received a copy of the developer’s $7.5 million project plans and, after realizing that they could be for an abortion facility, disclosed them to his priest. Eventually, the details of the scheme would reach Joseph and Eric Scheidler.
“We started to get the word out that something fishy was going on here. People started writing letters to the local newspaper and calling the city council… eventually the story got out through the media. This was a Planned Parenthood facility and they had built it in secret to prevent pro-lifers from disrupting what they were doing,” Scheidler remembered. “We suspected that the city knew all along that it was Planned Parenthood and just sort of pretended to be surprised. The only thing I could think of was to start a prayer vigil so I called up [40 Days for Life Co-Founder] David Bereit.”
Long before this pivotal moment and stage of his life as Communications Director of the Pro-Life Action League, an organization dedicated to saving unborn children through non-violent and direct action, Scheidler found himself growing up as the oldest child in a Catholic household of nine in the northwestern part of Chicago during the 1970s and 1980s.
“I had a pretty normal, Catholic urban upbringing… I went to Catholic grade school and Catholic high school. Mass was a regular part of our lives and it was unquestioned that we would go to Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation,” Scheidler said. “Looking back on it, I can see a lot of catechesis that my brothers and sisters and I received was heavily influenced by a kind of felt banner version of Catholicism… It emphasized some good things like caring for others, social concerns, kindness and I understand the sort of reaction to a more rigid, rules-based kind of theology, but there was a real lack of theological formation… [with unsubstantial] grounding in the philosophy and theology that undergirds the Catholic faith and that makes it a serious subject for serious intellectual rigor.”
Prior to and during this mixed experience in Catholic education, Scheidler’s father Joseph would become increasingly involved in the pro-life movement. This desire to defend the unborn eventually led to him establishing the Pro-Life Action League with his wife Ann in 1980.
“My father got involved with the pro-life movement when I was about seven-years-old… so I don’t have a whole lot of memory of the time before that. Once he got involved in pro-life [advocacy], I then had a sense of our lives being different,” Scheidler recalled. “There’d be people who think that your father is a pariah, a reactionary, a woman hater or whatever and then there’d be other people who think he must be some kind of saint and they would see our family as sort of walking on water, but my parents really tried to give us a pretty normal childhood.”
Though Scheidler sometimes struggled with his parents being seen from polarizing perspectives and having his father spend so much time out of town on lengthy business trips, he appreciates how his parents’ enterprise saved so many unborn children and helped steadily cultivate his own ‘very, very deep conviction’ about an unborn child’s right to life.
“I spent quite a few years outside of the Church [amounting to] about a decade from my early 20s to my early 30s when I was an avowed atheist. Even then I was convinced that I had to find some kind of way for an atheist’s moral philosophy to at least push back against abortion, if not, grant unborn children a right to life,” Scheidler said. “The images of the beautiful embryonic and fetal life as well as images of abortion and what abortion does to those tiny human beings were kind of a lighthouse. Those images were indelible.”
During his days as an atheist, Scheidler would receive his B.A. in English from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, earn his Masters in English from the University of Georgia and teach as a literature and composition instructor at Northeastern Illinois University, Columbia College and various junior colleges.
“[I] was definitely struggling to find a moral ground for a pro-life position and [was] ultimately coming to the realization that a strictly materialist worldview can’t… [accommodate for] transcendent truth,” Scheidler said. “As I went on in life and got married and had kids, I started to see more and more the value of religion in the lives of people around me. I had Muslim students, Protestant students and Jewish students whose faiths seemed to somehow make them better students and I thought: ‘I wish I could trick myself into believing that garbage, because it would certainly be helpful to living a good life.’”
After years of struggling with his spiritual life while opposing abortion on strictly secular grounds, Scheidler would come back to the Catholic faith through Natural Family Planning instruction taken with his wife April.
“The first class was [hosted by] the Couple to Couple League… I was extremely impressed with what I learned about the science of the chemistry of a woman’s body, a sort of orchestra of hormones and how they interact with each other, and the idea that contraception was not such a great thing… I mean I believed that the Church was right about contraception before I believed that the Church was right about the existence of God… [Then] I started reading the Bible starting with the Gospel of Matthew and listening to a bunch of Scott Hahn tapes that people had given me,” Scheidler described. “Long story short, I had a radical conversion, went to confession, came back into the Church, my wife enrolled in RCIA, we baptized our three children and decided to have a fourth and a fifth and a sixth and a seventh and an eighth [child].”
After Scheidler took the Natural Family Planning class, he would call Steve Habisohn, a friend from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and tell him that he was a Catholic again. Habisohn, the day before Scheidler’s call and after his own first Natural Family Planning class with his then-fiancé, would tell his future spouse: “You know, just practicing this [Natural Family Planning instruction], regardless of whatever beliefs you might have, may lead you to come back to Christ or come to Christ." Almost immediately after Scheidler’s conversion, Habisohn would offer Scheidler an opportunity to put his career on a pro-life pathway.
“[Habisohn] had a very successful electronics business at the time. He wanted to do something with the profits of his business to serve the Church so he started an organization called The Gift Foundation. Even before we had a name, he asked me to come on and, on a part time basis, do some writing for him. He wasn’t really a great writer and he wanted somebody who could take his ideas and put them into clear writing and I had a lot of skill there,” Scheidler said. “Eventually he asked me if I would like to come on full time with him. I did and from 1998 to 2002, I was working for The Gift Foundation… getting off the ground a new, simplified version of Natural Family Planning fertility charting so we did a whole lot of work there, produced some CDs and got some physicians to help us put together a program.”
This program would not grow as much as Scheidler would have wanted it to, mainly due to that particular market already being very crowded, but The Gift Foundation would host a couple of successful, highly-attended conferences called ‘Pandora’s Pillbox’, which discussed the pill, other contraceptives, hormones in the body, the impact of contraceptives on marriage and divorce as well as cohabitation.
During this time, Scheidler would develop valuable audio editing, graphic design and public speaking skills. This experience would prepare him for his next job as Communications Director of the Pro-Life Action League that he took on after The Gift Foundation became defunct in 2002 due to fundraising issues.
Scheidler would redesign the Pro-Life Action League’s website twice, build up their email subscriber list and assist pro-life advocates protest and counsel outside of abortion clinics.
“I kind of fell into a kind of George Bailey [situation], because I had never had that eureka moment with [the pro-life movement],” Scheidler said. “At the same time, I feel like I was really well prepared for this kind of work, because I didn’t have that sort of arc that so many people have of sudden enthusiasm that gradually burns out into nothing.”
A few years after Scheidler took on this role, Planned Parenthood would begin constructing the first of their supersized abortion centers just blocks away from his home. After Scheidler's father called him on that warm summer day, a bicycle ride down to the Gemini Office Development property and the town’s subsequent discovery of Planned Parenthood’s deceptive role in this abortion facility's construction and likely future operating it, Scheidler would take the necessary steps to hold the abortion giant accountable.
“I just wanted to think of all abortion providers under one umbrella and not really single out Planned Parenthood. I was kind of really resistant to focusing too much on Planned Parenthood… I guess it was seeing what Planned Parenthood was actually doing [that made me eager to oppose them]. The way that they lied to the city and I could see it from FOIA requests, the lies that they tell, and the brazenness of their willingness to lie [was problematic],” Scheidler said. “They created a front company called Gemini Office Development. G-O-D which is kind of interesting. They applied to build a multiuse medical facility on this property in a boulevard business district that was zoned for commercial. It was zoned for one thing. Planned Parenthood applied for permits under that zoning and then switched to being a not-for-profit. They paid county taxes for three years and then switched their tax status and got a big refund on their taxes.”
By telling the state government that they were a non-profit, Planned Parenthood was able to get a bond issued that allowed them to raise money while, at the same time, informing the city government that they were going to be a for-profit business so that they could receive a permit to build in Aurora’s business district. Also, a representative of the supposed Gemini Office Development firm, who was actually a Planned Parenthood employee, repeatedly asserted that they did not know who their future tenant would be, but they would continue developing the property in the meantime.
“I mean the tenant was always going to be Planned Parenthood. It was a boldface, outright lie. [They] were lying to city officials,” Scheidler said. “The only thing I could think of was to start a prayer vigil so I called up David Bereit, who I knew from the American Life League, and who just had a conference call with my folks and me about this 40 Days for Life thing that he was thinking about doing.”
That summer, Scheidler asked Bereit if he would be able to start an impactful prayer vigil in Aurora outside of the soon-to-be Planned Parenthood. After receiving encouragement from Bereit, even with Planned Parenthood’s opening date of September 18th approaching soon, Scheidler got to work.
“We started by doing a meeting in the basement of my church on a very, very rainy day. I was thinking it was going to be me, my parents, my attorney, my public relations guy and maybe three people if we were lucky. We ended up getting eighty people to show up in that church basement,” Scheidler recalled. “By the end of that first meeting, they had signed up for at least half of the days of our forty-day vigil and, in just about a week, I had all forty days covered with church captains who were going to be responsible with filling up those 24 hours. We managed to hold unequivocally the most successful 40 Days for Life campaign ever done.”
Scheidler and other Aurora pro-life advocates would hold the vigil for a total of fifty-six days, instead of forty as the pending investigations and federal court cases pertaining to the property delayed Planned Parenthood’s opening, and would maintain a chain of public prayer, even through the night, rain and heat, for every minute of that vigil. Though the abortion behemoth would open its doors in the Fall of 2007, Scheidler and the Pro-Life Action League, instead of giving up, would shift their focus to a three-pronged approach.
“We’re suing the city and Planned Parenthood for zoning violations, we’re suing Planned Parenthood for libel for demonizing the Pro-Life community, the Pro-Life Action League, me personally and my dad, and finally we were focused on continuing to build on the grassroots movement that we had created when thousands of people had come out to pray.”
Scheidler and his team would collect signatures of local residents frustrated by a massive abortion chain opening in their neighborhood without warning. Those signatures would be used to file a class action lawsuit against the city and Planned Parenthood for zoning violations. Also, Planned Parenthood’s decision to purchase a full-page advertisement in a local newspaper falsely stating that the Pro-Life Action League had been found guilty of a bevy of past violations allowed Scheidler and his team to sue Planned Parenthood and thwart their efforts to comfortably come into town.
Though the Aurora Planned Parenthood would open and the zoning lawsuit would be dismissed, Scheidler and other activists were able to force the city council to undertake an investigation of the property’s development, reach a mutually agreeable settlement in the libel lawsuit and gain knowledge about the functions of town government that would prove useful in the future.
“Email marketing, web designing, federal lawsuits, state lawsuits, county law, libel and zoning… it was just unreal the number of areas that we got to become experts in,” Scheidler said. “We became a sort of go-to organization for how to organize protests, prayer vigils, city council meetings, FOIA requests, lawsuits and getting the businesses involved and the churches involved and the list goes on and on… It was effective and taught us how to do this stuff.”
This new skillset would help Scheidler, promoted to Executive Director of the Pro-Life Action League, put on three separate series of ‘Stand Up for Religious Freedom’ rallies across the country in 2012. These events would see thousands of Americans and a collection of Pro-Life and Pro-Family organizations speak out against the Affordable Care Act’s HHS Mandate forcing employers to purchase insurance providing contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs. These rallies would lead to business owners in many cities and towns in America to file lawsuits to prevent this mandate from being instituted. Many of these businesses were directed to legal counsel by Scheidler and his team.
“We put the focus on standing up for religious freedom as a positive thing [and] as a positive liberty principle that we wanted to stand up for,” Scheidler said. “It was such a cross-section of the public. You’d come to one of our rallies and you’d see grandmas, grandpas, Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians, Christians, Muslims and Jews. We had a Muslim speaker at one of our rallies in Chicago, we had Democratic and Republican Congress people speaking, Catholics and Protestants; it was so cross-sectional… We were the religious people who just wanted to practice our faith and the government was putting its boot on our neck.”
After these rallies and the abundance of lawsuits that came out of support for them, Scheidler, Dr. Monica Miller, Director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, and Mark Harrington, President and Founder of Created Equal, would start a new, annual set of rallies called #ProtestPP starting in April of 2015. The trio would invite over sixty local, state and national Pro-Life groups to these events, make a website called ProtestPP.com and see thousands of citizens come out to protest Planned Parenthood’s sale of baby parts and practice of abortion.
Leading up to the third annual series of rallies, the #ProtestPP team would be approached by the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization dedicated to helping elect pro-life politicians, and asked to organize protests in February of 2017 intended to push the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood with President Trump now in office.
“This was the first protest that was really one hundred percent, laser focused on defunding Planned Parenthood… It was one of those flashpoints where what we were doing just created a tremendous amount of media [coverage] and again in a way that looked like Providence,” Scheidler said.
The effort created a buzz of media interest, even from media outlets like the Huffington Post, due to the #ProtestPP website accidentally being promoted by a pro-abortion group on Facebook who told its followers to support Scheidler’s website that defends Planned Parenthood, rather than, in reality, wants to see the federal government defund Planned Parenthood.
Due to this error, many individuals who just protested in Washington D.C. during the 2017 pro-abortion Women’s March would subscribe to the Pro-Life Action League’s email updates and, to this day, Scheidler still receives spiteful emails from people colorfully describing why they are unsubscribing after joining in January of 2017.
Still focused on defunding Planned Parenthood, the #ProtestPP team held their annual demonstrations and rallies in April of 2018 that would make a greater impact than they could have imagined.
Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser spoke to Kellyanne Conway earlier that month to see if the White House advisor could tell President Trump about these rallies and that there was a past Supreme Court ruling that approved a rule change by the Reagan Administration making large-scale abortion providers, like Planned Parenthood, have difficulty receiving federal Title X funding. The judicial branch's approval of the clause, however, would come during the Clinton administration and still had not been implemented. Conway would tell Trump about the little-known rule and made sure he took notice of the #ProtestPP rallies hosted by some of his most vocal, pro-life supporters. As a result of this and an affirmative ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June of 2019, organizations that accept federal Title X funding could no longer refer women to abortion providers nor suggest where an abortion could be procured leading to Planned Parenthood’s departure from the federal program later that summer.
“[This rule change] caused a bunch of Planned Parenthood facilities to shut down, it brought our story into the public sphere, it educated people about how Planned Parenthood is an abortion provider and they’re not willing to give up abortion to get this money,” Scheidler noted. “It’s an illustration of how direct action can lead to policy change.”
Today, Scheidler continues to serve the Pro-Life Action League as the Executive Director and hopes that Pro-Life organizations, such as his own, will be able to survive the humanitarian and economic chaos that COVID-19 has caused.
“You know [coronavirus has] been extremely debilitating for us at the Pro-Life Action League, because direct action out in the public square is what we do and we can’t go out in the public square now. We kind of don’t have a purpose. We can prepare some literature and we can make plans for the future, but otherwise we’re kind of stymied,” Scheidler said. “This whole thing could end up killing a whole lot of Pro-Life organizations. We could be one.”
After this pandemic, Scheidler looks forward with hope to continuing his group’s efforts peacefully counseling women outside of abortion clinics and displaying signs of abortion victims to change hearts and minds on the issue.
“There’s this sort of belief that using abortion victim photography is violent, which is insane. It’s exposing the injustice of the violence that has happened. Showing a picture of violence to stop the violence is not violent. It’s the opposite of violence. It’s peace,” Scheidler said.
Scheidler disavows groups, such as the Abolish Human Abortion organization, that utilizes abortion victim photography in overly-aggressive ways and in inappropriate settings.
“[They’re] going out in front of churches and calling them baby murderers, because they aren’t active enough… They’re literally increasing abortion, because they make it so hard to talk to the women that our sidewalk counselors have become less effective. Some of [our sidewalk counselors] have quit,” Scheider said. “They have no concept of the psychology of abortion by a woman or human beings in general… Jesus did not go out to abortion clinics, he did not go out to the brothels, he did not go out to the tax collector’s office and scream at them… his message [to the woman caught in adultery and the tax collector] was one of mercy and peace and I love you and let me take care of you.”
Scheidler sees a noteworthy connection between the disability rights movement and the Pro-Life movement.
“[The two movements] seem to be so clearly fellow travelers, because one of the main justifications provided for abortion these days, especially with the greater focus we’ve had on late-term abortion, is that it prevents someone from having a life of misery because of disabilities,” Scheidler explained. “People just accept that… and yet we wouldn’t accept somebody saying let’s round up all of the disabled people and incinerate them. In the Pro-Life movement, we’ve had to push back against those [subjectivist] mentalities and say: ‘you know every life is precious, even disabled babies have a right to life and their lives matter.' When we talk about our attitudes towards the disabled and our willingness to make sacrifices for them, people will nod their heads and then we can transition into well why not for the unborn, too? [Can we establish protections] not only the unborn babies with disabilities, but for all of the unborn babies?”
The Pro-Life Action League's Eric Scheidler speaks at a prayer vigil on the 2016 National Day of Remembrance for Aborted Children at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillsdale, Florida.
Eric Scheidler (on stage) gives a speech at an August 2015 #ProtestPP rally outside the Planned Parenthood facility in Aurora, Illinois.
The Pro-Life Action League’s Executive Director Eric Scheidler (left), National Director Joe Scheidler (center) and Vice President Ann Scheidler (right) at the 2013 March for Life in Washington D.C.
Check out The Pro-Life Action League: https://prolifeaction.org