Mr. Scheidler, a fiery and influential figure in the country’s long battle over abortion rights, used every tool from persuasion to intimidation to a bullhorn to advance his cause, which he believed was in obedience to a “higher law that says: Thou shalt not kill.”
As the founder of the Pro-Life Action League, he combined techniques of civil disobedience — he once marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — and seething outrage as he led demonstrations at abortion clinics across the country. One of his primary goals was to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which eliminated most restrictions on abortion.
When that effort fell short, Mr. Scheidler turned to more direct action, including sit-ins, picketing and “sidewalk counseling,” in which women seeking abortions were surrounded by demonstrators urging them to turn back. Mr. Scheidler called abortion clinics “abortuaries” and likened them to “death camps like Dachau.”
Mr. Scheidler was among the first activists to use large-format photographs of aborted fetuses to elicit disgust and outrage. He published a handbook, “Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion,” that became a how-to guide for his supporters.
Sometimes dubbed the “Green Beret” or “Gen. George Patton” of the antiabortion movement, he adopted guerrilla tactics on the political campaign trail, interrupting candidates’ speeches with shouts of “abortion is murder!” He was a mentor to other antiabortion activists, including Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue.
The bearded, 6-foot-4 Mr. Scheidler was an imposing presence at protests. Using the persuasiveness and polish of his earlier careers in public relations and college teaching, Mr. Scheidler testified before Congress, wrote op-ed essays and appeared on countless news programs to advance his views.
“Someone has to create the image of the abortion fighter as a tireless, aggressive, imaginative, daring, cocksure and optimistic individual who carefully plans his strategy and accomplishes what he sets out to do,” he wrote in “Closed.”
He viewed his demonstrations as something like street theater but drew the line at physical violence, even including a chapter in his book called “Violence: Why It Will Not Work.”
“Everything we do in the pro-life movement,” he said in a 1984 PBS interview, “is an exercise of our First Amendment right in one form or another, free speech, freedom to assemble, a right to be Americans.”
Mr. Scheidler’s detractors, including some within the antiabortion movement, said he stretched the boundaries of free expression and created hostile environments. In 1988, a member of another antiabortion group called him “an extremist of the extreme.”
According to a 1985 profile in the Chicago Tribune, Mr. Scheidler once learned that the mother of an 11-year-old girl had arranged for her daughter to have an abortion. Mr. Scheidler used a private detective to determine the mother’s identity, then stood across the street from her home, shouting at her through his bullhorn.
“She was almost hysterical,” he told the Tribune. “We couldn’t reason with her.”
He wrote of the incident in “Closed” with a certain boastful pride.
“Talking a woman out of having an abortion is not news,” he wrote. “But tracking her down by using a private detective is. It was that angle we played up to the media. They were critical of our action, but it worked. An editorial written against us appeared in the New York Times. . . . We think it is important to use public relations techniques, even gimmicks.”
When a Chicago Sun-Times reporter volunteered for Mr. Scheidler’s organization, she said he directed demonstrators to accost women seeking abortions and ask “how they feel when they know they are taking a human life. Remind them how the women live the rest of their lives with that ghost from their wombs.”
He organized efforts to antagonize doctors who performed abortions, picketing their homes and sending leaflets to neighbors and family members. By the mid-1980s, Mr. Scheidler took personal credit for closing at least 40 clinics. During the next few years, antiabortion activists became increasingly militant, with clinics bombed and several doctors killed.
Mr. Scheidler said he disavowed the violence, but on another occasion he said he found pictures of bombed abortion clinics “heartwarming.”
“It does not appear that [Mr. Scheidler] tried to direct clinic violence from a distance,” James Risen and Judy L. Thomas wrote in their 1998 book “Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War.” “Instead, what Scheidler did was use his role as a national spokesman to encourage and condone violent acts. Extremists could read between the lines.”
Mr. Scheidler, who said he received death threats and endured vandalism at his home, was arrested many times for trespassing or disorderly conduct, but the charges were often dropped. In 1986, he was sued in federal court by the National Organization for Women as the central figure in a conspiracy to attack or block access to abortion clinics. Lawyers for NOW used a novel approach, charging that Mr. Scheidler and other individuals and groups could be held liable under federal racketeering, or RICO, laws.
The case dragged on for years without resolution and went to the Supreme Court three times. In the meantime, Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994 (FACE), which banned the use of force, physical obstruction or intimidation at abortion clinics or places of worship.
The Supreme Court reached a final decision on NOW v. Scheidler in 2006, ruling that Mr. Scheidler had not engaged in extortion or racketeering, as defined under the law.
“I am not a racketeer,” he had said in 1998. “I save babies.”
Joseph Matthias Scheidler was born Sept. 7, 1927, in Hartford City, Ind. His father was a businessman, his mother a teacher.
After serving in the Navy at the end of World War II, Mr. Scheidler studied journalism at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., graduating in 1950. He spent a year as a newspaper reporter before entering a Benedictine seminary in Syracuse, Ind. After four years, he joined a Benedictine monastery in St. Meinrad, Ind., while continuing to prepare for the priesthood.
He was two weeks away from ordination, his son said, when he decided he no longer wanted to be a priest. He taught journalism at Notre Dame, received a master’s degree in communications from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1963, then joined the faculty of Mundelein College, a Catholic women’s school in Chicago. (The college later merged with Loyola University.)
In 1965, Mr. Scheidler accompanied a group of students and nuns to King’s Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama. It was a significant moment in his life.
“It showed him the responsibility regular people have for the moral issues of their time, on both sides,” Eric Scheidler said in an interview. “It was an example of people taking agency for change against injustice.”
Mr. Scheidler worked for the city of Chicago’s public relations office and for an advertising company before founding the Pro-Life Publicity Office in 1973, the same year as Roe v. Wade. He was later executive director of the Illinois Right to Life Committee and an another antiabortion group, Friends for Life, both of which ousted him for his uncompromising tactics. He founded the Pro-Life Action League in 1980.
In 2016, Mr. Scheidler published an autobiography, wryly titled “Racketeer for Life.” He never retired and held the title of national director at the time of his death. Other family members have worked for the organization, and his son Eric is now executive director.
Survivors include his wife of 55 years, the former Ann Crowley; seven children; a brother and sister; 26 grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.
When asked what the goal of his organization was, Mr. Scheidler told The Washington Post in 1993: “To save lives. Period.”
“We are the true patriots,” he added, “ . . . in what has become a godless nation.”