Watching the abortion debate play out online rather than in real life, it can appear to the casual observer that violence and threats are primarily things of the past—a vague and dark period of the early 1990s sandwiched between Waco and Mogadishu.
But with an impending Supreme Court decision over clinic buffer zones and large numbers of clinics shutting down in the face of new regulations, hostilities between activists outside abortion clinics have escalated in recent years. Thus, it would seem that the Pro-Life Action League (PLAL) urging supporters to pray for abortion advocates and providers each day during Lent, and to forego one meal a week for them, might be an olive branch worth celebrating. But it’s the execution of the campaign that’s left many dubious of PLAL’s claim that this is a good faith effort.
Executive Director Eric Scheidler says that his organization called for similar actions last year, minus the names and photos of those for whom they seek prayers. When asked about the change, Scheidler says, “We searched for the three best photographs we could find because we wanted pictures where people would see the humanity of these people.”
Throughout our conversation, he returned to the Christian tenets of compassionate understanding and the belovedness of all people before God, indicating a sincerity that often goes unnoticed in a movement frequently characterized by its violent history. But it is precisely that violent history that has caused much of the concern over whether or not the campaign could result in the targeting of the named advocates, particularly from a group that’s been uncomfortably close to violent offenders in the past.
Eric Scheidler is the son of Joe Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League,* which spent years elbow-deep in the violent rhetoric and direct actions that characterized much of the debate around abortion in America. In 1985, following a year during which there were 10 bombings and 16 cases of arson, the senior Scheidler famously called for “a year of pain and fear.” For over a decade he was a named defendant in the high-profile case, Scheidler v. NOW, in which the National Organization for Women argued that Scheidler and others effectively formed a criminal conspiracy to close clinics that provided abortion services.
The group has made significant changes in its rhetorical strategy in recent years, particularly since Eric Scheidler assumed a greater role and became the face of PLAL. In 2012, for instance, when infamous anti-abortion activist Randall Terry ran graphic anti-abortion ads he noted that the Super Bowl ought to be a time for family fun. The PLAL website stresses non-violent direct action in contrast to his father’s “by any means necessary” threats, which is perhaps why it’s surprising that they’ve resorted to tactics like displaying the photo and city location of an abortion provider, a tactic once almost exclusively employed by groups oriented to aggressive action.
Yet PLAL’s latest action is unusual in that it named clinic escort and activist Katie Klabusich and pro-choice journalist Robin Marty, in addition to Dr. Cheryl Chastine. Scheidler defended the decision based on the fact that these women are hardly anonymous, noting that both Klabusich and Marty write often on the subject and that they have photos associated with that work.
When asked about Dr. Chastine, who does not write publicly about her work and who “ducks down on the floor of [her] car” on the way to the clinic, he mentioned PLAL outreach to the provider, including the time she received letters at her home from his mother, and Vice President of PLAL, Ann Scheidler. Scheidler confirmed that Chastine had never replied, which, to most, would seem to indicate that the identification of one’s home address when practicing in a historically dangerous profession is a form of harassment rather than a harmless attempt at correspondence.
Or, in Scheidler’s view, “She was rather naïve to think she could be this anonymous abortionist coming into Wichita, at George Tiller’s former practice of all places.”
Dr. Chastine’s identity was originally revealed by Troy Newman of Operation Rescue who called her practice pretending to be a journalist—a call during which she explicitly said, “I would like to keep my name off the record because of the crazy people with guns.” So although Scheidler makes a convincing case for his group’s initiative being inspired by compassion and love, it’s of a very unwelcome kind when it comes to Dr. Chastine.
Robin Marty also finds the responses unwelcome but doesn’t feel threatened by them. “It wasn’t by any means outreach that I would have wanted, but it wasn’t anything that harmed me,” she tells RD. Given her encyclopedic knowledge of the various organizations devoted to criminalizing abortion and their various actions intended to drive abortion providers from their practices, she’s remarkably generous in her assessment of PLAL’s naming her for their list.
Scheidler and Marty both confirmed that their interactions have been part of a respectful ongoing dialogue when she’s researching pieces about PLAL activities, despite her disagreement with their mission and tactics. “By calling me a ‘pro-choice journalist’ I think that they were actually trying to make it understood that this wasn’t meant to be, at least towards me, a thing of harassment. I think that in a lot of ways they really, honestly, genuinely mean that people should pray for me cause I’m convertible,” says the co-author of Crow After Roe: How “Separate But Equal” Has Become the New Standard in Women’s Health and How We Can Change That.
In addition to writing about the activities of anti-abortion groups in legislatures, clinic escort and abortion rights activist Katie Klabusich chronicles in real-time the tactics used outside of facilities that anti-abortion activists often refer to as “sidewalk counseling.” Producing videos and live-tweeting their methods—in combination with her frequent and vocal opposition to groups like PLAL and the increasingly active Abolish Human Abortion—have made her the target of significant anti-abortion rhetoric.
Though most of what Klabusich has received comes from PLAL supporters, she continues to get prayers of a different kind, “I’ve had great responses from people of faith. Some of them heard about the Pro-Life Action League call and said, ‘This reminded me that I was meaning to pray for you and your activism that you stay safe and have success.’” Despite being in good spirits about her placement on the prayer list she does see it as another attempt at intimidation.
Scheidler is adamant that the use of the names and photos on the call to prayer was in no way intended as a threat, noting that Pro-Life Action League is not and has not been associated with clinic violence. Calling the 2009 murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller “an outlier,” he pointed to violence by defenders of abortion against activists in his own group and others, and to the murder of James Pouillon as evidence that both sides of this debate are prone to violence. But while a quick YouTube search easily confirms that both sides have escalated to violent tactics before, the argument that the violence is equal in volume, frequency and at similar levels of organization is specious.
While at least six abortion providers have been murdered and over a dozen more targeted for murder, the killing of James Pouillon is the only documented case of an anti-abortion activist being murdered during protest. Adding to the fact that the victim pool is smaller, Pouillon’s murderer also killed another man the same day and had a third murder planned before he was apprehended, all reportedly related to grudges the perpetrator held rather than ideological commitments.
Meanwhile, anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue frequently employ convicted felons like Cheryl Sullenger, and several land themselves on domestic terror lists. It would be unfair and inaccurate to claim that opposing abortion automatically makes a group violent, but to deny the ongoing history of that violence—and the role of publishing opponents’ identifying information in it—seems to be a shirking of responsibility and a lack of appreciation for one’s own context. Yes, abortion defenders have on occasion turned violent, but no, they haven’t been asked to be policy advisors at any major organizations that support legal abortion. They haven’t set fire to any medical facilities or damaged them enough to cause indefinite closure.
When prayer came up during my conversation with Scheidler, a topic he humbly admitted was “a tremendous mystery,” he was fairly certain that he has some idea of the will of any god that was a god of justice. When asked how humans can influence abortion advocates through prayer, Scheidler says, “God already wants what’s best for these women and that is to be out of the abortion business. In some ways God allows us to participate in God’s divine action. He allows us to be part of the process of conversion, of transformation, of theosis. We want to unite our will with God’s.”
Reverend Harry Knox, president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, doesn’t agree that God’s will is quite so self-evident: “‘The diverse religious organizations that form the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice have widely different views on prayer. But one thing they agree on is that [neither] prayer nor scripture should ever be used as weapons. And we agree that prayer should be entered into humbly, seeking the Holy One’s will and guidance, not assuming we already know what it is.”
Campaigns like PLAL’s, with their use of names and photographs, are potential catalysts for harassment according to Reverend Knox. “Creating what looks like a wanted poster, then asking people to pray for those shown, is just hate in love’s clothing.”
Eric Scheidler proved himself to be an exceedingly gracious person in our conversation, so it would make sense for him to take note of the feelings of intimidation that some of the women feel in being singled out for their activism and perhaps for him to opt for a more general call to pray for those with whom they disagree during the season of Lent. Surely God already knows who the abortion providers and supporters are. The identification of these women without their permission in a movement that is still populated in many corners by dangerous and organized people committed to violence is too reminiscent of past outings that led to direct violence.
But Scheidler is of the belief that it is individuals for whom we ought to pray, “Praying for categories of people is difficult, if not impossible. As G.K. Chesterton said, ‘Christ did not love humanity, He never said He loved humanity; He loved men. Neither He nor anyone else can love humanity; it is like loving a gigantic centipede.’”
Perhaps there’s some truth to that concept. Yet one can’t help returning, just a little bit uncomfortably, to Scheidler’s earlier comment that “[Dr. Chastine] was rather naïve to think she could be this anonymous abortionist coming into Wichita, at George Tiller’s former practice of all places.”
*This report incorrectly noted that the Pro-Life Action League was “sometimes known as the Pro-Life Action Network, or PLAN.” In fact, PLAL was one of several pro-life groups that comprised PLAN. RD regrets the error.