At bottom:  · Learn more · Roe v. Wade
Jan 20, 2008 — For Americans fighting to outlaw abortion, Paul Schenck is a crusader battling for the unborn.

To those who would like abortion to remain legal, he's a zealot who wants the government to force his views on others.

Schenck himself says he's addressing the greatest moral issue of our time.

Thirty-five years have passed since the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide Jan. 22, 1973, in Roe v. Wade.

While abortion remains one of the country's most polarizing issues, the strategy of some activists, such as Schenck, has changed since the days of abortion-clinic sit-ins and blockades of the 1980s and early '90s.

Schenck still prays and demonstrates outside clinics, including Planned Parenthood in York. But he's left behind some of his more dramatic tactics, like brandishing dead fetuses on the picket lines or getting arrested regularly for civil disobedience.

Now 49 and a recently converted Catholic, the former Anglican pastor heads the National Pro-Life Action Center (NPLAC), an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., where he lobbies the judicial and political elite.

He commutes 100 miles to his Capitol Hill office several times a week from his Manchester Township home, where he and his family moved in 2005 to escape the congestion and cost of living in suburban D.C. In November, Schenck and his twin brother, Rob, also an anti-abortion activist, celebrated 25 years of Christian ministry at a gala with 300 guests, among them Jay Sekulow, a lawyer who's argued cases before the Supreme Court on behalf of the Christian right, and a 60-member black gospel choir from Randallstown, Md. Rob Schenck is an evangelical pastor who heads another advocacy group, Faith and Action. (Paul serves as Faith and Action's chairman.) Aside from abortion, the group's issues of concern include same-sex marriage, support for Israel and the public expression of faith (it has distributed Ten Commandments tablets around the capital).

The early days

The story of the Schenck twins' journey to Washington begins more than 25 years ago.

Brought up in a Jewish home, the pair found Jesus in a Methodist chapel in western New York. At 16, they were baptized in the Niagara River by a Salvation Army officer and later became Protestant pastors.

For 10 years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they helped lead the anti-abortion movement in Buffalo, N.Y. At the time, Paul was a pastor at New Covenant Tabernacle, a church he founded in a Buffalo suburb.

Karen Swallow Prior recently recalled the tense day in January 1989 when she first participated in a "rescue," or sit-in, at a Buffalo abortion clinic. Anxious, Prior didn't know what to expect.

"From the mass of people sitting on the floor, arose a calming presence who led the group and made us all feel at peace and encouraged us," said Prior, now an English professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. "He was a quiet and calming voice of leadership."

It was Paul Schenck. Both he and Prior were among those arrested that day and later acquitted, she said. Prior befriended the Schencks and later served as spokeswoman for the local Operation Rescue group.

At the height of the so-called abortion wars, Paul appeared on the cover of Life magazine with yellow police tape separating him from an irate protester.

The issue was headlined "America Divided" and published July 10, 1992 - weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the right to an abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

The twins were criticized for tactics that included conducting mock funerals for dead fetuses outside doctors' offices. Paul recalls being roughed up at protests, being punched, spat upon and pushed into traffic. His life and his family were threatened.

The Rev. David Selzer, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Buffalo, recalled the Paul he saw from the other side of the picket line: A hostile and confrontational fundamentalist with no sensitivity to the personal and spiritual concerns of clinic patients.

"I noted when he left Buffalo there was a kind of sigh of relief because of the break in the relentless battle in front of (Buffalo GYN) Women's Services," Selzer said.

In the early 1990s, Paul challenged a federal court order that created so-called floating buffer zones imposed to prevent Operation Rescue's "sidewalk counselors" from aggressively talking to, intimidating or harassing anyone walking to and from the clinics - especially after the person asked to be left alone.

The clinics alleged that Schenck and others violated the federal court's order on several occasions. At a trial related to a 1991 incident, Paul was convicted on five counts of contempt, fined $330,000 and sentenced to two years imprisonment, he said. He spent about a month in federal prison before he was released on appeal, he said.

Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the district court's "floating" zones represented an unconstitutional infringement of the free-speech rights of protesters; however, a fixed, speech-free buffer around the building entrances was upheld.

Paul estimates he and his lawyers spent seven years and more than $778,000 in legal defense costs.

The case, Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York, inspired the twins to pick up their families and relocate to the greater Washington area. They needed to begin a ministry at the Supreme Court, Paul said.

"The Supreme Court has been the source of more suffering, confusion and conflict than any candidate or political party. We were determined to change the judiciary by changing one judge's heart and mind at a time," he said in a broadcast for National Pro-Life Radio.

The Schencks' offices are in twin townhouses on Capitol Hill, about 60 paces from the justices' private entrance to the court, Paul said. With a small $350,000 budget, NPLAC has four staff members and maintains a 70,000-address e-mail list. In contrast, the National Right to Life Committee Inc.'s Educational Trust Fund alone had a $2.2 million budget in 2006.

A typical week of work for Paul includes authoring commentaries, doing media interviews and recording several news reports for National Pro-Life Radio in a Pasadena, Md., studio. He spends roughly three days a week in D.C., planning with staff, tracking public policy and sometimes meeting with members of Congress, advocates or federal judges and their staffs, he said.

"We unabashedly appeal (to them) on ethics, morality and spirituality, and we do so on the basis of natural law," he said.

A question of influence

In her 25 years as head of Catholics For a Free Choice, the recently retired Frances Kissling said Paul "never particularly stuck out in the crowd of self-righteous male anti-abortion leaders."

"He was one of the pack that thought almost anything was justified in pursing their goals - shouting at women, blockading clinics, etc.," she said by e-mail. "My sense of his work in D.C. is that it is pretty much at the margins and not taken very seriously."

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that just because the Schencks have a building near the Supreme Court doesn't mean they're effectively lobbying the justices.

"The mistake that Rob and Paul make is assuming that because they sincerely believe their version of Christianity is true, that somehow that gives them the right to impose that on everybody else through the government," said Boston, AU's assistant director of communications.

"In that respect, they're no different than some of the mullas in Iran and some of the hard-liners who want to merge religion and government."

Paul says that is a misunderstanding and, sometimes, a deliberate distortion of his and Rob's beliefs and efforts.

"We have called for an honest assessment of the role of biblical faith and the Judeo-Christian ethic in the founding and development of our society and way of life," he wrote in an e-mail.

"To deny the importance of the Bible, upon which most all public officials are sworn into office (not to mention judges, juries and witnesses) and to dismiss the role of religion in the thought of everyone from the Founders to the current Supreme Court is ignorant, inaccurate or dishonest."

Locally, Paul accompanies his wife Rebecca as often as possible to pray and demonstrate at Planned Parenthood on North Beaver Street. The couple has eight children, ages 6 to 28.

Paul believes abortion and euthanasia are completely incompatible with Christianity.

"If you believe that everyone is created in the image of God, then there are no disposable people, no matter how inconvenient or unwanted they might be," he said.

Paul has begun a local chapter of the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life, a Texas-based society of priests and lay people dedicated to anti-abortion and euthanasia issues.

After serving for several years as rector at an Anglican church in Catonsville, Md., Paul converted to Catholicism in 2004. He's since expressed to the Church his interest in beginning the formation process to become a priest.

If Paul gets the OK from the local bishop, the Rt. Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades, he could be ordained a Catholic priest after the required training and years of study. (A Church provision allows some married Anglican priests to become married Catholic priests.)

He notes that he's never renounced nor repudiated his Protestant, evangelical formation but "brought it with me into the Catholic Church, where it belongs," he said.

"In my experience, having begun as a Jew entering the Christian and Protestant churches and finally the Catholic Church, I see that our witness in the world is only weakened by our divisions, and is only strengthened by unity."

Paul recently got word that New Hope Publishing will print his book "Barukh Ha-Bah: Catholic Reflections on Jewish Themes" later this year. It looks at the Jewish foundations of Catholic spirituality from historical, biblical, liturgical and theological perspectives, Paul said.

On Tuesday morning, the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, Paul and Rob will again convene the annual National Memorial for the Pre-Born at the U.S. Senate Hart Building.

Last year, about 600 gathered for the ecumenical prayer service in the Senate auditorium prior to the afternoon's March for Life; more than 40 clergy attended, Paul said.

Music will be performed by Tony Melendez, who was born without arms but who plays classical and folk guitar with his feet.

"Tony Melendez's disability would have targeted him for abortion - a severely handicapped baby, even today many people would say such a child should be aborted, (and) his life would not be worth living," Paul said.

"For this reason he is a pro-life voice - and an inspiration, demonstrating that every life, regardless of condition, is precious and dignified."

Reach Melissa Nann Burke at 771-2024 or mburke@ydr.com

Learn more

About Schenck

Name: Paul Schenck

Age: 49

Hometown: Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Lives in: Manchester Township

Family: Wife, Rebecca, 49; children Leah Crowne, 28; Ari, 25; Abraham, 24; Jordan, 18; Miriam, 16; Marta, 16; Isaac, 14; and Eva, 6

Occupation: Executive director, National Pro-Life Action Center in Washington, D.C.

Education: Bachelor's degree (biblical studies) from the Elim Bible Institute (1982); diploma in pastoral ministries from Berea College (1984); master's degree in religious studies from Catholic University's distance program (2005); master's degree in theology from Catholic University's distance program at the catechetical institute in the Arlington (Va.) Diocese (2007)

Hobbies: Reading, history, ancient Middle Eastern languages and numismatics

Influential books: "The Cost of Discipleship" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer; "Eternal and Finite Being" by Edith Stein; "The Moses of Rovno: The Stirring Story of Fritz Graebe" by Douglas K. Huneke; "The Gospel of Life" by Pope John Paul II; "Mary Through the Ages" by Jaroslav Pelikan; and "A Christian Manifesto" by Francis Schaeffer.

Pro-life Masses

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg will take part in the 11:30 a.m. Diocesan Pro-Life Mass today at St. Philip the Apostle Church, 2111 Millersville Pike in Lancaster.

Tuesday is the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade.

Rhoades will travel, along with buses from around the diocese, to Washington, D.C., for the noon March for Life.

A youth Mass begins at 10 a.m. at the Verizon Center, 601 F St. N.W. in Washington.

On the Web

· National Pro-life Action Center, http://www.nplac.org

· Faith and Action, http://www.faithandaction.org

· Missionaries of the Gospel of Life, http://www.priestsforlife.org/vocations/index.htm

top  

Roe v. Wade

A young Texas woman named Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) filed suit to obtain an abortion in 1970.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade on Jan. 22, 1973. Debate has raged since - in the courts, in the legislature and beyond.

Twenty-three bills were passed or introduced this congressional session that dealt wholly or in part with abortion, and state legislatures continue to wrangle over competing measures to curb or expand access to abortions.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 2003 ban on a late-term abortion procedure. Abortion opponents called it a necessary check on a gruesome procedure. Abortion-rights advocates worried it moves the court closer to overturning Roe v. Wade.

top