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It might have been vaguely tragic if it had been a good idea, but the collapse of a bad idea never seems like anything but the work of merciful destiny. The funny thing is that even now that the brouhaha has died away, everyone involved still seems surprised that their plans for a judicious, philosophical discussion about abortion went awry.
Representatives from groups as disparate as Illinois Right to Life, Planned Parenthood, the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women, and the Pro-Life Action League were invited to drop by IIT’s Chicago-Kent College of Law recently to kick around a few points. The speakers weren’t even supposed to talk about the abortion question per se, but to discuss how the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey would affect their various political strategies. It seems fitting that Casey, a case widely considered to have made little change in abortion’s legal status, was the basis for the sound and fury that erupted a few days before the panel, when students discovered that one of the scheduled speakers was the notorious Joe Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League.
The panel was planned as part of Chicago-Kent’s “Dedication Week,” the culmination of a full year’s worth of events in honor of the school’s new building at Adams and State. Chicago-Kent takes its dedications seriously. The school opened a new office with expanded staff to handle the burden of all the extra activities this year.
“They’re dedicating everything at our school,” says Kirsten Olson, vice-president of Chicago-Kent’s Women in Law society. “They’re putting a lot of money into PR and really pushing it because Kent wants to be more competitive with the top schools.”
Chicago-Kent even dedicated a public bathroom last May, hanging a plaque designed by Nicole Hollander in a women’s rest room on the third floor of the new building. The plaque commemorated a 1976 protest by female law students against the shortage of women’s bathrooms in the old building on Wacker Drive. In that protest a group of women occupied a men’s bathroom, festooning the walls with lingerie and putting flowering plants in the urinals. The administration capitulated, and the women got their bathroom.
Women in Law scored another victory against their administration in the Dedication Week crisis, but it seems even less substantial than the acquisition of a powder room. The students had heard tales of Scheidler’s repulsive protest methods, as well as rumors of rudeness and misogyny. Members of the group met with the school’s dean, Richard Matasar, and said that if Scheidler had to be on the panel, they’d rather have no panel at all.
Matasar maintains that he can’t judge Scheidler until he’s seen him in action. “I don’t know him, so I can’t speak of him personally, but he clearly represents a group that’s been active,” Matasar said last week. “Some people suggest that he goes beyond proper discourse, and if that’s so he’s not proper for the panel. I can’t decide until I see him.”
Now Matasar may never find out. After making little headway with him, Women in Law called several of the panelists and told them that Scheidler had been invited. “That’s the sad part of it,” says Chicago NOW president Sue Purrington. “It was the students who told me who would be on the panel. I hadn’t known who it would be until the students warned me that it was turning into an antichoice, David Duke kind of thing. I just wish I had gotten a letter letting me know who was scheduled.”
Purrington says that she and other leaders of the prochoice movement categorically refuse to speak on panels with Scheidler.
“Most of us in the prochoice community don’t appear with him because of his lack of respect for women, his unconcern for women and women’s lives, his total disregard for them,” Purrington says. She adds that she thinks it’s a waste of time to prepare for a panel when nothing productive will be said.
“When there is someone who presents an educational case for his or her side, one leaves having learned something. That’s what these forums are for, not for shouting matches,” she says. “I’ve observed many, many platforms in the past where nothing’s gone on but yelling and screaming.”
Purrington isn’t the only one who emphasizes the importance of civility. It’s a central priority for everyone involved. Scheidler himself echoes the decorous chorus.
“I planned to be there and answer some questions they gave me,” Scheidler says. “Did they think I was going to blow up the room or something?”
Still, the members of Women in Law say that they had no objection to the other prolife panelists, Illinois Right to Life president Mary Anne Hackett and Northwestern law professor Victor Rosenbloom, who presumably know how to behave themselves. The students insist that they’re not prochoice or prolife–they’re just anti-Scheidler.
Dean Matasar says that he cautioned the students that there are extremes on both ends of the political spectrum. “Back when I was going to school, it was thought that you couldn’t have Stokely Carmichael or Angela Davis on a panel,” he points out. “Although you might not want to share a podium with Scheidler, it’s conceivable that he’s a person of conscience.”
Mary Anne Hackett, who originally suggested that the Dedications Office invite Scheidler to the panel, endorses him enthusiastically, crediting him with single-handedly keeping the abortion question before the public for the past 20 years. She dismisses the students’ loud assurances that abortion itself isn’t the point. All the smoke over the guest list, she says, is just a cunning guise for prochoice maneuvering.
“I think the women’s group is complaining because they’re proabortion. It’s plain and simple,” Hackett says. “He’s not a criminal. He’s an activist. He organizes pickets, and he’s one of the most popular speakers in the country. Does that sound like an irrational person who shouts people down?”
Scheidler says that while his speaking engagements are often called off, it’s just because the other side is scared of him and his methods. Though he says that he would never shout anyone down in a discussion, Scheidler admits proudly to pulling bloody refuse out of trash cans behind abortion clinics. But, he points out, this is no more grisly than the tactics of those who try to silence him at his talks.
“I was at Indiana University in Bloomington, and students came in and vomited on the podium,” Scheidler says. “I just kept on speaking. I’ve had them yell obscenities during my talks, I’ve had homosexuals threaten to bite me, I’ve had them make effigies of me. In Oakland they threatened to stick the guests who were coming to my talk with infected needles.”
Despite chicken-and-egg-style arguments about whose extremism inspired whom, Scheidler’s anecdotes can’t help but place him in grim perspective. It’s the price of passion in America’s current “cultural war”: the two sides are so rigidly unwavering, the tactics so extreme, that the issues themselves fade from view. When all questions of substance are moot, the fiercest debates revolve around style.
Chicago-Kent plans to reschedule the panel for later this fall, this time with panelists selected by the students. Matasar speaks of the whole incident with some regret. He remembers a time when conservative administrators tried to silence left-wing radicals by denouncing their methods. In his stand for tolerance Matasar inadvertently became Scheidler’s champion, and it was left to the students to forestall the development of a shouting match. The Women in Law found themselves departing incongruously from the tradition of student activism in order to make a strident plea for moderation.