CHICAGO ( -- Pro-life activists in the United States suffered a shocking setback on April 20 when a jury in Chicago found two pro-life groups guilty of extortion under a law designed to help fight organized crime.

      Joseph Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League, who has been battling in court with the National Organization of Women for 12 years, was ordered to pay $86,000 in damages to abortion clinics. Under the federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) law, Judge David Coar could triple that amount. And other abortion clinics could lodge their own claims, running the total award into the millions.

      Fay Clayton, an attorney for the National Organization of Women, called the verdict "the biggest courtroom defeat for the anti-abortion movement ever." Scheidler, however, said that he would appeal the court's decision, and remained resolute that he would continue acting to save unborn children. And Chicago's Cardinal Francis George said his archdiocese might join in the appeal, adding that the verdict was "unjust."

      The RICO law, passed by Congress in 1970, was originally intended to curb Mafia activities. The main author of the legislation, Professor Robert Blakely of the University of Notre Dame, said the legislation was being misused in this case, to stifle legitimate political protest. "Anyone who loves the First Amendment has got to sleep uneasily tonight," he told reporters.

      However, in 1994 the US Supreme Court ruled that the abortion clinics could use the RICO law against Scheidler and Operation Rescue. And when the case finally came to trial in Chicago, the clinics presented witnesses who said they felt threatened and intimidated by the tactics of the pro-life groups, which included pickets and blockades. Scheidler testified, to no avail, that he had always explicitly rejected all forms of violence.

      Scheidler was found guilty along with two colleagues, Andrew Scholberg and Timothy Murphy. Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, an original defendant in the case, had earlier reached an out-of-court settlement with the abortion clinics, clearing the way for his run for a seat in the US House of Representatives.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT:To subscribe to Catholic World News Service, available daily by e-mail, click here .

April 22, 1998 volume 9, no. 78         DAILY CATHOLIC