Rest In Peace, Dr. Jack Willke, Father of the Pro-Life Movement

Rest In Peace, Dr. Jack Willke, Father of the Pro-Life Movement February 21, 2015
Dr. John C. Willkie
Dr. John C. Willkie

Yesterday Dr. John Willke, known worldwide as the Father of the Pro-Life Movement, passed away unexpectedly at his home at the age of 89.

*     *     *     *     *

I was in college in about 1970, when I first learned of the pro-life work of Dr. John Willke.  One winter’s evening, a spokesperson for Dr. Willke’s recently founded organization Right To Life was invited to address my undergrad sociology class.  He brought with him a slide show which explained several ways that pregnancies could be ended by abortions.

Think how different the times were:  The Supreme Court had not yet issued its deadly Roe v. Wade decision, legalizing the killing of the unborn in every state in America.  In 1970, at least among my circle of friends, abortion was rarely discussed and we all had little information about what the procedure actually entailed.  The only way to get an abortion–at least in my part of the country–was to travel to New York, where a pregnancy could be deliberately ended without fear of criminal penalties.

But the winds of change were blowing, and feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug were demanding greater access to abortion in every state.

Enter a Cincinnati-based physician, Dr. John Willke, and his wife Barbara.  The Willkies began speaking about abortion, traveling around the country to explain the ghastly procedure.  When they could no longer keep up with the demand for their pro-life talks, they began to write books and to develop the slide presentation that I saw.

Here was my reaction:  I was young and still single.  I didn’t know much about babies or about abortion, but as I looked at the fetal remains–arms and legs, burned torsos, swollen heads–I understood that I couldn’t do that to a rabbit.  I became pro-life by watching those slides.

Years later, I sat in Dr. Willkie’s office at National Right To Life in Washington D.C. and told him that story.  He got tears in his eyes as he revealed that he was, in fact, the author of those slides.

*     *     *     *     *

I met the Willkies a few times in the years that followed–and of course, I read their books.  Once, during my years as conference director for Legatus, I met them during the organization’s international conference in Florida.  Always humble, the Willkies preferred to stay, not at the first-class hotel where the rest of the members were housed, but down the road at a less-expensive hotel with the conference organizers.  They regaled us with stories at breakfast on the terrace, then rode with me in a trolley to the conference venue.

 *     *     *     *     *

In case you haven’t heard, these are the methods of abortion which were explained and illustrated on those slides so many years ago:

Suction aspiration, the simplest form used in the first six to 12 weeks of pregnancy The  Pro-Life Action League explains the procedure:

Suction aspiration, the most common abortion method, is typically performed when the fetus is 6-12 weeks, but can be used up to 16 weeks. The cervix is dilated, and a hollow plastic tube with a sharp tip is inserted into the cervix and then into the uterus. An aspirator attached to the tube tears the body of the fetus apart and suctions the pieces through the tube. 

D & C (dilation and curettage), used in the sixth through 12th weeks of pregnancy.

A suction/D & C abortion is performed when the fetus is 6-12 weeks. The cervix is opened using an osmotic dilator. Then a curette (a thin metal rod with a knife-sharp loop at the end) is inserted into the uterus. The curette is used to dismember the fetus.

After this, a cannula (a hollow plastic tube) attached to a suction aspirator is inserted to remove the fetus, placenta and uterine lining. These are captured by a stockinet attached to the end of the suction tube.

A D & E (dilation and evacuation) abortion is performed in the second trimester (12-24 weeks).

D & E and is usually a 2-3 day procedure. At this stage of pregnancy, the fetus’ tendons, muscles, and bones are more developed. The cervix has closed more tightly and must be dilated enough to remove the larger fetus.

To aid in cervical dilation, laminaria (dried seaweed sticks) are inserted into the cervix. The dilation process can take 1-2 days depending on the size of the fetus.

Once the cervix is sufficiently dilated, the laminaria are removed. Forceps are inserted into the uterus to forcibly dismember the fetus. The skull is then crushed and removed. A suction aspiration is then introduced to remove any remaining fetal parts, the placenta and uterine lining.

D & X (dilation and extraction, or partial birth abortion) is offered after 24 weeks, when the fetus is too large to be removed via any of the simpler procedures.  Pro-Life Action League describes that procedure:

As with the D & E, the cervix must be dilated using laminaria.

Forceps are then introduced into the uterus to grasp the baby’s legs. The baby is delivered breech while the head remains inside the birth canal. Using blunt-tipped surgical scissors, the base of the skull is pierced and a suction catheter is inserted to extract the brain. This causes the skull to collapse and the dead baby is then fully delivered.

Those were the forms of abortion commonly available in 1973.  A chemical abortion (RU-486) was developed later, and involves at least three visits to the doctor’s office or clinic.

At the first visit, the woman is given a physical exam and is administered mifepristone. RU-486 blocks the action of progesterone, the natural hormone vital to maintaining the lining of the uterus. The embryo starves as the nutrient lining disintegrates.

At a second visit, 36-48 hours later, the woman is giving a dose of artificial prostaglandins, usually misoprostol, which initiate uterine contractions and usually cause the embryo to be expelled from the uterus. Most women abort during the four hour waiting period, but about 30% abort as many as five days later—at home, work, etc.

A third visit about 2 weeks later determines whether the abortion has occurred or if a surgical abortion is necessary to complete the procedure.

*     *     *     *     *

This week, the world has lost a great spokesperson for the babies, the children abandoned in their mothers’ wombs.  Brad Mattes of Life Issues Institute, a long-time friend of Dr. Willke, announced:

“We are deeply saddened to report that Dr. Jack Willke, president of Life Issues Institute, passed away unexpectedly at his home on Friday, February 20. Dr. Willke and his wife Barbara, who proceeded him in death, were considered the parents of the pro-life movement. Their educational materials have been responsible for educating millions on abortion and were translated into 32 languages.

“Words can’t possibly express how sad we feel. Jack was almost 90 and we new the time was approaching when he’d join his dear Barbara in heaven, but it’s hard to say goodbye. Jack has been my mentor and colleague for over 23 years and was a second father to me.”

 Mattes added,

“I can only imagine the greeting Jack received in heaven. Millions of babies whom he tirelessly worked to saved, joyfully welcoming him home.” 

What a joy it must be to stand at the throne of Christ and to hear the words, “Well done, good and loyal servant.”  

I am grateful to Dr. Willkie for his tireless service.  Because of him, hearts have been changed, lives have been saved, and the world has become a better place.  There is still work to be done–but continue we must, following in his noble footsteps.

*     *     *     *     *

In November 2014, Dr. Willkie offered a Thanksgiving message.  In this brief video, he responds to the question, “Will we get a pro-life president?”

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  • captcrisis

    The pro-life movement actually should have a mother, not a father, and I’d go with Susan B. Anthony, but she was also in favor of equal rights for women, anathema to the Church in those days.

    • jakeslaw

      Susan B Anthony, Alice Paul and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were all anti-abortion leaders in the original woman’s movement. The modern woman’s movement ignored their strong pro-life position and tried to enshrine abortion in the constitution through the ERA. Phyllis Schlafley successfully rallied the country to stop the ERA. The modern founders of the pro-life movement who were amazing women were Dr. Mildred Jefferson, M.D., Erma Clardy Craven, Dr. Carolyn Gerster, M.D., and Nellie Grey.

      • Fr. Charles Hurkes

        I could not agree more with you. I met and introduced the first three of those marvelous women to different groups with which I was associated years ago I would add that Dr. Wilke’s wife Barbara should be mentionedright up there with them. Those two were going around the country before their pro-life days giving teiffic talks on moral sex education. God bless them. Bishop Michael Pfeifer, OMI named Nellie Grey the “Patroness of Pro-Life Ministries in the San Angelo (TX) diocese.–Fr. Charles

      • Gail Finke

        And Barbara Willke!

      • Intelligent Mr Toad

        WRONG! There is nothing in Susan B. Anthony’s writing or political activism which indicates that she favored banning abortion. Some articles in a journal she edited expressed a right-to-lifist view, but nothing SHE wrote ever did.

        The claim that she was a right-to-lifer is just another right-to-lifist lie.

        • jakeslaw

          “The prosecutions on our courts for breach of promise, divorce, adultery, bigamy, seduction, rape; the newspaper reports every day of every year of scandals and outrages, of wife murders and paramour shooting, of abortions and infanticides, are perpetual reminders of men’s incapacity to cope successfully with this monster evil of society.” March 14, 1875 Speech given in Chicago by Susan B. Anthony.

          Anthony was pro-life as were all of the leaders of the women’s movement at the time. She pointed out the evils attacking women including abortion.

          She also wrote in her magazine The Revolution, published July 8, 1869 the following:

          “Guilty? Yes, no matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh! thrice guilty is he who, for selfish gratification, heedless of her prayers, indifferent to her fate, drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime.”[36]”Guilty? Yes, no matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh! thrice guilty is he who, for selfish gratification, heedless of her prayers, indifferent to her fate, drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime.”


          I would ask anyone who claims she was not pro-life what that person’;s particular position is on abortion. To those who dispute the contention that the society as a whole saw abortion as an evil attack on human life, I can only say that they are attempting to re-write history. In the late 1800s abortion was seen for what it was – an attack on the dignity of the human person, on the bond between mother and child, as “child murder.”

          but then it is clear from Mr. Toad’s other comments that he is simply trolling and saying stupid things. Abortion is the killing of an innocent human being. It is always wrong to kill an innocent human being.

          • Intelligent Mr Toad


            In order to be a right-to-lifer, it is not enough to disapprove of abortion, or even to use rhetorical devices like the phrase “child-murder” against abortion. In order to be a right-to-lifer, one must believe that abortion should be BANNED, AND PUNISHED, BY GOVERNMENT Belief in a government ban supported by government punishment is the essence of right-to-lifism.

            Your first quotation is an essay about male sexuality. It lists abortion as an evil results of unfettered male sexuality, but does NOT say it should be banned by government. If she thought abortion should be banned by government, and that pregnant women should be forced to grow their pregnancies and to give birth against their wills, why didn’t she say so?

            She objected to the convention that women should be expected to endure abortions (which were dangerous at that time, unlike today) in order to accommodate male sexuality, but she did not support government banning it.

            Your second quotation is from an anonymous essay published in SBA’s journal and signed “A.” Not necessarily by SBA herself. If she opposed abortion, why not write about it under her own name? Also, this article clearly identifies abortion as something inflicted upon women by men, not as something chosen by women for themselves.

            You wrote: “It is always wrong to kill an innocent human being.” This is wrong. Suppose a criminally-insane, and therefore innocent, attacker comes at you with a spear and all you have to defend yourself with is a shotgun. Then it is right for you to kill the innocent-by-reason-of-insanity attacker.

            More to the point, the unwelcome unborn are NOT innocent. They are free of guilty intentions, but it is possible to be unintentionally guilty, for instance if you forget to pay your taxes, you are guilty without intending to be so.

            The unwelcome unborn are guilty of at least three unintentional, but still impermissible, violations. 1. They are located inside another person’s body where they are not welcome. GUILTY! 2. They are taking material–oxygen, water, nutrients–from another person’s bloodstream, and injecting their metabolic end-products–CO2, creatinine–into her bloodstream without her continuing consent. GUILTY! And 3.they are preparing to subject another person to major medical/surgical trauma (childbirth) against that person’s will, without her permission. GUILTY!

            Just as you would be entitled to use deadly force against any already-born person who tried to do these three things to you without your permission, so a pregnant woman is entitled to use deadly force against her fetus, EVEN THOUGH THE FETUS IS A PERSON.

            Abortion on demand kills a person, but it is justifiable homicide, not murder.

            This explains why so many Americans today have personal moral objections to abortion but still believe it should remain legal. Americans feel sorry for the poor widdle fetuses, but they will never allow ordinary women, women they know, to be forced by government to grow pregnancies they prefer to terminate and to endure labor and delivery against their wills.

          • jakeslaw

            Pro-abortion apologists such as yourself will endeavor to confuse the issue. The fact that abortion is listed as an evil speaks to the attitude of the speaker. You have no information to support her wanting it legal. No one can point to a single statement by any of the leaders I mentioned where they called for legalizing “child murder.” At the time she spoke, abortion was a crime punishable with prison time. As someone who was promoting equality, it is inconsistent that she would in the same breath want the ability to kill children.

            The rest of your arguments are jibberish. They are not logical and violate a host of conventions. The child under normal circumstances comes into being as a result of the voluntary actions of the parents who know or should know that certain actions will result in the conception of a child. The child is not guilty of any of the claims you make. They are all nonsense. And finally you know nothing about the law and the rules required in order to use force, much less deadly force.

            The truth is that you know abortion is wrong but for some reason you cannot bring yourself to admit it. I can only recommend you continue to seek the truth and in time you will come to appreciate the humanity of every person, born and unborn.

          • Intelligent Mr Toad

            You have not read very carefully. You wrote: “The truth is that you know abortion is wrong….”

            But whether or not abortion is wrong is not the question at the heart of the life/choice debate. That question is whether or not government should (or may) ban abortion. (Almost everyone believes that it is almost always wrong to smoke tobacco, but it does not follow that government should, or that government may, ban tobacco.)

            You wrote “you know nothing about the law and the rules required in order to use force, much less deadly force.”

            I’m not talking about the law. I’m talking about morality, ethics–the circumstances under which deadly force is RIGHT, not the circumstances under which it is legal. If a law prohibits deadly force against the fetus at the mother’s request, that law is WRONG. Morally wrong and ethically wrong.

            You need to read more carefully before you comment. Maybe wait until your comment is complete before you break out the Jack Daniels.

            Finally, yes the fetus (not “child”–any medical dictionary will tell you that while it is unborn it is a fetus, not a “baby” nor a “child”–It becomes a “baby” when it is born, and a “child” later than that) IS guilty of the three violations I have described. Do you think they are not violations? Try having someone do them to you without your consent and you will see that they are. The mother is morally entitled to defend and protect herself with deadly force against her fetus.

            If something is located inside your body, then you are entitled to kill it, no matter what it is. Even if it’s a person. If ALL the people in the world were assembled inside your body, along with Almighty God and Jesus Christ, then you would be entitled to holocaust them (including, entitled to kill Almighty God and Jesus Christ). That’s part of the meaning of the world “your” in the phrase “your body”.

    • jessej

      Never understood that mentality captcrisis. Slaves did not lament over Lincoln’s lack of blackness. They rejoiced in his moral clarity on the subject.
      Little girls who enjoy their lives thanks to Dr Willke will not think to jump off a bridge when they find their mothers kept them thanks to the moral clarity of a man.

      • captcrisis

        With abortion being framed as a “women’s rights” issue, it is tone-deaf and counterproductive to talk about the “father” of the pro-life movement. It is also counterproductive to throw in gratuitous jabs at “feminism”, particularly when the Church has changed its mind and now agrees with almost everything it used to oppose about the feminist agenda.

        • jessej

          Lots of people found Lincoln tone deaf too. I’m not sure why you insist on equating some sort of tone with productivity. History shows tone and productivity are mutually exclusive.

          Just an aside, it’s not necessary to end every point the same was capt. Everybody knows the Church is responsible for everything bad ever in the history of the universe :/


  • Amy

    I met Dr. Willke and his wife Barbara when they came to Hawaii in the mid-1980s.
    R.I.P. John, R.I.P. Barbara.

  • $46617944

    Too bad for Pro-Life activists that they have to find out again and again that no matter what, reasonable people always side in the middle of the issue. This is why Roe V Wade has already established a compromise and middle ground from the beginning.

    You folks on this channel would be surprised to meet and hear how many Pro-Life identifying Americans still support legal abortion in cases they approve of personally.

    • kathyschiffer

      Abigail, So “reasonable people” kill their children when? When they’re not convenient? When they’re too small to defend themselves? Sorry–your viewpoint is extremely distasteful.

      • captcrisis

        They don’t think of it as killing their children.

        • kathyschiffer

          A rose by any other name will smell as sweet. Killing one’s children, whether you call it “abortion” or “selective reduction” or whatever, is still killing one’s children. Who cares what “they” think?

          • captcrisis

            Abortion is the law of the land and will remain so unless significant numbers of people change their minds. You won’t change anyone’s mind unless you understand them.

          • kathyschiffer

            Unless THEY understand US.

          • Korou

            That’s the spirit. You keep on with that attitude.

    • Gail Finke

      What is “middle” about Roe v. Wade? In this country, abortion is legal at all stages until birth, for any reason — or no reason. Where is the “middle” in any of that?

    • jessej

      Abigale, like slavery there really is no middle ground. Either you are for the stronger bullying the weak when it suits you or societes whims; Or you believe the weak have the same rights as the strong.

  • Miles V. Schmidt

    While a student at the Univ of Michigan in October 1972, our small Pro-Life group invited Dr. Wilke to speak on campus. He accepted. He slept in my bed as we put him up in my apartment with a slew of other students sleeping on sleeping bags on the floor. He was kind and humble. He gave us copies of his “Bible”, Handbook on abortion”. We won the election in Michigan but thanks to good ‘ole Notre Dame Catholics like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brennan, our victory was short-lived as Roe v. Wade was handed down on January 22, 2073. RIP

    • Korou

      Considering that the Bible says nothing against abortion, it must have been rather a short book!

      • kathyschiffer

        There are numerous teachings in Scripture that make it abundantly clear what God’s view of abortion is.
        Jeremiah 1:5tells us that God knows us before He forms us in the womb.
        Psalm 139:13-16speaks of God’s active role in our creation and formation in the womb.
        Exodus 21:22-25prescribes the same penalty—death—for someone who causes the death of a baby in the womb as for someone who commits murder. This clearly indicates that God considers a baby in the womb to be as human as a full-grown adult.

        For the Christian, abortion is not a matter of a woman’s right to choose. It is a matter of the life or death of a human being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27;9:6).

        • Intelligent Mr Toad

          1..God “knowing us” before he forms us in the womb is not an argument against abortion. Abortion occurs AFTER we are formed in the womb, not before.

          2. The idea that God takes an active role in our creation does not entitle us to nine months of womb time, if the womb’s owner does not wish to give that time.

          3. Exodus 21:22 refers to an accidental miscarriage, not to an abortion performed at the request of the womb’s owner (the pregnant woman).

          These scriptures you quote support the idea that the fetus is a person. But merely being a person does not entitle the fetus to nine months of womb time which the womb-owner does not wish to give, nor does it entitle the fetus to inflict labor and delivery upon its mother against her will. Abortion on demand may kill a person, but it is justifiable homicide, not murder.

          There is nothing in the Bible that says pregnant women should be forced to grow their pregnancies. If the authors of the Bible had meant to ban abortion, they would have said so in so many words.

        • Korou

          No, Kathy, there are not numerous teachings in Scripture that show God being against abortion. There are none at all.

          Jeremiah 1:5 – this is just God talking to Jeremiah, basically saying “You are a part of a plan I have been working on since before you were conceived”. Notice he doesn’t say “Before you were born you knew me,” he says “Before you were born I knew you.” Well, He’s God; he knows everything.

          Psalm 139:13-16 – this is meaningless. God knows everything and created everything. All this verse says is that God watched zygotes change into fetuses and into babies.

          Genesis 1:26-27 and 9:6 – all these mean is God saying “I love humans and am proud of them.” That’s a sentiment I can certainly agree with, but it’s of no help to the pro-life side because most pro-choicers don’t see abortion as murder.

        • Korou

          Finally, Exodus 21:22-25:
          “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there
          is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be
          fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he
          shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall
          give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot
          for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

          So. When men are fighting and a pregnant woman is injured and so has a miscarriage (but the woman herself was not hurt) the man who injured her will be fined; but if the woman was injured then the man who injured her will be repaid in kind.

          The scripture doesn’t say what you think. Can I recommend this article to you:

          A few excerpts:
          (on discussing similar situations in other Near Eastern cultures)
          “The details in each of these cases vary, and the penalties in some of
          the ancient Near Eastern cases would strike most of us as repugnant.
          What is common to all of these similar cases, though, is that the
          question of injury is with regard to the mother, not to the miscarried
          infant. This probably suggests that the biblical law, too, is about the
          degree of harm to the mother after she loses the child, not about the
          degree of harm to the infant after being born alive. The law’s severe
          consequences, in that case, are about the harm to a mother, not to a
          fetus. But all should acknowledge that this is, at most, probable but
          still not certain.”

          “Moreover, this biblical passage is not about abortion. It is about
          accidental miscarriage. It is about the unintended consequences of a
          fight. Involving miscarriage rather than abortion, and being about
          unintended consequences rather than about a procedure whose consequences
          are planned, this law is an extremely difficult precedent on which to
          base any view: either for abortion or against it. The goal at best,
          therefore, is not to get a direct ruling on abortion from it. Rather,
          people on both sides of abortion debates seek to find some basic
          principle in the case that might then apply to the question of abortion.
          That is a good approach. But the passage is just too uncertain even for
          that. It simply cannot be the basis for a definitive answer to such an
          important issue. William Propp’s superb two-volume commentary on the
          book of Exodus includes a detailed treatment of this law’s many
          uncertainties, which go even beyond the ones we listed above. A reading
          of those pages will show why no one should rely on this enigmatic
          passage to form a view on abortion.”

          • Korou

            Well, it’s been awhile now. I trust that you found my answers sufficiently polite in explaining your mistake? And I hope that, now you have had time to think it over you can see that there is nothing against abortion in the Bible?

          • kathyschiffer

            No, Korou. Here’s one example straight from the Bible: Thou shalt not kill.

          • Korou

            Ah. Retreating to other, even weaker, arguments. I’ll take that as the closest I’ll get to an admission that you were wrong.

        • Korou

          Ahem – sorry, meant to write it here.
          Anyway, can I expect an answer now?

  • Intelligent Mr Toad

    If Dr. Willke was “the father” of the contemporary right-to-life movement, then he bears a burden of guilt for the terrorism (including eight murders) committed by the right-to-life movement.

    • jessej

      IMT So…would Alexander Fleming be a moral monster for inventing penicillin?
      People die from allergic reactions to penecillin often.

      Why has history mislabeled Mr Fleming a hero:/?

      You could start a campaign to abolish all antibiotics and set the record straight concerning this ugly chapter in human history :/

      • kathyschiffer

        Oh, and that dastardly foe of human health, Henry Ford! He developed the automobile, which results in 30,000 fatal crashes per year!

  • Richie Nearsen

    “Cutting Commentary”

    Abortion foes never want
    to admit the fact they won’t confront:
    Those unviable tissues that they treasure
    Are not babies by any measure.

    Yet righteous guys, who never bear
    a mote of life, will fiercely swear,
    It’s against God’s will to terminate
    cells gals alone can germinate.

    As long as dogma directs the issue
    of what to make of useless tissue,
    A woman’s rights will be repressed
    by those who think they know what’s best.

    By Kenneth S. “Ken” Spalding