Washington Hall at the University of Notre Dame was packed to the rafters. In a few minutes a physician and his wife would walk onstage and begin a presentation to hundreds of students and faculty about a new issue on the national scene. The topic was abortion and the year was 1972. The phrase “a storm is coming” has come into frequent use of late. But that was certainly the case more than four decades agoa storm was indeed coming and few understood just how sweeping it would be.
Jack Willke, M.D., and his wife and coauthor Barbara, a nurse and mother of six, were the speakers that night four decades back. They were about to present information and images that were surely on the fringe of most people’s knowledge and experience at the time. They were about to show, in a medical and academic context, what abortion waswhere it was happening, who was doing it, how it was being justified, how the medical, media and legal communities were moving to provide that justification, what it could do to women, what it always did to the child she was carrying.
In the audience that night, helping to organize the event and encourage students, already roiled by the controversies over the Vietnam War, widespread drug use, and changing sexual mores, were several dozen students from the nascent student pro-life group at Notre Dame. The faculty mentor was Notre Dame Law School professor Charles Rice. The group president was Mark Souder, later to represent the Fort Wayne, Indiana, area in Congress. Others present included the Willkes’ daughters: Theresa, soon to become a member of the first class of women admitted to Notre Dame, and Marie, then a student, like Theresa, at St. Mary’s College across U.S. 31.
I was there as well, and like dozens of other students, was deeply affected that night by the Willkes’ talk, a presentation they had given, and were to give, in every corner of the United States and in dozens of nations overseas. No one logged more miles or spent more time and energy to alert their fellow citizens to the storm and to champion the lives of the unborn.
It is hard for today’s mind to understand the atmosphere around this issue in the period before the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, or the atmosphere generally before the various revolutions of the 1960s took full root in the following decades. Strange as it may seem to say, some things were just not talked about. Cultural conservatism was so widespread that there was very likely no name for the phenomenonit was just the norma norm powerful forces were determined to break.
Some tend to ascribe those forces to radical feminism, but that’s not quite right. In the late 1960s, the drive for changes in U.S. abortion law was emanating as much or more from elite figures who viewed them as necessary to deal with rapid population growth. The 1972 report of the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, established by an act of Congress signed into law by President Nixon, paid some lip service to notions of sexual equality, but its message and policy recommendations revolved around the idea of eliminating excess people.
To the audience at Notre Dame that night, the Willkes brought a message of human rights, of respect for the smallest and weakest among us, and of optimism about the human future. They pulled back the veil of rhetoric covering the brutal reality of “abortion rights.” With full awareness of the passions the images they brought might evoke, they debunked the language of abortion advocates regarding the “products of conception” or “uterine contents.” They were medical experts speaking to a university audience at risk of being deluded about the reality of fetal development. This was not graphic signage in a public march (where it remains, I believe, inappropriate to this day) but a briefing about a core, contested issue: Is the unborn child one of us? Human? Our brother or sister?
Over their long and indefatigable careers, the Willkes did much more than educate and inspire tens of thousands of pro-life adherents. As I came to know them in our hometown of Cincinnati and to spend time with the family, working for years as a pro-life volunteer, I saw up close how they lived their lives in service to their ideals.
Their home in Finneytown always had at least one extra resident, an expectant mother or a teenager struggling with depression or family problems. They were, from the very beginning of their work, strong advocates for pregnancy help centers, maternity homes and positive alternatives. They coined the slogan, “Why can’t we love them both?” to counter the criticism of politicians who taunted right to lifers with allegedly caring for human life in the womb but abandoning it at birth.
The Willkes published book after book on the basics of embryology and the arguments for life. They understood how people received and digested information, organizing their books in question-and-answer formats to deal with key topics, documenting each assertion as their professional backgrounds dictated. We forget how certain information and images once were scarce commodities. I remember seeing for the first time pictures the Willkes had obtained through a clandestine source from a Canadian hospital. It showedno better word describes ita mound of small bodies collected in a pailthe result of one day’s abortions in a jurisdiction where the practice was supposedly illegal.
All of it was a reminder of a point they made often and well. Illegal abortion was most often an abortion performed by a doctornot in a back alley, but at a barren place where a physician had abandoned the Hippocratic Oath.
Over the years I got to know Jack and Barbara Willke even better, through Ohio Right to Life and ultimately National Right to Life Committee where Jack was vice president and I had my first full-time job in Washington. They were pivotal days, as the pro-life movement grew rapidly in the teeth of the sweeping rulings of the Supreme Court and a pro-life President, Ronald Reagan, wrested the White House from Jimmy Carter.
As Dr. Willke recounts in his and Barbara’s just-released history of the right to life movement, those years saw both a great flowering of hope of reversing Roe v. Wade and a crushing defeat when the pro-life movement split over two approaches to dealing with the abortion rulings. In 1983 the U.S. Senate rejected both a Human Life Bill and the Hatch Amendment, a constitutional amendment that would have returned the abortion issue to the jurisdiction of the states. From that point on, at least until the recent renaissance of pro-life legislation, the right to life movement rededicated itself to providing alternatives to abortion and educating the next generation.
Today, all of these approaches are bearing fruit. The Willkes were deeply engaged in each of them. Indeed, their children (sometimes ruefully at the time) can recount how the entire family was so engaged. It wasn’t possible just to be in their vicinityto be nearby was to be on the team. The long and short of it was that the Willkes were leaders, a couple bonded in love, marriage, and faith, who recognized where our culture was headed and strove to head it in another direction.
Jack and Barbara lived long enough that millions of young pro-life Americans who benefited from, may even be the result of, their lifelong leadership would not recognize their names. But those of us in the middle way, who learned from them and knew their compassion and integrity, will not forget them and all they did to foster the right to lifea flame that will not go out.
On Friday, February 20, J. C. Willke, M.D., passed away unexpectedly. He has gone to rejoin his beloved Barbara, the perfect complement to the mission he served for so many decades. In an odd way, and I do not think it would offend him to say so, it was surprising that Jack carried on so long after Barbara’s death in 2013. They were inseparable. The last time I saw them both was five years ago when they let me join them on a cab ride across D.C. after a pro-life meeting. It was a ten-minute journey, but there they were, Jack and Barb, sitting in the back seat, talking seriously about “the cause” one moment, then laughing together like two teenagers swept up in their brand new love for each other.
That is how they were. And that, alongside all the good they did, is how I will always remember them.
Chuck Donovan is the president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the education and research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List.