On February 20, pro-life pioneer Dr. John Willke died at his home in Cincinnati at the age of 89.
Dr. Jack Willke (left) and Pro-Life Action League director Joe Scheidler at Jack’s 80th birthday party, April 5, 2005
The Handbook on Abortion by Dr. Jack and Barbara Willke became my Bible just as soon as abortion became legal nationwide in 1973.
It had been published in 1971 and was already on the shelves when the U.S. Supreme Court made abortion on demand the law of the land. I don’t know what we would have done without it. It answered all the questions we pro-lifers had in those early days, and we were glad someone had done our work for us.
The book ended up being used worldwide and was eventually translated into 32 languages and went through multiple reprintings.
The “Willke Slides”: An Invaluable Pro-Life Resource
Jack was an obstetrician who quit delivering babies in the late 1960s in order to work full-time in the abortion battle. But who was Jack Willke? And why did he do all his writing and give his talks with his wife, Barbara?
We soon found out that he was the head of a group of pro-lifers from all across America. And he shared his talks with Barbara, who was a nurse. They would pitch questions back and forth to each other. It made their talk more interesting. As soon as I heard about his pro-life group, I wanted to join it. So I did, and that’s how I got to meet Jack and Barbara. They had a meeting in Chicago in 1973, and I attended it.
Jack was easy to get to know, especially if he sensed that you were 100% pro-life. We talked about his book, and I found out that he also produced a set of slides — which eventually came to be known as the “Willke slides” — showing pre-natal development as well as graphic pictures of abortion done during all three trimesters.
I’ll never forget an early meeting with Jack in his hometown of Cincinnati when we ended the conference with a march through the downtown, chanting and singing, with our voices bouncing loudly off the buildings as we paraded. Jack had asked me to give a talk during the conference, and I will never forget how he corrected me right in the middle of my talk when I called an abortion mill a “clinic.” He said, loudly, “chamber.”
Friendship Remained Strong through the Years
Nobody questioned Jack’s total dedication to the cause of life or his way of defending it. He was president of National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) for most of the 1980s, and during that time I had two full-length articles in one of their editions of National Right to Life News. I also spoke at some of their conventions.
Then something happened and I became a persona non grata. Apparently I was getting too active for their group. I was no longer asked to write for the National Right to Life News, and I was no longer welcome at their conventions. In fact, they tried to keep me out of one of their conventions in New Orleans.
But this had no effect on Jack’s and my friendship. My wife Ann and I attended Jack’s 80th birthday party in Cincinnati in 2005, and at a gathering of pro-lifers in Washington in 2011, he and I were invited to give “Old Guard” talks along with Nellie Gray, foundress of the March for Life.
I never blamed Jack for the falling-out with National. In fact, I’ve always said Jack was a closet activist who liked our aggressive style of fighting abortion. We remained friends, and when I could manage it, I would walk with him at the March for Life in Washington.
The last time I talked to Jack was at Barbara’s wake in April, 2013. Ann and I had been on a trip to Tennessee and our return drive to Chicago took us close to Cincinnati so we altered our route enough to attend the wake. Jack was delighted to see us, and we had a long visit in which he described Barbara’s accident and wanted to know what the Pro-Life Action League was up to. He said he didn’t know what he was going to do without Barbara. We couldn’t stay for the funeral but we said prayers with Jack and the large group at the funeral home.
We will all miss Jack. His leadership was unquestioned and his contribution to ending abortion has already proved to have been a Godsend. He and Barbara were here at the right time and with the calling and the courage to lead the most important movement in this nation’s — and the world’s — history, fighting for the lives of the most helpless on earth.
We used his books, his pictures, his speeches, and his example of leadership. Now we need his prayers — and Barbara’s — to help us continue the battle that was so close to his heart.