Remembering John Willke, One of the Pro-Life Movement's 'Most Influential Activists'
'There is no way to quantify the contributions Jack Willke, along with his wife, Barbara, made to the right-to-life movement,' said Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life.
CINCINNATI — Pro-life leaders marked the death of Dr. John Willke by praising his adamant stand against legalized abortion and his tireless dedication to helping women and their unborn children.
“The right-to-life movement has lost one of its most influential activists,” Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, said Feb. 23. “But we know that Dr. Willke’s legacy of education and activism will live on in the countless men and women who were inspired to join the fight for life because of his efforts.”
Willke died Feb. 20 at the age of 89. He practiced as an obstetrician before beginning to work against abortion in the 1960s. He and his wife helped motivate pro-life groups working at the state level even before the U.S. Supreme Court imposed permissive abortion laws nationwide in 1973.
“There is no way to quantify the contributions Jack Willke, along with his wife, Barbara, made to the right-to-life movement,” Tobias added.
As president of National Right to Life from 1980 to 1991, Willke made many media appearances and traveled around the world to advance the pro-life movement. Among his 12 books were the 1971 Handbook on Abortion, which sold 1.5 million copies, and the 2014 Abortion and the Pro-Life Movement, a history of abortion, with a special focus on the United States since 1960. He co-authored both books with his wife.
Willke was founder of the International Right to Life Federation, and, in 1991, he founded the Cincinnati-based Life Issues Institute.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine on Feb. 21 praised Willke as “a worldwide leader in the right-to-life movement” who, with his wife, “brought great passion to their mission to protect the unborn.”
“He will be remembered as a great teacher, friend and stalwart leader, in giving a voice to the most vulnerable in our society. He will be greatly missed.”
Family friend Chuck Donovan, president of the pro-life education and research group the Charles Lozier Institute, said the Willkes “did much more than educate and inspire.”
Willke encouraged pro-life advocates to focus on both pregnant women and their unborn children and was a leading popularizer of the phrase “Why can’t we love them both?”
“They were, from the very beginning of their work, strong advocates for pregnancy-help centers, maternity homes and positive alternatives,” Donovan wrote in a Feb. 23 essay at First Things.
He noted that the Willkes were always hosting an expectant mother or a troubled teenager at their Cincinnati home. Willke and his wife had six children, 22 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Barbara Willke died in 2013.
Donovan said, “They brought a message of human rights, of respect for the smallest and weakest among us and of optimism about the human future.”