“Since the old ethic has not yet been fully displaced it has become necessary to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing, which continues to be socially abhorrent. The result has been a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extra- uterine until death. The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as anything but the taking of a human life would be ludicrous if they were not often put forth under socially impeccable auspices.” California Medicine, September 1970 (now the Western Journal of Medicine).
When those words were being written by the medical establishment in California, Dr. Jack Willke, an Ohio doctor, and his wife Barbara, a registered nurse, were embarking on a lifelong mission to spread that scientific fact: human life does indeed begin at conception and continues until death. Their Handbook on Abortion, written in question and answer form, was published in 1971 and became the de facto “bible” for the nascent pro-life movement in the United States and abroad.
The Willkes were reluctant pioneers in the pro-life movement. They had married in 1948. Jack established his medical practice and he and Barbara started their family of six children. In the 1950’s they began speaking at marriage preparation classes and giving talks on parenting at their parish. The parenting classes inspired their first book, a handbook for parents on how to teach their children about the facts of life, which sold over 250,000 copies.
Pressure to legalize abortion in several states gathered steam in the late 1960’s and early 70’s before the Roe v. Wade decision. In 1970 the Willkes met Fr. Paul Marx, an early leader in the pro-life movement, who challenged them to get involved. They grew increasingly aware of the great moral, ethical and health care implications of legalized abortion. Dr. Willke became the head of Ohio Right to Life, and from 1980 to 1991, president of the National Right to Life Committee in Washington, D.C. The couple then founded the Life Issues Institute.
For over four decades the Willkes tirelessly spoke on life issues—abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide—throughout the U.S. and in some 83 other countries. They wrote 14 books together and contributed to more than a dozen others. Their work has been translated into 32 languages. Their last book, an in-depth history of abortion and the pro-life movement, was published in 2014. They mentored scores of people who became leaders in the right to life movement. They educated tens of thousands of people on human sexuality and the dignity of human life.
I met Jack and Barbara Willke briefly on two occasions, once in Washington and again in the Bay Area where Dr. Willke was speaking. On both occasions what impressed me deeply was their dedication and quiet humility, grounded in firm faith and backed by scientific fact: Human life begins at conception. It ends at death, and attempts to rationalize abortion at life’s beginning or euthanasia and assisted suicide at life’s waning deny the God-given dignity and sanctity of human life.
Barbara Willke died in 2013. On February 20, Dr. Jack Willke died at his home in Cincinnati at the age of 89. May they both rest in peace.