Eric Scheidler was in
grade school when he was introduced to the power of John
It was the 1970s and the now 87-year-old Dr. “Jack” Willke
was renowned as a physician-turned-advocate for abolishing
abortion. Willke’s teachings resonated four decades later in the
controversy this week over Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s
remarks on pregnancy and rape.
Willke’s use of graphic photos of “unborn children”
energized followers in the nascent anti-abortion movement of the
1970s. His teachings, delivered in pamphlets, books, speeches
and radio broadcasts, became a bedrock study for many
anti-abortion activists fighting to overturn the 1973 Roe v.
Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
“I grew up with the name of Jack Willke ringing in my
ears,” said Scheidler, now 45 and executive director of the
Pro-Life Action League. Scheidler was a child when his father
Joseph, the national director of Pro-Life Action League, took
him to hear Willke speak.
“He was one of the first to be organizing on the pro-life
issue, the right-to-life issue. His writings were extremely
important,” said Scheidler.
Willke’s work not only spawned many of the today’s
anti-abortion leaders, but also influenced the anti-abortion
positions of key lawmakers.
His name was quickly cited as a source for Missouri
Republican candidate Akin’s comment that a woman’s body has
natural defenses against a trauma such as “legitimate rape.”
A furor erupted and Republican leaders quickly distanced
themselves from Akin, stripping him of financing and party
support. Akin, a U.S. Representative from Missouri, apologized
for using the word “legitimate” to describe a type of rape, but
did not back off the premise that pregnancies from rape are rare
– a long-time tenet of Willke’s teachings.
Willke’s theory that the emotional trauma and physical
stress of rape can fend off pregnancy makes sense to many
people. But it seems ridiculous to others.
The Akin controversy has reignited the debate over abortion
and diverted Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney from
his focus on the economy just days before the Republican
convention this coming week.
“What he (Willke) is claiming is utter hogwash for which
there is zero scientific basis,” said Nancy Stanwood, associate
professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science at
Yale School of Medicine. “It would be funny except for the fact
that some of his claims have gained traction. A congressman can
claim he is quoting a doctor and it can impact public policy.”
There is little hard data on how many rapes result in
pregnancy because many attacks are not reported. A widely quoted
1996 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and
Gynecology concluded that 5 percent of rape victims become
pregnant. But that study has since been criticized as flawed and
anti-abortion activists routinely say the incidence of pregnancy
resulting from rape is less than 1 percent.
Willke, a father of six children with his wife Barbara, and
a grandfather to 22, was a general practitioner with obstetric
training for 40 years before jumping into anti-abortion
education. Once the “good Catholic,” as friends call him,
dedicated himself to the cause he was prolific.
He put together a daily program carried on almost 400 radio
stations for nearly two decades, co-authored with his wife
numerous books on abortion and human sexuality and lectured in
85 countries. A 1971 book called “Handbook on Abortion” sold 1
million copies and has been translated in 20 languages.
Willke helped run the National Right to Life Committee for a
decade and co-founded the International Right to Life
The work carried him into political circles where he
hobnobbed with an array of leading conservative politicians,
including former President Ronald Reagan, former U.S. Senator
and current Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, vocal abortion
opponent the late Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde, and others,
according to friends and colleagues.
Romney touted an endorsement from Willke in his run for the
2008 presidential election.
Willke is officially “retired” and has been trying to cut
back on counseling and consorting with political candidates and
legislative campaigns, according to family and friends.
AVOIDING THE FUROR
He and Barbara share a modest split-level home ensconced in
a tree-lined suburban block in the northern suburbs of
Cincinnati. And the “Life Issues Institute” he founded in
Cincinnati is known as a “quiet” neighbor to the hair salon,
tailor and other surrounding businesses on the street.
When contacted late this week for an interview, Barbara
Willke declined, saying the couple preferred to avoid the furor
tied to Akin’s comments.
But the linkage is clearly laid out in “Why Can’t We Love
Them Both: Questions and Answers About Abortion,” which Willke
and his wife authored as the third in a series of question and
answer books on abortion started in 1971.
Chapter 29 reads: “Every woman is aware that stress and
emotional factors can alter her menstrual cycle. To get pregnant
and stay pregnant, a woman’s body must produce a very
sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled
by a part of the brain which is easily influenced by emotions.
“There’s no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced
by a woman than an assault rape. This can radically upset her
possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even
nurturing of a pregnancy.”
Willke also writes that women who are pregnant and claim to
have been raped in seeking abortions often “report falsely.”
The concept was not original to Willke, dating back
centuries in various forms. Many medical experts have debunked
the notion, but Willke’s work promoting the concept has helped
make it foundational for many who argue all abortions, even
those resulting from rape, should be outlawed.
“If it wasn’t for Dr. Willke I don’t think I would have
gotten involved to the extent I have,” said Judie Brown,
president of the American Life League, who was 30 years old,
pregnant and volunteering at the Upper Ohio Valley Right to Life
organization when she first met Willke.
“He is an educator. His main job has been to educate
everyone that the pre-born child is a human being,” said Brown.
“He is still the one people go to if you need slides and
pictures of the baby growing in the womb. He is a force in the
history of the movement.”
Just inside the front door of the Life Issues Institute sits
a life-sized statue of Jesus holding an aborted infant and
comforting a young mother. The mother is cast as if distressed
and the figure of Jesus appears to be offering comfort.
Both are on top of a platform, hidden under a blue cloth, in
front of which is a white posterboard sign that reads: “He Loves
Despite Willke’s advanced age and retirement status, he
continues to push for laws to outlaw abortion, most recently
advocating for a stalled so-called “Heartbeat” bill in Ohio.
The proposed law is considered one of the strictest in the
nation and would bar most abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat
is detected. Fetal heartbeats often can be detected in the first
two months of gestation.
Willke’s heir-apparent is Bradley Mattes, the executive
director of Life Issues Institute, who is also president of the
International Right to Life Federation. Mattes was active in
Tampa, site of the Republican National Convention, last week
when the party drafted a platform that calls for a
constitutional amendment to ban abortion.
Mattes met with prominent members of the Republican party,
including the embattled Akin, who he called an “impressive
individual” in comments posted on Twitter. “It’s sad some
Republicans are throwing him under the bus,” Mattes tweeted.
Willke said in an interview earlier this year published by
The Catholic Beat, he hopes to live long enough to see abortion
“If God grants me five more years of life,” Willke said in
the Catholic Beat, “I’ll see abortion go back to the states, and
some of them will outlaw it right away. After it becomes
apparent that things don’t fall apart, it won’t be long before
half the states outlaw it except maybe for rape and incest.”