Barbara Willke, the wife of Dr. Jack Willke, passed away at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinatti at the age of 90 after sustaining a head injury in a fall. The Willkes, who would have been married for 65 years in June, were pro-life leaders even before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
He was an obstetrician and she was a nurse. As a couple in Cincinnati they taught the Pre-Cana marriage courses. They began lecturing more widely about Catholic issues and education, and wrote the book The Wonder of Sex: How to Teach Children, which sold 300,000 copies. There talks and writing morphed naturally into their pro-life activism. In 1971, they co-authored The Handbook on Abortion, two years before Roe v. Wade, a book that has been published in seven editions and translated into more than 20 languages. Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes called the book, “the Bible of the pro-life movement.”
In 1971, the couple founded Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati chapter. Jack Willke later became president of National Right to Life, the International Right to Life Federation, and Life Issues Institute. Willke told the Cincinnati Inquirer that the national abortion debate “just swept us up” and they never looked back.
The Willkes were internationally renowned speakers, traveling together until several years ago. Hughes, who came to know the couple well as a member of the International Right to Life Federation, remembered watching them depart from Honduras after an IRLF meeting to go on a 14-country speaking-tour in Latin America when they were in their 80s. He said they maintained a schedule and pace few of their younger colleagues could match.
Hughes said “Barbara was every bit as much of a pro-life leader as Jack,” and called their pro-life witness a “collaborative effort.”
Bradley Mattes, executive director of Life Issues Institute, described both Willkes as mentors for nearly four decades. He said, “the impact she and Jack have had on the pro-life movement is immeasurable.”
Janet Morana, executive director of Priests for Life, also said Barbara Willke was an influence on her. “Barbara had a great influence on me and was a great encouragement to me especially when I first became involved in the pro-life movement over 20 years ago,” Morana said. “Our movement has suffered a great loss.”
In all the Willkes co-wrote 12 books on human sexuality and abortion, including Abortion Questions & Answers: Love Them Both. They created audio and visual materials that are used around the world, and have spoken in 65 countries.
The Willkes had six children, 22 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.