On Feb. 20, pro-life pioneer Dr. John (Jack) Willke passed away peacefully at his home a the age of 89. An obstetrician who along with his wife Barbara taught human sexuality courses in the 1960s, the couple transitioned to pro-life work even before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion-on-demand the law of the land in the the United States. He was president of National Right to Life from 1984 through 1991 and co-founded the Life Issues Institute in 1991. He would later found the International Right to Life Committee. In 1988, Willke ceased practicing medicine to devote himself to full-time pro-life work.
Willke wrote or co-authored 11 books on abortion, including the Handbook on Abortion in 1971, a primer on the medical, legal, and moral facts of abortion. He followed that with books such as Abortion and Slavery: History Repeat, Assisted Suicide & Euthanasia, Past & Present, Abortion, Questions and Answers: Why Can’t We Love Them Both, and, most recently, Abortion and the Pro-Life Movement: An Inside View.
Bradley Mattes, executive director of the Life Issues Institute, said that Willke founded the Institute, at the age of 65 when most people are considering retiring, because he was “concerned there weren’t enough pro-life resources being directed into pro-life education – the foundation on which political and legislative victories are made.” Mattes said that Willke encouraged the Institute to embrace new technologies, especially video and the internet, to reach an ever-growing audience. Jack and Barbara Willke “could identify a need as well as a way to fill it while turning more hearts and minds to a compassionate pro-life stance.”
Jim Hughes, national president of Campaign Life Coalition and vice president of the International Right to Life Committee came to know Willke well through their work together in the latter. Hughes said he was educated on pro-life basics like millions of pro-lifers through Willke’s books. He said that before people looked for information on the internet, they would thumb well-worn copies of the Abortion Handbook. He said that book “is like a bible for all those entering the pro-life movement.”
Hughes recalled visiting numerous foreign countries including Poland, the Philippines, and Honduras with the Willkes during IRLC meetings and that while the couple were often much older than other members of the board, they did not lack in energy. He said the most poignant moment shared with the Willkes — who almost without exception traveled together — was visiting Auschwitz and seeing both Maximilian Kolbe’s jail cell and the wall where prisoners were killed.
Willke spoke to numerous Canadian pro-life conferences. At one in 2010 when he was asked how he became involved in the pro-life movement he grinned as he replied, “kicking and screaming.” He said he became involved as soon as he realized the unborn were being killed, and he knew that the pro-life movement had to be involved in a two-pronged strategy of helping the mother and saving the life of the baby.
Mattes said, “words can’t possibly express how sad we feel,” at the loss of his “mentor and colleague for over 23 years,” a man who “was a second father to me.”
Hughes said Willke’s passing is “an enormous loss to the pro-life movement.” He said Jack and Barbara Willke’s legacy “will live on through his good works all over the world where he visited promoting life.”
Barbara Willke passed away in 2013