This past weekend, pro-lifers were saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. John C. Willke, who is considered by many to be the father of the modern pro-life movement. Willke and his wife Barbara co-authored over a dozen books on abortion and human sexuality. Their most recent book, Abortion and the Pro-Life Movement, was published last fall.
Willke and his wife, who passed away in 2013, spent several years on this book, which provides a detailed history of the pro-life movement in the United States. Documenting this history was an important task. While plenty has been written debating and analyzing the moral and legal foundations of abortion, the history of abortion-related activism has received precious little attention from either journalists or academics.
Additionally, previous attempts to chronicle this history have key omissions. Articles of Faith, by Washington Post reporter Cynthia Gorney, provides a nice overview of political efforts to change abortion policy. However, her book ends with the Supreme Court’s 1989 Webster decision and focuses mostly on local activists in the St. Louis area. Wrath of Angels, by James Risen and Judy Thomas, provides an unsympathetic history of abortion opponents who engaged in clinic blockades and other forms of street-level activism. Abortion and the Pro-Life Movement is the first book that provides a truly comprehensive history of the pro-life movement.
An Exceptionally Detailed History
The Willkes are exceptionally well-qualified to detail this history. They were publicly writing and speaking about the abortion issue for years before the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Dr. Willke founded the International Right to Life Federation in 1984. He served as president of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) from 1980 to 1991. After leaving NRLC in 1991, Dr. Willke remained active in the pro-life movement. He founded the Life Issues Institute in 1991 and served as the group’s president until his passing. Barbara Willke also wrote and spoke extensively on the abortion issue and served as executive director of Cincinnati Right to Life from the early 1970s until 1999.
The Willkes’ last book is exceptionally detailed. The first several chapters cover the history of abortion from ancient times through the late 1960s. Then, starting with chapter six, the Willkes devote an entire chapter to every year from 1970 to 2010.
Young readers should find the chapters covering the 1970s especially interesting. In its early days, the pro-life movement had little in the way of either resources or infrastructure. Thus, pro-life leaders had to think creatively and resourcefully about ways to keep the abortion issue in the public eye. When pro-life activist Ellen McCormack ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 1976, for instance, she used federal matching funds to run pro-life television commercials. In 1978, four pro-life activists walked through all 100 miles of Death Valley to raise money for and awareness of pro-life causes.
In 1979, the National Organization for Women (NOW) called a press conference, ostensibly to demonstrate how people with different views on the abortion issue could collaborate. Young pro-life activists responded by displaying an aborted baby at the event. This generated a great deal of attention, and the ensuing controversy turned NOW’s press conference into a public relations disaster.
Public Relations Tactics: The “Right to Choose” vs. “Love Them Both”
Another interesting inflection point occurred during the late 1980s. Supporters of legal abortion realized that they were losing ground and that their preferred policy of abortion on demand never really enjoyed mainstream support. They invested millions of dollars into market research to find the best way to sell legal abortion to the American people. Their new public relations strategy was not to discuss abortion, but to emphasize privacy and label it as a matter of choice. Groups supporting legal abortion funded an expensive media campaign to promote their new slogans of “choice” and “privacy.” For a while, this strategy was effective. During the early 1990s, the “pro-choice” position gained in the court of public opinion, and a higher percentage of US congressmen and senators began to identify themselves as “pro-choice.”
However, pro-lifers responded with a PR strategy of their own. Dr. Willke founded the Life Issues Institute (LII) to devise a new strategy to counter the “choice” argument. The research LII conducted found that most people disliked abortion and were sympathetic toward incremental pro-life laws. However, it also found that most people were more comfortable identifying as “pro-choice” and viewed pro-lifers as lacking compassion toward women. With the Supreme Court’s Casey decision approaching, pro-lifers needed to respond in a way that was calming, conciliatory, and compassionate—not alarming, confrontational, or strident. Additionally, pro-lifers also needed to better convey that they cared about both mother and child.
In 1992, a variety of pro-life groups drafted a unity statement that concluded with a positive message: “Why can’t we love them both?” This emphasis on compassion toward women, coupled with the mid-1990s debates about partial-birth abortion, resulted in gains in pro-life sentiment that persist to this day.
At the end of the book, Willke writes an epilogue where he reflects on the lessons he learned throughout his career. When he left National Right to Life in 1991, he realized that abortion was not going to end in his lifetime. Furthermore, the media on several occasions has been all too eager to write the political obituary of the pro-life movement. That said, Willke is optimistic about the future. He notes that the current generation of young people are more pro-life than their parents. Demographics are playing a role in this—as pro-life parents tend to have more children. However, better messaging and the ongoing debates over the legality of late-term abortion have clearly shifted public opinion in a more pro-life direction. Furthermore, the pro-life movement has only gotten stronger despite the pro-abortion efforts of both President Clinton and President Obama. Willke ends his book with the inspiring words of Father Richard John Neuhaus.
The encroaching culture of death shall not prevail, for we know, as we read in St. John’s gospel that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.” The darkness will never overcome that light. Never. Never.
Minor Shortcomings in a Comprehensive and Groundbreaking History
During his career, Dr. Willke did important work getting various factions of the pro-life movement to collaborate. Thus it is unsurprising that he takes considerable pains to be kind to pro-life individuals with whom he disagrees.
While his diplomacy is certainly admirable, itunfortunately limits the quality of the book. There have been longstanding internal debates in the pro-life movement about a range of issues including contraception, federalism, and incrementalism. Many of these internal divisions became especially visible during the early 1980s, when there was intense disagreement about how best to design a human life amendment to the US Constitution. The history of the pro-life movement includes both splinter groups and personal conflict. While the book mentions some of these disagreements, it presents a sanitized version that offers relatively little in the way of drama and detail.
A careful reader will find some other minor shortcomings. Pro-life advocacy that is not explicitly political—such as the direct action wing of the pro-life movement that provides aid to women experiencing crisis pregnancies—receives relatively little attention. Also, the details that Dr. Willke provides about his numerous overseas trips get a bit tedious at times.
But these are all minor concerns in a book that is truly groundbreaking. By providing the first truly comprehensive history of the pro-life movement, the Willkes have written a book that should interest scholars, activists, and anyone who cares about the abortion issue. All in all, by painstakingly chronicling the history of the pro-life movement and presenting it in a readable form, the Willkes have done a fine service for their readers.
Michael J. New is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at The University of Michigan – Dearborn and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter: @Michael_J_New.