Dr. John C. Willke has died. Even at 89 years old his death was unexpected. Most of us consider “Jack” the premier defender of life. It is challenging to consider the reality of his death.
Jack Willke, as an obstetrician, spoke up when many of us didn’t know what to say. Prior to the national legalization of abortion in the United States on January 22, 1973, Jack, along with his wife, Barbara, already warned about legalized abortion and the slippery slope that would follow.
I met Jack and Barbara about 35 years ago. Since then he had spoken at some conventions for Christian Life Resources and at an ethics conference we held about 20 years ago. We corresponded on occasion, spoke on the phone and chatted briefly when our paths crossed at various conferences around the country.
Jack was always cordial. He was clear in his understanding both of the biology of human life and its humanity at the point of conception. For that clarity he put up with considerable abuse yet in the end Jack was right.
Jack believed that when a decision is made to have an abortion, a death occurs. With life beginning at fertilization he would often say that, if you left it alone to develop, all that really changes is geography or location. It is as much a person at fertilization as it is in midlife.
In the aftermath of the sexual revolution, abortion had become the ultimate and final form of birth control when all other caution was thrown to the wind. Using dehumanizing rhetoric, critics mocked him, arguing that what was in the womb was a mere blob of tissue or a clump of cells, but not a human life. Nonsense! His critics were lying, and they knew it.
Today any pro-abortion advocate worth his or her salt has matured in honesty. While there might have been other moments the one that stands out for me was when abortion advocate, Naomi Wolf, wrote “Our Bodies, Our Souls.” In that article she argued for a more candid and forthright abortion-rights position that acknowledges, in abortion, “a real death occurs.” In my view the abortion-rights movement had finally come out of the closet.
Today the candor is shocking. Camille Paglia calls it what it is, “murder” and the “extermination of the powerless by the powerful.” Mary Elizabeth Williams accepted the reality and acknowledged that in an abortion decisions some lives are more valuable than other lives so the child’s life is expendable. There you have it! Jack was right.
In 1999 Jack permitted us at Christian Life Resources to publish an article that he authored entitled, “Rape Pregnancies are Rare.” In it he wrote, “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.”
The article sat on the Christian Life Resources website for years relatively and essentially unnoticed. Then in 2012 U.S. Representative Todd Akin ran for the U.S. Senate. In an interview he gave to a St. Louis television statement he was challenged on the abortion question in a case of rape. He said it was his understanding that a pregnancy from rape was rare.
That matter would have died there except he went on to then suggest that in case of a “legitimate rape” the reproductive cycle of a woman’s body starts to shut down. The reaction was immediate. Using a term like “legitimate rape” suggested that there must be another kind of rape that is not so legitimate.
Akin clearly misspoke, but the feeding frenzy was on and critics were not happy with simply a “pound of flesh.” They began dissecting his entire statement. That led them to Jack’s article on rape and pregnancy on the Christian Life Resources website.
I don’t know if Jack received many calls and emails on that article – but we sure did. Some of the correspondence was downright silly and nasty, demanding the removal of the article because it was inaccurate. No one really said why it was inaccurate,e but I suppose the reasoning was that someone who defines some rapes as “legitimate” and others presumably as “illegitimate” certainly would have his rape physiology all wrong.
Some were quick to point out that the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) gave a statement that said rape victims had no control over whether they became pregnant, stating, “to suggest otherwise contradicts basic biological truths.” Sounds convincing except this ignores abortion politics. ACOG is one of the most aggressive advocates of abortion in the medical field. This gives ACOG a credibility problem. And when one dissects what ACOG said, they never really refuted Akin. They massaged the statement to support their pro-abortion bias without ever commenting on what a traumatic event does to a woman’s reproductive cycle.
The story took off. Reporters from the Village Voice and the Wall Street Journal called the Christian Life Resources office to ask me about Jack’s article. I told them they were barking up the wrong tree. I told them that they should “quit simplistically looking for Google searches on ‘rape’ and ‘abortion’ and instead do a Google search on ‘anxiety,’ ‘trauma’ and ‘infertility.’”
In over 30 years of counseling, which included countless infertile couples, I knew the connection anecdotally between trauma and infertility. Women visiting infertility clinics are always being asked about anxiety in their life and of any history of traumatic experiences. The connection is clear.
Scholarly literature is not silent on this issue. ACOG may have tried to muddy the waters with an unclear statement, but research on the subject of infertility reveals all sorts of references on the negative effect of stress, trauma and anxiety on the reproductive cycle. Jack was right – again.
Perhaps my most memorable encounter with Jack Willke was years ago when he spoke at a Medical Ethics conference sponsored by Christian Life Resources. Though Jack clearly was a pioneer at protecting life from its moment of fertilization, he had some great insight on the slippery slope, the end of life and the nature of man.
In his presentation Jack talked about how people want to die. He said, “When you talk to most people they will tell you that they want to die suddenly and in their sleep. Not me. I want a lingering death to give me time to say things to family and friends that I might not otherwise say and they might not otherwise be ready to hear.”
Jack and I talked about those words once or twice since that time, and I have quoted his words countless times. I felt it was a remarkable insight into the nature of man. There is something about being told you are going to die that creates the courage to speak untethered by previous inhibitions. There is also something about knowing someone will die soon that compels us to sit still for a moment and listen.
Jack always made being “pro-life” look good and right. He was poised and professional. He was not nasty, mean, condescending or arrogant. He had a neat sense of humor, a very loving heart and persistent Christian faith.
Jack wore his faith on his sleeve – convinced of salvation through Christ he had the courage to speak up for those who could not speak for themselves. Whether his message of life was welcomed or scorned, Jack understood that he was doing the Lord’s work.
For many of us veterans in the pro-life community Jack was a mentor. He modeled love, concern and compassion. I know it sounds odd but I will especially miss the sound of his voice. I remember it as steady, certain, thoughtful and measured with conviction while flavored with tenderness.
Undoubtedly there are many people living today thanks to Jack’s pro-life work. In that work Jack became God’s instrument in providing and extending the time for which people can come to faith and live their faith. In these most turbulent of times the world was deeply blessed for the legacy of Jack Willke. I, for one, will never forget him, and I thank God for the example Jack left for me and others to follow. He loved his neighbor, no matter how small. He believed in Christ as his Savior and knew that beyond death there is life forever. Jack was right!