Dr. Jack Willke, R.I.P.

by Michael J. New

On Friday, Dr. Jack C. Willke, the father of the modern pro-life movement, passed away at the age of 89. He and his wife Barbara dedicated their entire lives to defending the unborn. They were publicly speaking and writing about abortion well before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. During the late 1960s and early 1970s the Willkes advised pro-life activists who were trying to block various state-level efforts to expand access to abortion. In 1972, their advice to Michigan pro-lifers to show pictures of aborted babies was crucial to the defeat of a referendum that would have legalized abortion in Michigan. The famous Willke slides of fetal development are still used in pro-life presentations to this day. 

Dr. Willke is probably best known as having served as the president of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) from 1980 to 1991. He transformed National Right to Life from a small storefront operation with only a handful of employees to a large nonprofit with an annual budget in the tens of millions of dollars. After leaving NRLC in 1991, Willke remained active in the pro-life movement: In 1992, he founded the Life Issues Institute to research more effective ways to present the pro-life position – especially to individuals who were conflicted on the issue.

Dr. Willke, spent the last several years of his life collaborating with his wife Barbara on a history of the pro-life movement. This book, Abortion and the Pro-Life Movement, was published by Infinity Publishing this past fall. It’s the first truly comprehensive history of the pro-life movement. The first several chapters cover the history of abortion from ancient times through the late 1960s. Then starting with chapter 6, Willke devotes an entire chapter to every year from 1970 to 2010. By painstakingly chronicling the history of the pro-life movement and presenting it in a readable form, Willke has done the pro-life movement a great service.

Dr. Willke’s impact went well beyond the numerous books he wrote and the presentations he made. He was a father figure to many and inspired countless people to become pro-life activists. He was the founder of the International Right to Life Federation and made countless overseas trips to advise and train and motivate pro-lifers in other countries. Here at home, he did important behind-the-scenes work in getting various factions of the pro-life movement to collaborate.

Up until his death, Dr. Willke was a regular at pro-life gatherings and conferences. Pro-lifers owe him a tremendous deal of gratitude for his tireless efforts on behalf of the unborn. He will be missed. R.I.P.

— 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, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_J_New.

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