The Corner

A Surprisingly Fair Tribute to Dr. Willke

Writing in the New York Times, columnist Linda Greenhouse is dismayed that most of the obituaries for pro-life pioneer Dr. Jack Willke featured his controversial views about rape and ovulation. Surprisingly, she acknowledges that he deserves a better send off. She does her best to present one today in her column.

Greenhouse is upfront about her own support for legal abortion. She also acknowledges that it is easy for social movements to demonize or ignore their adversaries — and even harder to acknowledge their brilliance. However, in her column she acknowledges that Dr. Willke made some strategically smart decisions that benefited the pro-life movement.  For instance, in the early days of the movement, much of the opposition to abortion came from the Catholic Church. Willke realized it was important to reach out to others. As such, he and his wife’s 1971 Handbook on Abortion focused on making good non-theological arguments.

She also says that in the early 1990s, Willke was smart to realize that arguments focusing on the preborn were losing some of their ability to persuade. So he started to reframe the argument to encompass the welfare of pregnant women and new mothers. The Willkes revised their Handbook on Abortion and gave it a new title, Why Not Love Them Both? Questions and Answers about Abortion. Greenhouse acknowledges that this women-protective framework has been effective — and even emerged in Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Gonzalez v. Carhart, which upheld the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban.

Greenhouse also comments on her personal history with Dr. Willke. In 2009, Greenhouse collaborated on a book project in which she collected primary-source documents that would show how the arguments for and against abortion reform proceeded during the years before Roe v. Wade. Many groups that Greenhouse and her co-author contacted were unhelpful. In fact, both Betty Friedan’s estate and the National Organization for Women required that Greenhouse compensate them in exchange for publishing some of their original documents. This was very surprising considering Greenhouse’s public advocacy for legal abortion. 

However, when Greenhouse reached out to Dr. Jack and Barbara Willke, they  reluctantly, but willingly allowed Greenhouse and her co-author to reprint excerpts from their 1971 Handbook on Abortion free of charge. After Greenhouse’s book, Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling, was published, Willke wrote to her. He said that he found that book to be fair to pro-lifers, adding that “we think its treatment of pre-Roe v. Wade is by far the best historical account that we have seen.”

She was pleased that Dr. Willke gave her credit where it was due — and in her column she attempts to do the same. In so doing, Greenhouse sets a good example for other members of the media.

— Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and an associate scholar with the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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