John Willke dies at 89; obstetrician helped shape antiabortion movement

John Willke dies at 89; obstetrician helped shape antiabortion movement
Dr. John Willke, shown in 1995, argued that a woman's body can resist conception during a sexual assault, an idea debunked by science. (Peter Dejong / Associated Press)

Dr. John Willke, an obstetrician who helped shape the modern antiabortion movement with ideas such as the belief that a woman can resist conception from a sexual assault, has died. He was 89.

Willke, who founded the International Right to Life Federation, died Friday at his home in Cincinnati, his daughter Marie Meyers said. She said the cause of death wasn't immediately known, but that he had seemed in good health for his age.


"The core of his life was caring for people as a husband, a father and a doctor, and that caring extended to his life's work for unborn children and their mothers," Meyers said.

Willke quit delivering babies in the late 1960s to oppose abortion, retiring from his medical practice in 1988 to fully devote his time to the antiabortion movement. He participated in protests and congressional hearings and appeared on national television frequently.

In a statement, Ohio Atty. Gen. Mike DeWine described Willke as a "worldwide leader in the right-to-life movement."

"He will be remembered as a great teacher and friend and stalwart leader in giving a voice to the most vulnerable in our society," DeWine said.

Other doctors and abortion rights advocates have accused Willke of ignoring facts and science — particularly in his view on rape and pregnancy. U.S. Rep. Todd Aiken of Missouri drew criticism from fellow Republicans and lost his 2012 Senate bid after making comments reflecting Willke's view.

"There's no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape," Willke wrote in 1999 in the journal Christian Life Resources. "This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy."

But the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in 2012 said a woman who is raped "has no control over ovulation, fertilization or implantation of a fertilized egg" and that to "suggest otherwise contradicts basic biological truths."

Willke and his late wife, Barbara, co-authored the "Handbook on Abortion," providing information from an antiabortion viewpoint. The 1971 book, which sold 1.5 million copies at the height of the sexual revolution and has been reprinted many times and in many languages, influenced generations of antiabortion activists.

A former National Right to Life Committee president, Willke and his wife founded the Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati Inc. in 1970.

Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, said Saturday that much of what Willke put forward as medical facts has been debunked.

"I think it's troubling when medical professionals put out inaccurate information to bolster their political views," Copeland said.

Willke was born April 5, 1925, in Maria Stein, Ohio. His father was a doctor. The younger Willke received his medical degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1948.

Barbara Willke, who died in April 2013, said in a 1999 interview with the Associated Press that the couple didn't originally plan to get involved with abortion until questions from their daughters and friends caused them to take a closer look at the issue.

"My husband said if we got involved, it would swallow us up, and I guess it did," she said.


Willke, known as Jack, is survived by six children, 22 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Cornwell writes for the Associated Press.