Sunday, July 02, 2000

Dr. Willke stands by his beliefs

He began pro-life movement 30 years ago

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Dr. John Willke, the father of the anti-abortion movement, is disappointed but hardly discouraged by last week's Supreme Court ruling striking down Nebraska's ban on late-term abortions.

(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        In fact, the Finneytown resident who founded the Right to Life movement 30 years ago with his wife says the court's decision might some day be remembered as the turning point in overturning Roe vs. Wade.

        “This is the high-water mark for abortion,” Dr. Willke said Saturday. “We have moved beyond abortion to killing children who are entirely born. As this becomes more known to the average citizen — and fewer than 10 percent of people support (late-term or partial-birth abortion) — it will ignite a slowly increasing outrage.”

        Dr. Willke, president of Netherlands-based International Right to Life, said the first test will be the presidential election between Democrat Al Gore, who opposes bans on late-term abortions, and Republican George Bush, who supports them.

        “The ruling draws a bright line between the candidates,” Dr. Willke said after returning from two days of meetings and public appearances earlier this week in Washington, D.C.

        “This will galvanize a lot of the nation to vote for Bush.”

        The presidential vote is important, say Dr. Willke and abortion supporters, because the president nominates justices for the Supreme Court.

• Born: April 5, 1925, Maria Stein, Ohio.
• Title: Since 1984, president, International Right to Life, Hilversum, Netherlands. President, Life Issues Institute, North College Hill. Past president, National Right to Life.

• Residence: Finneytown.
• Family: Wife, Barbara. Six children, 18 grandchildren.
• Education: Roger Bacon High School graduate, 1942. University of Cincinnati medical school, 1948.
• Career: Medical practice in College Hill, 1950-88. Gave up practice to work full time with Right to Life.
• Multimedia: Dr. and Mrs. Willke are authors of The Handbook on Abortion (1971), which was published in 20 languages and has more than 1 million copies in distribution. His daily radio show, Life Issues, and one-minute spots, Life Jewels, are heard on several hundred stations, including two in the Tristate.

        Dr. Willke has been leading the fight against abortion since he co-founded Right to Life with his wife, Barbara, in 1973, three years before the Supreme Court's Roe ruling that legalized abortion.

        An anti-abortion column written by Dr. Willke in 1970 that ran on the op-ed page of the Cincinnati Enquirer brought together dozens of like-minded people who later formed Right to Life during a meeting at a Mount Washington church.

        They formed to oppose an abortion law in Ohio and generated 9,000 letters to lawmakers, who voted the measure down in 1971.

        The 300 Right to Life chapters that existed in 1973 have expanded to 3,000 today.

        More than 60,000 copies of Right to Life's newsletter are mailed to Greater Cincinnati addresses.

        Barbara Willke, 77, a former registered nurse, retired last year as chairwoman of Greater Cincinnati Right to Life.

        “My husband did not retire,” she said, “but he's down to 60 hours a week.”

        What free time he has is spent with the nine of their 18 grandchildren who live in Greater Cincinnati.

        He retired from his 40-year medical practice in 1988 to fully devote his time to Right to Life.

        He is synonymous with the anti-abortion effort and is often criticized.

        “He has been a person who personified the early days of the movement, but the movement has passed him by,” said Kathy Helmbock, who is pro-choice and spokeswoman for the Cincinnati chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW).

        “Their (Dr. and Mrs. Willke) rhetoric fueled the violent way of the movement. They introduced what I call the "baby doll-and-ketchup' photos in the early 1970s, and without them (the photos), there would be no extremists of the extremists.”

        Dr. Willke is used to detractors.

        “I keep my cool,” he said. “I say we shouldn't stoop to personal attacks. When someone says they don't believe life begins at conception, I say, "I respect your right to your beliefs, but the scientific fact is it does, so please don't confuse facts for beliefs.'”

        In addition to leading International Right to Life, Dr. Willke is president of the Life Issues Institute in North College Hill. He does a five-minute daily radio show, Life Issues, and other one-minute spots that are heard on several hundred stations, including WAKW-FM.

        The issue of the day is the court's 5-4 ruling on Nebraska's ban, which said it violated women's constitutional rights by imposing an “undue burden” on their decisions to end a pregnancy. The ruling finds Dr. Willke reflecting on what he says are the clear similarities between abortion and slavery.

        “Slavery was bad, but as long as it was south of the Ohio River, people could look the other way,” Dr. Willke said.

        Then, in 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slave owners to reclaim slaves who had escaped and provided fines and imprisonment for assisting runaway slaves.

        “The owner could chase his runaway slave to Toledo,” Dr. Willke said. “He could put a collar around the guy's neck, hook him to the back of a wagon and make him walk all the way through a free state and across the river. This rubbed it in the faces of good people. Not too long after, the whole thing exploded.

        “If pro-slavery had cleaned up its act, we would have had slavery for several more decades. But they had to get more compulsive and evil.”

        Abortion proponents, he said, are doing the same thing.

        Most polls show the majority of Americans oppose late-term abortions.

        Americans are learning more about the late-term procedure because of the ruling, said Dr. Willke, who vows to provide them with as much information as possible.

        In fact, an interview with Dr. Willke cuts directly to a sneak preview of a Life Issues Institute newsletter that will spare no detail in describing a partial-birth abortion.

        “It's gruesome,” he said of the procedure known medically as dilation and extraction, or D&X, in which all but the head of the fetus is delivered outside of the mother's body. He said the fact that the head remains inside the mother is how the procedure is justified as abortion, not murder.

        “At this stage this baby is kicking, moving its arms and has likely urinated,” said Dr. Willke, who, as a family physician, delivered more than 2,000 children.

        Death occurs when the base of the skull is punctured and the brain is suctioned out.

        He said by allowing the D&X procedure, the court expands on its Roe vs. Wade ruling.

        “Roe said a women could get unpregnant,” Dr. Willke said. “This assumes a woman can get her baby killed.”

        Said NOW's Ms. Helmbock: “The ruling does not expand Roe. It upholds Roe. The purpose of D&X legislation in 30 states is to overturn Roe.

        The court said in its decision that the Nebraska law could criminalize another type of abortion procedure, dilation and evacuation, otherwise known as D&E. That procedure involves the doctor dilating the woman's cervix, reaching into the uterus and tearing the body apart before pulling it out in pieces and crushing the skull.

        While the ruling on the Nebraska law could strike down other similarly written state partial-birth abortion bans, including Kentucky's, Ohio's is among four that “will probably stand,” Dr. Willke said.

        Ohio's ban on D&X procedures specifically does not cover D&E.

        But Shari L. Zalmon, executive director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League of Ohio, said the court's decision on Nebraska questions the constitutionality of Ohio's law.

        “We have always maintained that such bans are extreme, deceptive and unconstitutional,” Ms. Zalmon said.

        Even his opponents credit Dr. Willke for having a certainty on the issue that's impervious to argument.

        “His work created the movement,” Ms. Helmbock said.

        Dr. Willke's commitment to fight abortion is based on his scientific belief that life begins at conception, his ethical belief that physicians are to help not harm, and his Christian belief that unborn children are his brothers and sisters in Jesus.

        “When you have someone come up to you with a baby in their arms or they introduce you to their beautiful college-aged daughter and say you're the reason that child is there, well, that keeps you going,” he said.



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