KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Eric Scheidler was in grade school when he was introduced to the power of John Willke’s persuasion.
It was the 1970s and the now 87-year-old Dr. “Jack” Willke was renowned as a physician-turned-advocate for abolishing abortion. Willke’s teachings resonated four decades later in the controversy this week over Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s remarks on pregnancy and rape.
Willke’s use of graphic photos of “unborn children” energized followers in the nascent anti-abortion movement of the 1970s. His teachings, delivered in pamphlets, books, speeches and radio broadcasts, became a bedrock study for many anti-abortion activists fighting to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
“I grew up with the name of Jack Willke ringing in my ears,” said Scheidler, now 45 and executive director of the Pro-Life Action League. Scheidler was a child when his father Joseph, the national director of Pro-Life Action League, took him to hear Willke speak.
“He was one of the first to be organizing on the pro-life issue, the right-to-life issue. His writings were extremely important,” said Scheidler.
Willke’s work not only spawned many of the today’s anti-abortion leaders, but also influenced the anti-abortion positions of key lawmakers.
His name was quickly cited as a source for Missouri Republican candidate Akin’s comment that a woman’s body has natural defenses against a trauma such as “legitimate rape.”
A furor erupted and Republican leaders quickly distanced themselves from Akin, stripping him of financing and party support. Akin, a U.S. Representative from Missouri, apologized for using the word “legitimate” to describe a type of rape, but did not back off the premise that pregnancies from rape are rare - a long-time tenet of Willke’s teachings.
Willke’s theory that the emotional trauma and physical stress of rape can fend off pregnancy makes sense to many people. But it seems ridiculous to others.
The Akin controversy has reignited the debate over abortion and diverted Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney from his focus on the economy just days before the Republican convention this coming week.
“What he (Willke) is claiming is utter hogwash for which there is zero scientific basis,” said Nancy Stanwood, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science at Yale School of Medicine. “It would be funny except for the fact that some of his claims have gained traction. A congressman can claim he is quoting a doctor and it can impact public policy.”
There is little hard data on how many rapes result in pregnancy because many attacks are not reported. A widely quoted 1996 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology concluded that 5 percent of rape victims become pregnant. But that study has since been criticized as flawed and anti-abortion activists routinely say the incidence of pregnancy resulting from rape is less than 1 percent.
Willke, a father of six children with his wife Barbara, and a grandfather to 22, was a general practitioner with obstetric training for 40 years before jumping into anti-abortion education. Once the “good Catholic,” as friends call him, dedicated himself to the cause he was prolific.
He put together a daily program carried on almost 400 radio stations for nearly two decades, co-authored with his wife numerous books on abortion and human sexuality and lectured in 85 countries. A 1971 book called “Handbook on Abortion” sold 1 million copies and has been translated in 20 languages.
Willke helped run the National Right to Life Committee for a decade and co-founded the International Right to Life Federation.
The work carried him into political circles where he hobnobbed with an array of leading conservative politicians, including former President Ronald Reagan, former U.S. Senator and current Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, vocal abortion opponent the late Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde, and others, according to friends and colleagues.
Romney touted an endorsement from Willke in his run for the 2008 presidential election.
Willke is officially “retired” and has been trying to cut back on counseling and consorting with political candidates and legislative campaigns, according to family and friends.
He and Barbara share a modest split-level home ensconced in a tree-lined suburban block in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati. And the “Life Issues Institute” he founded in Cincinnati is known as a “quiet” neighbor to the hair salon, tailor and other surrounding businesses on the street.
When contacted late this week for an interview, Barbara Willke declined, saying the couple preferred to avoid the furor tied to Akin’s comments.
But the linkage is clearly laid out in “Why Can’t We Love Them Both: Questions and Answers About Abortion,” which Willke and his wife authored as the third in a series of question and answer books on abortion started in 1971.
Chapter 29 reads: ”Every woman is aware that stress and emotional factors can alter her menstrual cycle. To get pregnant and stay pregnant, a woman’s body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain which is easily influenced by emotions.
“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.”
Willke also writes that women who are pregnant and claim to have been raped in seeking abortions often “report falsely.”
The concept was not original to Willke, dating back centuries in various forms. Many medical experts have debunked the notion, but Willke’s work promoting the concept has helped make it foundational for many who argue all abortions, even those resulting from rape, should be outlawed.
“If it wasn’t for Dr. Willke I don’t think I would have gotten involved to the extent I have,” said Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, who was 30 years old, pregnant and volunteering at the Upper Ohio Valley Right to Life organization when she first met Willke.
“He is an educator. His main job has been to educate everyone that the pre-born child is a human being,” said Brown. “He is still the one people go to if you need slides and pictures of the baby growing in the womb. He is a force in the history of the movement.”
Just inside the front door of the Life Issues Institute sits a life-sized statue of Jesus holding an aborted infant and comforting a young mother. The mother is cast as if distressed and the figure of Jesus appears to be offering comfort.
Both are on top of a platform, hidden under a blue cloth, in front of which is a white posterboard sign that reads: “He Loves Them Both.”
Despite Willke’s advanced age and retirement status, he continues to push for laws to outlaw abortion, most recently advocating for a stalled so-called “Heartbeat” bill in Ohio.
The proposed law is considered one of the strictest in the nation and would bar most abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected. Fetal heartbeats often can be detected in the first two months of gestation.
Willke’s heir-apparent is Bradley Mattes, the executive director of Life Issues Institute, who is also president of the International Right to Life Federation. Mattes was active in Tampa, site of the Republican National Convention, last week when the party drafted a platform that calls for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.
Mattes met with prominent members of the Republican party, including the embattled Akin, who he called an “impressive individual” in comments posted on Twitter. “It’s sad some Republicans are throwing him under the bus,” Mattes tweeted.
Willke said in an interview earlier this year published by The Catholic Beat, he hopes to live long enough to see abortion rights reversed.
“If God grants me five more years of life,” Willke said in the Catholic Beat, “I’ll see abortion go back to the states, and some of them will outlaw it right away. After it becomes apparent that things don’t fall apart, it won’t be long before half the states outlaw it except maybe for rape and incest.”
Reporting and writing By Carey Gillam in Kansas City; additional reporting by Stephen Burnett in Cincinnati; editing by Greg McCune and Todd Eastham