By Deirdre A. McQuade

February 27, 2015

Those of us who seek to build a culture of life stand on the shoulders of gentle giants.  They are ordinary people who—even before Roe v. Wade made abortion on demand legal—responded with extraordinary generosity to defend our most defenseless brothers and sisters.

John (“Jack”) C. Willke, M.D., was one of those giants.  He passed away on February 20, 2015, at the age of 89, having lost his wife of nearly 65 years, Barbara, two years ago.  They raised their family of six children in Ohio, and have 22 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
An inseparable team, Jack and Barbara worked with urgency for over 40 years to show the wonder of human life developing in the womb and to tell the truth about the brutality of abortion.  Dr. Willke retired from his family practice to do full-time pro-life work in 1988.  Barbara also had a medical background, having been a nurse.  Their educational resources, speaking engagements, and media appearances raised public awareness and cultivated a whole generation to fight abortion.  Their reach also extended internationally.  They spoke jointly in 64 countries; and The Handbook on Abortion (just one of twelve books they authored) was translated into over thirty languages, selling approximately 1.5 million copies worldwide.

In 1997, just two years after St. John Paul II’s beautiful encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), the Willkes co-authored Why Can’t We Love Them Both. It fostered a more charitable tone in pro-life work. They wrote: “Why can’t we all stand with the pregnant woman? Why can’t we tell her that we share the agony of her decision? That we really know of no ‘convenience’ abortions? Why can’t we tell her that we stand with her, not against her? ... In the coming years, the hallmark of the pro-life movement at least, should not be just to save the baby, but to love them both.”

Today, their gentle, non-judgmental approach extends to all who have been involved in abortion.  Coupled with God’s unlimited mercy, it invites women and men alike to seek integrated healing of body, mind, and soul.

Their commitment to the cause of life was clearly rooted in love.  What else could keep that kind of devotion going?  I personally met the Willkes at a pro-life event and was deeply moved by their devotion to each other.  Dr. Willke would wink at Barbara, who, I’m rather sure, blushed in reply.  Their joy was contagious.  It encouraged all who met them to hold strong in the face of discouragement while building a culture where human life is protected.

Thank you, Dr. & Mrs. Willke.  Thank you for your tireless witness on behalf of the unborn.  And thank you for paving the way for so many others to do the same.  We pray that you will enjoy a well-earned rest together, surrounded by the modern-day holy innocents you worked so hard to protect.

Deirdre A. McQuade is Assistant Director for Policy & Communications at the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For more information about the U.S. bishops’ pro-life activities, visit or follow us on Facebook at

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