COLUMBUS, Ohio — The discredited notion that a woman’s body can resist conception in a sexual assault has persisted in anti-abortion circles for decades, largely because of the efforts of a Cincinnati obstetrician who is considered a godfather of the movement.
Dr. John C. “Jack” Willke founded the National Right to Life Committee and wrote the influential 1971 “Handbook on Abortion,” which has shaped the thinking of generations of anti-abortion activists.
Rep. Todd Akin’s comments this week on rape and pregnancy helped upend a Senate race and roiled the Republican Party in a tough election year. But they reflect ideas that the 87-year-old Willke began peddling years ago.
“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.”
To anti-abortion activists, Willke is a revered figure. To abortion-rights activists, the onetime sex education lecturer perpetuates myths, eschews facts and ignores science. And to fellow physicians, his ideas are pure fiction.
After Akin’s remarks, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said a woman who is raped “has no control over ovulation, fertilization or implantation of a fertilized egg. … To suggest otherwise contradicts basic biological truths.”
Still, the last time Willke appeared at the Ohio Statehouse, GOP lawmakers were “almost worshipful,” recalled Cincinnati attorney Al Gerhardstein, an abortion-rights proponent who has often debated Willke. “He’s always been a very sincere, passionate advocate for his cause. And I’ve always been wary that he doesn’t let the facts get in the way.”
The doctor and his wife, Barbara, have six children. They were prompted to write the handbook by their daughters, who complained about encountering what they regarded as bad information on the subject in college.
The book became an instant touchstone for the anti-abortion movement, selling 1.5 million copies at the height of the sexual revolution.
The authors asserted that a douche, vaginal scraping and medications administered quickly after a rape “invariably” prevents pregnancy. “If the rape victim would report her assault properly, there would be, for all practical purposes, no pregnancies from rape,” the couple wrote.
In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, Willke stood by the 1999 article that said sexual assault brings on hormonal changes that could interfere with conception. He also defended Akin, saying the congressman’s main mistake was a reference to “legitimate rape,” not his statement that women rarely get pregnant from sexual assault.
Anti-abortion activist Janet Folger Porter has Willke’s handbook in her reference library. She said it’s popular worldwide because it isn’t filled with emotional arguments and religious dogma, but hard facts.
“It’s spelled out in Q-and-A form,” she said. “The whole thing is not Dr. Willke’s opinion or dissertation on the issue. It’s independent studies, all of them cited, by issue.”
The son and grandson of doctors, Willke married Barbara, a nursing professor, writer and lecturer, in 1948. Together they taught pre-marriage and marriage courses for the Catholic church, and became a popular doctor-and-nurse team speaking on sex, love and eventually abortion. Their first book was “The Wonder of Sex,” a 1964 sex education guide.
Willke built a busy obstetric practice and emerged as Cincinnati’s leading expert on conception.
After the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, he put himself at the center of the issue, appearing frequently at protests, Capitol Hill hearings and on national television. He quit practicing medicine in 1988 to devote his full energy to the movement he helped create.
Gerhardstein said the Republican-controlled state Legislature still defers to Willke. Last spring, Willke visited the Statehouse to promote a bill that would impose the nation’s most severe abortion restriction, limiting the procedure at the first detectable fetal heartbeat.
After a hearing on the bill, which is still stalled, Willke was invited by the Republican House speaker to ascend the dais and address the assembled legislators.
“I’m thinking, boy, I’ve never gotten that kind of treatment,” Gerhardstein recalled.
Associated Press Writer Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.