As the Abortion Furor Flares Again in Washington, Two Doctors Lead An Emotional Debate
The 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion did not, of course, end debate on this anguishing social issue. The prolife side pleaded its case again in Washington last week as Congress reconvened and confirmation hearings on Judge Sandra Day O’Connor began. President Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee has been attacked by conservatives because of her ambiguous record on abortion. On October 5 the Constitution subcommittee headed by Sen. Orrin Hatch will start considering a proposed “Human Life Amendment” which would drastically reduce or eliminate abortions by declaring that life begins at conception. Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Henry J. Hyde have proposed a similar definition in a bill that has been tabled while the amendment hearings proceed. Meanwhile prochoice groups are waging a strong campaign of their own. The two men pictured above and profiled by PEOPLE’s Giovanna Breu are leading spokesmen in the renewed debate over abortion; they are also both M.D.s, personally and professionally devoted to safeguarding human life, but in starkly different ways.
The Willkes wrote the prolifers’ ‘Bible’
This is a war and the body count is a million and a half babies,” says Dr. Jack Willke, 56, president of the 10-million member National Right to Life Committee. Last week Willke took the battle to the U.S. Senate when he went to Washington to testify against the appointment of Sandra O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Willke is a strong advocate of the proposed Human Life Amendment, which would in effect go over the heads of the Court. His group also supports the Helms-Hyde bill, but Willke points out that while it would allow states to pass antiabortion legislation, many would not, and he questions whether the bill itself would survive a Supreme Court review. “Sandra O’Connor’s ascendency,” Willke adds, “is not making things any better.”
For the past year Willke has spent full time arguing the antiabortion case across the country, after giving up his family medical practice in Cincinnati. His formal presentation includes “Abortion, How It Is,” a sometimes gruesome 43-minute slide-and-tape package priced at $18.95 and sold all over the world.
Willke is also known for his guide that prolife groups use to counsel mothers-to-be. It pictures the stages of development of the fetus they are carrying. “An unmarried pregnant girl has no good choice,” Willke admits. “Marriage is not a solution; you add a second mistake to the first if you get married just because you’re pregnant. Of the choices left, to keep the baby or kill it, everyone knows where I am at.” Willke acknowledges that his techniques use melodrama. “If pictures of abortion touch your emotions, that is because you recognize a baby is involved,” he says.
Willke and his wife, Barbara, have been lecturing as a team for 17 years. “When you speak in the area of sexuality, you speak in an area loaded by your own sexuality,” he says, adding, “and men don’t have abortions.”
When they first hit the road, the Willkes, who are Roman Catholics, lectured on explaining sex to children. Unable to find a suitable book, they wrote one. The Wonder of Sex, published in 1964, has sold more than 250,000 copies. It encourages frankness, but it does not condone premarital sex or discuss contraception.
In 1970, after New York State passed an abortion-on-demand law, and the issue heated up, friends in the prolife movement persuaded the Willkes to switch emphasis. They started the Cincinnati Right to Life Committee, and in 1971 wrote The Handbook of Abortion. Full of pictures, statistics and discussion of such issues as why a mother should carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, the book has sold a million copies. Willke says it “is commonly referred to as the Bible of the movement.”
Born in Maria Stein, Ohio, Willke inherited his practice from his father after graduating from the University of Cincinnati Medical School, where he met Barbara, a nursing student. Married in 1948, they have six children.
Though his expenses are paid, Willke receives no salary from the Right to Life Committee. (“I have been a physician for 30 years and I’ve been frugal,” he explains.) Willke was in obstetrics for 15 years but now limits himself to family medicine. He has specialized in recent years in counseling patients on marital, sexual and pregnancy problems. Though he believes patients who have abortions “are killing their own babies,” he says, “I don’t rain fire and brimstone on them. They are going to bear enough guilt.”
Though he has never performed an abortion he would favor an exemption in any antiabortion legislation to protect the life of the mother (a tolerant view some right-to-lifers oppose).
In the upcoming congressional elections, Willke says he has not yet decided whom among the prochoice politicians to campaign against. “You go after the ones who are vulnerable,” he says. “Birch Bayh was vulnerable, and we took him out.”
By next year, the Willkes hope, a human life amendment will have passed Congress and their crusading days will be over. Willke will resume his medical practice, and Barbara says, “I’m going to retire and let our children hold the ground we have won.”
‘You can’t stop abortions, only criminalize them’
“No one is proabortion,” says Dr. George Ryan. “It is a surgical procedure, which is scary; it is painful and there are risks. It would be great if I never had to do another abortion.”
Ryan, however, is Dr. Willke’s opposite number. As president of the 23,000-member American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, he has become a major prochoice spokesman. “Without a perfect society and without perfect contraception,” he says, “people are going to get pregnant. Abortions are a way of avoiding tremendous cost to individuals and society.”
His own interest in the controversy was first piqued as a grad student at Harvard Medical School in the 1950s. Classroom doors were always shut to safeguard professors lecturing on contraceptives, since such lectures were against Massachusetts law. “Women have been patronized from time immemorial,” he says. “I’ve seen some women’s rights achieved. But on abortion, it is very depressing a decade later to find yourself fighting that battle all over again.”
For 17 years, Ryan was a Boston physician. He also served as an assistant clinical professor at Harvard and often lectured on abortion to groups like the Boston Singles Club.
Four years ago he moved to Memphis as a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and community medicine at the University of Tennessee. He often counsels unwed patients on their choices: keep the baby, put it up for adoption or have an abortion. “No one can stop abortions,” he warns. “They can only criminalize them and drive them underground.”
Ryan notes there are several staunch prolifers on the American College executive board, but the board nonetheless voted unanimously to oppose Helms-Hyde. Since implementation of the law would be left to the states, he argues that it would “turn every state capitol and legislature in this country into a bloody battleground.”
He foresees other problems, too. Some birth control pills and the IUD might be banned; women carrying genetic diseases could not be offered the choice of aborting a defective fetus, and some operations to save a mother’s life in a tubular pregnancy or toxemia might be prohibited.
Ryan decided on obstetrics while he was serving as an Army doctor in France. An acute observation by his wife, Barbara, helped. “When he came home after an accident involving young servicemen he’d be cursing all the way up the walk,” she remembers. “But if it was after the birth of a baby, he would be whistling happily.” Born in Bay Springs, Miss., the son of a plumbing-electrical contractor, Ryan graduated from the University of Mississippi before moving on to Harvard. He and Barbara, a Wellesley graduate, married in 1954.
Ryan’s way of relaxing is to play jazz trumpet. His group, the Steamboat Stompers, once performed in Boston’s Symphony Hall. Despite his lobbying, he maintains a thriving practice. “Abortion isn’t the only health care issue,” he says quietly, but bridles when prolife groups refer to doctors who perform abortions as “murderers.” “There is too much emotion in this debate,” he insists. “I act on my ethical beliefs: Abortion should be a choice based on a woman’s individual decision. Everyone is prolife.”