Politics

Inside the Handbook on Abortion

The text and images that Jack and Barbara Willke used to jump-start the pro-life movement.

Jack and Barbara Willke at a pro-life march in 1980 — standing in front of a sign that says "Stand Up for Young Life."
Jack and Barbara Willke at a pro-life march in 1980. Photo by Barry John Stevens/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

This story contains graphic images.

Jack and Barbara Willke helped launch the pro-life movement when they published the Handbook on Abortion back in 1971. The second episode of this season of Slow Burn tracks the Willkes’ rise and explores the influence of the handbook and the pamphlets that followed. Below, we’ve put together a timeline of the Willkes’ work. Scroll to see what the Handbook on Abortion and the pamphlet “Life or Death” contained, and how they evolved over time.

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Listen to the full episode here:

May 1971: Jack and Barbara Willke, a Catholic couple who worked primarily as sex educators, publish the Handbook on Abortion. The first edition is 141 pages long and contains “42 scientific references.” The back of the book is filled with advertisements for the Willkes’ other educational resources: pro-life books, cassettes, posters, and brochures marketed to parents, teachers, and children. The cover of the book features a photograph of their daughter Marie, who convinced them to write the Handbook. The first print run of 5,000 copies sells out within a year.

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The cover of the Handbook on Abortion, featuring a photo of Marie Willke, wearing a mini-skirt and looking worried, and the back cover, featuring Jack and Barbara Willke.
The cover of the Handbook on Abortion, featuring a photo of Marie Willke, and the back cover, featuring Jack and Barbara Willke. Images from the Handbook on Abortion, 1971 edition
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September 1972: As the Willkes begin to understand the power of photographs of aborted fetuses, they print a brochure that’s easier to pass out than the Handbook. “Life or Death” is primarily distributed in states that are voting on abortion referendums. One of those states is Michigan, which votes down an effort to liberalize abortion laws in November 1972. Pro-life groups in Michigan order hundreds of thousands of copies of this brochure to pass out in the last weeks of the election—the polling suggests that support for liberalizing abortion dropped by almost twenty points in that same time period. Michigan voters ultimately defeat the effort to liberalize its abortion law.

Below, you can scroll through the text and images of the full pamphlet, “Life or Death.”

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January 1973: The Supreme Court affirms the right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, and the Handbook’s sales skyrocket. Two months later, Jack Willke claims the court is denying personhood to fetuses. He compares the Roe decision to the ruling in 1857’s Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which the Supreme Court said that enslaved people were not U.S. citizens.

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photos from the Handbook on Abortion show four different methods of abortion: By suction, by scraping, a hysterectomy, and a saline abortion. The suction and scraping abortions show dismembered parts. The hysterectomy and the saline abortion show larger fetuses.
These photos from the Handbook on Abortion show four different methods of abortion: By suction, by scraping, a hysterectomy, and a saline abortion. Images from the Handbook on Abortion, 1971 edition
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1974: The first translations of the Handbook on Abortion are published, in Spanish, French, and Malay. By 1985, there are 10 total translations in print, including Italian, Chinese, and Portuguese.

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June 1975: The Willkes publish a revised version of the Handbook, which extends to 208 pages. In 1979, they revise the Handbook once more, expanding it to a final 210 pages. These later editions also include additional pages of images of abortions. By 1985, the Handbook on Abortion has sold more than one million copies.

The top photo is known as Tiny Feet. It shows a pair of extremely tiny feet held between adult fingers — each foot is less than a quarter of the size of an adult fingernail. The lower photo is known as Teardrop. It shows a tiny fetus, smaller than the inside of one's palm.
The top photo is known as Tiny Feet. The lower photo is known as Teardrop. Images from the Handbook on Abortion, 1979 edition.

1985: The Willkes publish the Handbook’s successor: Abortion: Questions & Answers. More than double the original Handbook’s length at 342 pages, it includes both new references to scientific papers, and information that had previously been in the original Handbook.

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