Slow Burn: Roe v. Wade

Season 7: Episode 2

Life or Death

How a doctor and nurse from Cincinnati irrevocably changed the debate over abortion in America.


Episode Notes

Jack and Barbara Willke got their start on the Catholic speaking circuit talking about the pleasure of sex within marriage. Their daughter would convince them to shift their focus to another hot-button issue. The Willkes’ Handbook on Abortion, and the photographs they distributed along with it, would help kickstart the right-to-life movement.

Season 7 of Slow Burn is produced by Susan Matthews, Samira Tazari, Sophie Summergrad, and Sol Werthan.

Derek John is Sr. Supervising Producer of Narrative Podcasts.

Editorial direction by Josh Levin, Derek John and Johanna Zorn. Merritt Jacob is our Technical Director.

Our theme music is composed by Alexis Cuadrado. Artwork by Derreck Johnson based on a photo provided by Robert Wheeler.

The season’s reporting was supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.

For a look inside the Handbook on Abortion and the “Life or Death” pamphlet, check out this timeline of the Willkes’ work, which explores some of the influential fetal photographs they published.

Want to learn more about the origins of the anti-abortion movement? Host Susan Matthews shares some of what she discovered while researching this episode in this curated collection of stories for Pocket.

Sources for This Episode:


Gorney, Cynthia. Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars, Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Haugeberg, Karissa. Women against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century, University of Illinois Press, 2017.

Reagan, Leslie J. When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973, University of California Press, 1997.

Williams, Daniel K. Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade, Oxford University Press, 2016.

Willke, Dr. & Mrs. J.C. Handbook on Abortion, Hiltz Publishing, 1971.

Willke, Dr. and Mrs. John C., with Marie Willke Meyers, M.D. Abortion and the Pro-life Movement: An Inside View, Infinity Publishing, 2014.


“Abortion one of ballot’s hot items,” United Press International, Oct. 27, 1972.

Albers, Jo-Ann. “Willkes’ Instruct the Parents,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 21, 1966.

Baird, Willard. “Proposal B Gives Voters a Voice on Abortion,” Lansing State Journal, Oct. 26, 1972.

Branzburg, Paul M. “Liberalized Abortion Loses by 3-2 Margin,” Detroit Free Press, Nov. 8, 1972.

Bygdeman, Marc and Kristina Gemzell-Danielsson. “An Historical Overview of Second Trimester Abortion Methods,” Reproductive Health Matters 16, no. 31, (2008): 196-204.

“Casts Abortion Vote for His Family,” New York Daily News, April 10, 1970.

Goltz, Gene. “Abortion Reform Vote Is Sought,” Detroit Free Press, April 11, 1971.

Gorney, Cynthia. “The Dispassion of John C. Willke,” Washington Post, April 22, 1990.

Haugeberg, Karissa. “Nursing and Hospital Abortions in the United States, 1967-1973,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 73, No. 4.

Holland, Jennifer L. “Abolishing Abortion: The History of the Pro-Life Movement in America,” the American Historian, November 2016.

Horn, Dan. “The Willke Way: How a Cincinnati couple put Roe v. Wade on the ropes,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Nov. 24, 2018.

Jacobs, Julia. “Remembering an Era Before Roe, When New York Had the ‘Most Liberal’ Abortion Law,” New York Times, July 19, 2018.

Jansen, Charlotte. “Foetus 18 Weeks: the greatest photograph of the 20th century?,” the Guardian, Nov. 18, 2019.

Karrer, Robert. “The Formation of Michigan’s Anti-Abortion Movement 1967-1974,” Michigan Historical Review 22, no. 1, (Spring 1996): 67-107.

Nilsson, Lennart. “Drama of Life Before Birth,” Life, April 30, 1965.

Perez-Pena, Richard. “’70 Abortion Law: New York Said Yes, Stunning the Nation,” New York Times, April 9, 2000.

Pro Life Pioneer Barbara Willke Dead at 90,” Catholic Telegraph, April 16, 2013.

“Record Majority Endorse Liberal Abortion Law,” the Gallup Poll, Aug. 25, 1972.

Richards, Carol R. “Termination of My Career,” Gannett News Service, April 10, 1970.

Rosen, Kenneth R. “​​John C. Willke, Doctor Who Led Fight Against Abortion, Dies at 89,” New York Times, Feb. 22, 2015.

Saxon, Wolfgang, “George Michaels, 80, Legislator Who Changed Abortion Law, Dies,” New York Times, Dec. 5, 1992.

Willis, Ellen. “Hearing,” the New Yorker, Feb. 14, 1969.


Right to Life: The Voice of the Unborn,” c. 1970.;” MI-98-121, Right to Life/John C. Willke and Barbara Willke Collection (Unprocessed); Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center.

Slate Plus Member Content Bonus Episode

How the Anti-Abortion Movement Gained Tremendous Political Power

By the 1990s, white Evangelicals and Catholics finally found ways to successfully push their agenda.


About the Show

In the early 1970s, the future of abortion in America was far from settled. Some states were pushing to liberalize their laws. In others, women could be prosecuted for terminating a pregnancy. Unexpected and dramatic battles raged across the country, shaping the landscape of abortion—even before Roe v. Wade was decided.

For the seventh season of Slate’s Slow Burn, host Susan Matthews explores the path to Roe—a time when more Republicans than Democrats supported abortion rights. You’ll hear the forgotten story of the first woman ever to be convicted of manslaughter for having an abortion, the unlikely Catholic power couple who helped ignite the pro-life movement, and a rookie Supreme Court justice who got assigned the opinion of a lifetime.

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