Life or Death

Speaker 1: This episode includes descriptions of graphic images. In the fall of 1970, Marie Willkie looked like most of her classmates at Notre Dame’s women’s college.

Speaker 2: It was the age of miniskirts. And I remember we kept shortening them and shortening them, and I had long, straight hair. Of course, everybody did.

Speaker 1: Marie made the most of being away from home.

Speaker 2: It was a blast being a college up there. I went to parties constantly.


Speaker 1: But she also took her studies seriously.

Speaker 2: There were lots of lectures, lots of interesting speakers came into Notre Dame, and you could go and hear about all sorts of things.

Speaker 1: One of the things she heard about was feminism by the start of Marie’s junior year in 1970. Women were protesting across the country.

Speaker 3: The legislature has consistently refused to recognize the fundamental right of women to control their own body.

Speaker 1: Thanks to the women’s liberation movement, abortion was being talked about openly in all kinds of places, including in Marie’s dorm.

Speaker 2: You stay up half the night talking about what do you believe and why do you believe it, and whose right and control of your own body. You know that if you got pregnant and didn’t want it, well, it wasn’t can interfere with your life or your career or your plans. You just have the abortion.


Speaker 1: Maria wasn’t sure if she was on board with any of that.


Speaker 2: Because it seemed so focused on me, me, me, my rights, my time, my exercise, what I want. And I thought, I’m just not sure that’s how I want to live my life.

Speaker 1: When Maria left for winter break, she didn’t know where she stood. She wanted to talk about all of it with her family back in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Speaker 2: It was Christmas of my junior year and I came home. Everything was decorated, you know, the big Christmas dinner and stockings hung and it was all the traditions.

Speaker 1: Maria’s mother and father were Catholic, just like she was, and in their community, they were pretty well known.


Speaker 4: You might know them best as sex educators. I give you Dr. and Mrs. Jack and Barbara Wilkie.

Speaker 1: Jack and Barbara have made a name for themselves with their series of books and lectures.

Speaker 3: As we go along in our talk, you’ll hear us mention our children and re-entry c.r our 16 and 14. Charlie and Joe, our wrecking crew are eight and seven and is five and Timothy is one and a half and.

Speaker 5: Has read here.

Speaker 3: And we’re going to give you some ideas on sex education of children.

Speaker 2: So they ended up writing this book, actually called The Wonder of Sex. And it was how beautiful sex is within marriage when it’s used for the love between the spouses and to generate children rather than just in casual one night stand kind of things.


Speaker 5: You know, sex is something like electricity and harnessed and out of control. It’s an atomic bomb or it’s lightning and it destroys. And yet channeled within the rules and put to proper use. It heats and warms our homes over the years.


Speaker 1: Marie’s parents would share their theory of good sex at high schools and churches. Jack was a doctor, tall and professorial, and he wore nice suits. Barbara was a trained nurse. Tiny and wispy. And she always emphasized her role as a caregiver. Together, they were folksy and playful.

Speaker 3: And we strongly suggest that you let the children see you kiss and embrace and let your delight show through. Because they should see this for the first time in a parked automobile. People say maybe sit down on the couch and pitch a little woo in front of the children.


Speaker 5: Well, don’t get too passionate in front of them.

Speaker 3: You can’t get too far. Anyway, there’s always one of the little ones in between. You trying to get their share.

Speaker 5: Our dog even separates us.

Speaker 1: The Willkes didn’t just talk to other families about sex. They spoke to their own kids about it, too.

Speaker 2: And I remember there’d be a song on the radio and they would say, Well, Murray, what do you think of what she’s singing about? Do you think if she goes down that road that she’s going to end up happy? You know, what’s her life going to look like in 20 years?


Speaker 1: And how did teenage Marie feel about your parents talking about sex like that?

Speaker 2: I didn’t think they were very cool. I thought the kids at college form were much cooler than my parents and knew a lot more, you know?

Speaker 1: The Willkes book, The Wonder of Sex, was available in print and as a vinyl record. The sleeve for the album version is decorated with a Willke family portrait. Jack is the only one standing. He’s wearing a pressed white shirt and a bow tie. Barbara has their youngest on her lap with Marie and the rest of her sisters and brothers sitting around the fireplace. On her visit home in 1970. Marie had a bunch of long talks with her parents. She told them what she’d been hearing about feminism and about abortion.


Speaker 2: I said, you know, they’re saying in my classes that abortion is a woman’s right. You can’t force her to carry this child. And, you know, she has a right to control her own body. We don’t make men do anything like this. Why should women pay the penalty? And my parents, I think we’re just horrified.

Speaker 1: While the Willkes spoke frankly about sex, they had very traditional views about its place in the world. And like many Catholics, they thought life started at conception. That made abortion a sin.

Speaker 2: And we kept butting heads all during Christmas break. And I would bring up an argument and they would shoot it down.


Speaker 1: Marie’s parents had both been trained in medicine as an English major. She felt outmatched.

Speaker 2: They were like, Well, is that human life? Look at the chromosome count. Can you refute that? And I couldn’t. And what if she’s a blue eyed blonde in the babies, a little redheaded boy with freckles? Is that part of her body? Of course not. It’s a completely separate person. And I thought, well, that’s a pretty strong argument, you know. And then I would say, you know, well, what about the poor rape victim? And Dad would just look at me and say. So we’re going to make the child pay the penalty for the crime of the father. Does that sound fair? And I would think well, no, that doesn’t sound fair either, you know.


Speaker 1: Eventually, Marie gave in. Her parents had worn her down and won her over.

Speaker 2: And I said, How do you guys know all this?

Speaker 1: She wanted to share her new perspective with her college classmates. But there wasn’t much out there that expressed this point of view. So she went to her parents with a big idea.


Speaker 2: I said, Why don’t you write a little book? Because nobody knows the answers that you know, at least nobody I’m talking to.

Speaker 1: Marie was right about that. In the early 1970s, the case against abortion had not been well-articulated. But that was before Jack and Barbara Willke. That little book that Marie suggested her parents write. It would change everything for their family and for the pro-life movement. This is a slow burn. I’m your host, Susan Matthews. In the late 1960s, opposition to abortion looked very different than it does today. Right to life groups were smaller and more scattered and mostly centered around the Catholic Church. And since the procedure was still banned in most places, there wasn’t much to fight against. But as the sixties turned to the seventies, the groups working to make abortion safe and legal were gaining traction.


Speaker 4: A Gallup poll released today shows that two out of three Americans interviewed believe the question of abortion should be settled between a woman and her doctor.

Speaker 1: Everything seemed to be trending in one direction until a couple of Catholic sex educators took on the fight themselves. What spurred the Willkes into action? Why did so many people find them so convincing? And how did their tactics revolutionize how we all talk about abortion?

Speaker 5: Can we kill one human life to solve the problem of another? This is the core of the whole abortion story.

Speaker 1: This is episode to life or death.

Speaker 1: When Marie Willkie went back to school after the holidays, she took her parents arguments about abortion with her.

Speaker 2: I remember having more debates in the dorm because now I had some answers finally that I hadn’t had before, and not everybody agreed with me.


Speaker 1: In the winter of 1971. She kept asking her parents to write the book she’d suggested about why abortion was wrong.

Speaker 2: And I said she could just do real simple question answers or something like that just to get something down on paper, you know, that people could read.

Speaker 1: Marie wasn’t the only person trying to get her parents to take on abortion. A Catholic priest had been hoping to convince them to add the subject to their sex education lectures, but the Willkes resisted. In their memoir, Jacques Willkie remembered telling that priest, if we start talking about abortion, it will swallow us up. So when Marie bugged her parents, they told her they were too busy to write anything. But Marie knew her father had just gotten a new gadget, a Norelco dictation machine.

Speaker 2: I said, Why don’t you just dictate some chapters and send me the little tapes and I’ll type them and I’ll send you back the type pages.

Speaker 1: This was one argument that Marie won.

Speaker 2: They would send me these little tapes, and I would play them with headphones on and listen and I would type them and send them back. First Chapter Schizophrenic Society Question Mark. On Tuesday, November 1970, a newborn baby was found in a cardboard box behind a supermarket in our city.

Speaker 1: Apparently for Marie. This wasn’t particularly hard work. She could type 100 words per minute.

Speaker 2: Some state laws say abortion is legal until the baby is viable. What does this mean? Most people define viable as capable of independent existence. We believe this is an extremely inaccurate word and should be stricken from the law books.

Speaker 1: Jack and Barbara sent enough tapes to fill a little more than 100 pages. They called the Slim Volume The Handbook on Abortion. By the spring of 1971. It was almost ready to publish. There was only one thing missing. A photo for the cover.


Speaker 2: Dad got me up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday when I was home. I was pretty spring break or getting up at seven and he says, seven, dad, I can’t get up a set. Yes, yes, we have to do it at seven.

Speaker 1: That morning, her father dragged her to his office where there was a photographer waiting.

Speaker 2: I’m sitting there. I’m in a sweater and a mini skirt. I’m holding a Kleenex like I’ve been crying. I’m looking at my dad. You can see the back of his head and he’s holding his stethoscope. And I’m supposed to sit there and look worried, like I’m the girl who needs the abortion, you know? So I thought I look like death warmed over, which was Dad’s plan. And I said, Dad, you can’t use that. No, no, it’s perfect. You look like you’re in distress.

Speaker 1: How did you feel about that? Like, did people ever recognize you just from the cover?

Speaker 2: They did. And I was mortified because I thought it was an awful picture.

Speaker 1: The Willkes self-published 5000 copies of the handbook on abortion. The cover price was $0.95.

Speaker 2: And it sold out immediately and then they printed more and more. And it just it just exploded. It just went like wildfire.

Speaker 1: Jack and Barbara Willkie had gotten some regional attention when they lectured about sex, but now they were getting invitations from all over. Many of them from their fellow Catholics. Jack Willkes spoke at a pro-life meeting and rally in Toronto, and they both traveled all the way to Hawaii, where they sold thousands of copies of their new handbook. Lots of Catholics favored liberalizing abortion laws, but those who opposed abortion were adamant in their beliefs and they were desperate to stop the changes sweeping through the nation. For Jack and Barbara, there was nothing complicated about opposing abortion.


Speaker 5: Ask yourselves, is this little being that grows within the mother human? I don’t know of a mother who’s ever given birth to a chicken.

Speaker 1: In the book and in their lectures, the Willkes convey an air of absolute moral shortness.

Speaker 5: After all, once we allow killing of one class of humans to solve social problems, just think. Let your imagination run. Well, then, be. All the old people was in Germany minority races, troublesome political groups who.

Speaker 6: It’s always the act of somebody who puts their own interests, their own selfish interests over the interests of that unborn child. That’s the kind of language that’s in the handbook on abortion.

Speaker 1: Cynthia Gorney is the author of Articles of Faith A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars.

Speaker 6: Women do it because they’re selfish, because they feel that their career or their free time is more important than raising a child.

Speaker 1: For all the morality in the handbook on abortion, there’s something conspicuously missing. Explicit references to religion. The Willkes were motivated by the Catholic belief that life begins at conception, but in the handbook they don’t attribute their ideas to the church or the Bible. Instead, they draw on their scientific authority. They cite doctors, medical groups and studies.

Speaker 5: Many have said that wouldn’t it be better to abort than to have an unwanted child, a battered child? As a matter of fact, scientific studies do not support the fact.

Speaker 1: But the handbook is not really a work of science. The studies, the Willkes reference are often cherry picked and misleading, and the doctors, they quote, are not representative of mainstream medical thinking. In the handbook, the Willkes claim that women who get abortions might suffer higher rates of suicide as a result. They also suggest that these women are probably more likely to miscarry or give birth prematurely in subsequent pregnancies. None of that is based on strong scientific evidence.


Speaker 1: There’s one passage in the handbook that you might have heard about in chapter six. The Willkes refer to rape and incest as an emotional smokescreen. In the abortion debate, they say that rape is basically irrelevant in any argument about reproductive rights because it very rarely leads to pregnancy, a claim that is totally untrue. In 2012, a congressman named Todd Akin made national news for saying essentially the same thing.

Speaker 4: From what I understand from doctors. That’s really rare if it’s a legitimate rape. The female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

Speaker 1: Akin’s legitimate rape comment can be traced directly back to the Willkes and the handbook. But that’s only a small example of their influence. Because Jack and Barbara Wilkie didn’t just change the abortion debate with their words, they also did it with pictures. We’ll be right back.

Speaker 1: To understand how photographs became the focus of the pro-life movement, you need to know what happened in New York in the late 1960s.

Speaker 4: The New York State Assembly next week begins debate on a bill to liberalize abortions.

Speaker 1: For years, reformers in New York’s legislature had been trying and failing to change the state abortion law. But then a politician from upstate New York took a bolder approach.

Speaker 6: The first repeal law gets introduced in New York in 1969.

Speaker 1: Journalist Cynthia Gorney again.

Speaker 6: And the person who introduces it is a Republican woman.

Speaker 1: Her name was Constance Cook, and it wasn’t unusual that she was a Republican. At the time, most Republicans supported liberalization. Cook was one of just four women in the entire chamber. She told her colleagues that they needed to acknowledge reality. Women were getting abortions all the time anyway, no matter what the law said.


Speaker 3: There are many who say that this bill is abortion on demand. I submit that we have abortion on demand in the state of New York right now. Any woman that wants an abortion can get one, and if she doesn’t have the $25, she can abort herself. And regretfully, this is happening more often than you or I like to admit.

Speaker 1: Cook’s co-sponsor was a manhattan Democrat, and she had the backing of the state’s most powerful leader, Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Speaker 6: That law not only removes all barriers to abortion up to 24 weeks, it also removes any state restrictions so that anybody from out of state can come to New York.

Speaker 1: Cook’s chief opposition came from one specific group.

Speaker 6: Of course, the Catholic Conference is deeply opposed to it. They’ve come out. They’ve testified against it. It’s come to quite a head.

Speaker 1: Catholic lawmakers succeeded in stopping Cook’s bill in 1969, but in 1970, she tried again. This time it narrowly passed the state Senate. Its fate would be decided in the state assembly.

Speaker 4: And it is my firm hope that we defeat this bill. So inhumane and so on. Christian.

Speaker 6: And there they’re down to the final vote. And they do the vote count. And it’s a tie.

Speaker 1: That deadlock, 74 to 74 meant the bill was going to fail.

Speaker 6: And then somebody notices that one of the assembly people is sitting at his desk and he’s starting to cry.

Speaker 4: Mr. Speaker.

Speaker 1: Michael George Michaels was a Democrat. He represented a Catholic leaning district in the middle of the state. But he was Jewish himself. He had voted no during the initial roll call, but then he stood up and he started to speak.


Speaker 4: I fully appreciate that this is the termination of my political career, but what’s the use of getting elected or reelected if you don’t stand for something?

Speaker 6: He says, I’ve been agonizing over this. My own children have been yelling at me, and I cannot go home to a family seder and tell them that I let this bill fail.

Speaker 1: George Michaels have three sons. His daughter in law, Sara, had been pleading with him to vote yes on liberalizing the abortion law. Michaels kept telling her it wasn’t his fight. But then something happened that changed his mind. She gave birth to his first granddaughter. Michael’s thought about how he would feel if someday she needed an abortion.

Speaker 4: I cannot in good conscience stand here and be the vote that defeats this bill.

Speaker 6: That’s when he really starts to cry, and that’s when all the photographers rush in and take a picture of him, like bent over, weeping at his desk.

Speaker 4: I therefore request you, Mr. Speaker, to change my negative vote to an affirmative vote.

Speaker 7: And there’s pandemonium.

Speaker 6: In the hall as people are shouting at him. Earlier, there had been a woman up on the balcony watching this thing, yelling, Murderers, you’re all murders.

Speaker 4: The New York State Senate today passed one of the nation’s most sweeping abortion control bills. One one man’s vote made the difference.

Speaker 1: George Michaels family still refers to this episode as the vote. And Michaels was right. He never held elected office again. Michael’s vote did more than just legalized abortion in one state. The lack of a residency requirement meant abortion was now effectively legal for anyone who could afford to travel to New York before the 1970s. Some Americans went abroad to get legal abortions. Now, the solution so many women were looking for could be found much closer to home.


Speaker 8: Hospitals were now being inundated with tens of thousands of women. We see just an enormous spike in the abortion rates.

Speaker 1: Karissa Hagberg is a history professor at Tulane University. She says that women traveling from out of state had to face all kinds of logistics.

Speaker 8: They had to raise the money. They had to take time off of work. Any impediment had the consequence of delaying the abortion and making it more expensive and riskier.

Speaker 1: By the time they got to New York. They were often so far along in their pregnancies that they had only one option left.

Speaker 8: Before the late 1970s, women who needed an abortion prior to 12 weeks of pregnancy generally received either a DNC or a vacuum aspiration abortion.

Speaker 4: When abortions are performed in the 8 to 12 week of gestation. It is quick and clinical, like any relatively minor operation.

Speaker 8: Then there was this brief window in which there just wasn’t an agreed upon procedure or an adequate procedure to help those women. After six weeks, the commonplace procedure that was done was sealing abortion.

Speaker 4: In the fourth and fifth months. The fetus becomes much larger and a different procedure is required. More like the miscarriage of a normal birth. The saline procedure.

Speaker 1: Saline abortions could be brutal, both physically and emotionally. The process started with a doctor injecting a saline solution into a woman’s uterus. The solution poisoned the fetus, ending the pregnancy. The woman would go into labour within 24 to 48 hours and nurses were left to deliver the contents.

Speaker 4: In all the controversy over the issue of legalising abortions. Little or nothing was said about the effect it might have on the women, the nurses who work in the hospitals where legal abortions now are performed.


Speaker 8: Physicians liked this procedure because they were generally not a part of it. They performed the mechanical insertion of the saline, but then had the liberty to leave.

Speaker 1: The fetus would emerge looking very red or even burned. People on the pro-life side called them candy apple babies. Here’s a student nurse explaining what she saw at a hospital in 1971.

Speaker 3: It seemed like there was an awful lot of pain involved and nobody really cared. And then when it was over, I walked out the door with this plastic bucket, with this five and a half month old fetus in it. And you have to take that all the way up the corridor and down the other corridor. Right down the hall is the delivery room, and around the corner is the nursery.

Speaker 1: Salian abortions aren’t done anymore in the U.S. they were phased out as other techniques improved. Hospitals also moved away from doing abortions and deliveries on the same floor. That’s one reason we have separate abortion clinics now. But when abortion was first legalized, there was little training and little planning. The work often fell to nurses and many ended up disillusioned. Some of them took pictures of what they saw. Those photos would get shared with people who found abortion disturbing and immoral. People who would do anything they could to stop it. People like Jack and Barbara Willkie.

Speaker 5: Here is a picture of the result of a salt poisoning abortion. At 19 weeks after the injection of the poisonous salt, this baby, as others breathed in that poisonous fluid, swallowed it and was burned by it. It takes a baby at least an hour to be killed by this poisonous salt method.


Speaker 1: When the handbook on abortion came out, most people didn’t even know what a fetus looked like. Ultrasounds weren’t routine yet, and Life magazine had only just published its groundbreaking series of pictures of fetuses in the womb. That photo spread had nothing to do with abortion, but pro-life activists felt it confirmed what they’d always believed to be true.

Speaker 6: Those pictures, as far as the right to life campaigners are concerned, are further evidence that science proves it. They would say, Look at this. How can you look at this and not call it a life?

Speaker 1: In the early 1970s, the Willkes figured out something else that images of aborted fetuses could be just as powerful as ones in the womb. Early editions of the Handbook on Abortion included full color photographs of abortions performed at four different stages. Each one has a simple caption explaining the procedure by scraping by section hysterectomy at 24 weeks. Salt poisoning at 20 weeks.

Speaker 6: More and more people who were opposed to abortion began sending them more and more photographs. And everybody understood that if you wanted to get more people on board, you showed the pictures.

Speaker 1: These images became the centerpiece of the Willkes presentations to right to life groups.

Speaker 5: Here is what your feet looked like when you were only ten weeks in your mother’s womb. A demonstration of the fact that at ten weeks your body was perfectly formed right down to fingerprints.

Speaker 1: That photo became so well-known that it had its own name. Tiny feet. It shows an adult’s fingers holding up two incredibly small appendages. Each foot is maybe a quarter of the size of one adult fingernail. Other images were much more graphic. A jumble of bloody tissue containing a few recognizable limbs.


Speaker 5: Here is a picture of the typical section abortion, the so-called safe abortion at 8 to 10 weeks. Take a look. This is what comes from the womb of the mother in that so-called safe abortion.

Speaker 1: The most infamous photo is of a plastic bag that’s opened at the top. There are four large fetuses piled on top of each other. They’re visibly bloody. The Willkie is called that image garbage bag.

Speaker 5: This is a result of one morning’s work at a Canadian teaching hospital. These dead babies reached fetal ages of 18 to 24 weeks before being killed by abortion.

Speaker 2: I thought the aborted baby ones were shocking.

Speaker 1: The Willkes daughter, Murray.

Speaker 2: You look at these fully formed babies dead in a bucket and your heart just sinks. And you think these aren’t blobs of tissue. These are. These are babies.

Speaker 1: The Willkes used images and language together to ensure that their audiences would come to that conclusion, too, that fetuses were babies and that abortion wasn’t a medical procedure, it was murder.

Speaker 2: Dad said, if you start with the youngest baby slides and show them, people may say, well, I’m not sure that looks like a baby. But if you start with near full term and say, does this look like a baby? Yes. And then you go back four weeks. How about this one? Well, yeah. And then you go back for more. And if you take them back down that road, then they can see how. Well, yes, these all are babies, you know. So the pictures, I think, were critical.

Speaker 1: Most of the photos that reached the Willkes came from disillusioned medical professionals. Others that circulated within pro-life groups had unclear origins. The ones I’ve seen almost certainly show real fetuses, even though Karissa Hagberg says they don’t necessarily tell an accurate story about abortion. In some cases, she says, the people who took the photos made them look as jarring as possible.


Speaker 8: They did things like manipulate photographs, manipulate fetal remains to make them look like they were older than they were. So to make them look like they were later term fetuses rather than early term ones.

Speaker 1: But Jack and Barbara Willkie believed they were getting at a larger truth. The Willkes kept updating the handbook on abortion with new claims and new pictures. They also created a convention booth exhibit with photo displays for other pro-life activists to take out on their own. They sold more than 400 of them.

Speaker 6: And they would include instructional advice on how to talk about the photographs. One of their sets of instructions said, You let people know these are upsetting. People can start to discern parts that they will recognize as human, and that’s what really will get them going.

Speaker 1: Cynthia Gorney remembers Barbara telling her about a day that she spent at a state fair. She’d gone there to talk about the evils of abortion, but it wasn’t going well.

Speaker 6: Nobody was coming to see their booth. And finally, a couple of the volunteers of the booth opened the books to the abortion photographs. And as Barbara remembers it, her line to me was, then we just got mobbed. Whenever I would talk to people to ask them what drew them into this battle. Almost invariably they would say it was the pictures. I took one look at those pictures and I was like, Oh my God, I can’t believe we’re doing this in the United States.

Speaker 4: The anti-abortion sponsors of this rally say their ranks are swelling by leaps and bounds as the so-called silent majority of American women become more aware of the immorality and the dangers of recently relaxed abortion laws. They say the ultimate answer is a continuing educational campaign about the reverence for life.


Speaker 1: By the end of 1971, Jack and Barbara had become two of the biggest names in the pro-life movement.

Speaker 2: We went from sort of a normal family to utterly crazy. It felt like, because all of a sudden they were traveling, traveling, traveling.

Speaker 1: When Mary’s parents were away, they would ask her to take care of her younger siblings. The Willkes also took in women who came to them for help.

Speaker 2: There were often pregnant girls staying with us too, because back in those days it was a huge embarrassment if you got pregnant and you weren’t married. And some of the girls got kicked out of their homes. So mom and dad would say, Well, come on, we got an extra bedroom. You’d come live with us. You know, until they had their babies.

Speaker 1: As the Willkes gained a following, they also started getting blowback. Marie saw that firsthand when her parents came to her own college campus to give a guest lecture.

Speaker 2: And I remember being a little worried about them up there, you know. And they were like, don’t worry, we’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.

Speaker 1: So it was like other college students who came to protest.

Speaker 2: Well, and professors, some of the very feminist aggressive professors, you know, yelling and screaming. And some people were very upset with me, very bitter about it. How could you be on that side?

Speaker 1: Most Americans weren’t on the Willkes side. In fact, most Americans would never be on their side. But that didn’t mean they were going to lose. We’ll be right back.

Speaker 1: I want to take a moment to acknowledge the International Women’s Media Foundation, the global non-profit that funds and supports women and non-binary journalists. They saw the value of our reporting and dove in early to make slow burn seventh season possible. The IWM F has enabled this type of work for more than 30 years and they can use your support to check them out at IWM or go follow them on social media to learn more. The repeal of New York’s abortion law pushed the entire country in the direction of reproductive freedom. But the federal courts would still have their say. And so would other states like Michigan.


Speaker 4: Last night, we carried a program on the abortion issue paid for by a subcommittee of the Michigan Abortion Referendum Committee. Tonight, we are televising a program on the same subject paid for by the voice of the unborn.

Speaker 1: The push to liberalize the abortion laws in Michigan started out slowly, just as it had in New York.

Speaker 5: A bill was proposed in 67. It failed in committee. It was basically reintroduced in 68, failed in 1969. It failed in 1970. 1971. It failed.

Speaker 1: Rob Karrer is the head of a pro-life group in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He’s also a scholar who has studied the battle over the state’s abortion laws.

Speaker 5: There was a large percentage of Democrats who were pro-life, and I have to believe most of them were Catholic. You also had a lot of Republican legislators advancing abortion reform.

Speaker 1: In New York, a single elected official George Michaels had changed everything by voting to legalize abortion. In Michigan, reform advocates would put the question in front of a lot more people.

Speaker 5: They needed to collect about 225,000 signatures, but they didn’t get those signatures until March of 72 to place this referendum on the ballot, which became known as Proposal B.

Speaker 1: To win that referendum fight. Pro-Life groups in Michigan would need to come up with a plan together.

Speaker 5: The pro-life movement was, I don’t want to say disorganized, but they were not unified. You had about maybe at the most, two dozen small, independent pro-life groups scattered throughout the state.

Speaker 1: Those scattered, independent groups decided to form a coalition. They called it Voice of the Unborn, short on funds. They made a decision early on they would wait to campaign until right before Election Day. By that point, the groups pushing to legalise abortion had been airing ads for months.


Speaker 4: Proposal B would allow abortion by a licensed physician if the period of gestation is not exceeded 20 weeks. These clergy believe that abortion, like religion, is a personal decision and that the state should not prevent a woman from following the dictates of her conscience. These Michigan clergy and many others ask you to join them in voting yes on Proposal B.

Speaker 1: Early polling suggested that the legalization side was winning, but the pro-life side, they had a secret weapon.

Speaker 4: Like to introduce someone right now? She wrote a book. I’ve seen a number of times. I’m sure you have seen it, too, because, well, my daughter brought one of these home, I’m happy to say. It’s the handbook on abortion. He wrote it with his wife. We welcome right now to this program Dr. J.C. Willkie. Dr. Willkie.

Speaker 5: Thank you, Bob.

Speaker 1: In 1972, Jack and Barbara Willkie were traveling around the country fighting the liberalization movement state by state. They were still selling copies of the handbook on abortion, but the Willkes also had some new material.

Speaker 5: The four color brochure, quite incendiary, I would say, called life or death.

Speaker 1: Life or death made the same argument as the handbook on abortion, but with much less text and a lot more pictures.

Speaker 5: And there were color photographs of mangled babies after abortions and fetal body parts. It was it was pretty gory. It really was.

Speaker 4: But it was impactful.

Speaker 1: Life or death was cheaper to print than a book and easier to give out. The Michigan Pro-Life Coalition ordered 500,000 copies of Life or Death. They distributed those brochures throughout the state. 25,000 of them got passed out at a michigan State football game.


Speaker 5: And when the game was over, these volunteers scoured the stands to pick up discarded copies. The vast majority of these people took them home to read them, or they believe they threw them out, but they didn’t leave them in the stadium.

Speaker 1: The Michigan campaign was starting to bring people together, expanding the pro-life coalition beyond just the Catholic Church.

Speaker 4: Well, I’m against Proposal B because of the moral and the spiritual implications. I thought this was a Catholic issue. That’s what everybody’s been trying to tell us. Gee, that’s a Catholic issue. You’re not a Catholic. Why are you speaking out against it? Well, I think this is a this is a challenge to the Christian church and the Christian churches is bigger than the Catholic Church, and therefore, I’m against it.

Speaker 1: The day before the Michigan referendum vote, Jack Willkie went on local TV to deliver a closing message.

Speaker 5: I’m pleased to be here. Some good person couple this afternoon flew down to Cincinnati to bring me up, thinking that I might have one last, serious, terribly sincere attempt to talk to some of you neighbors in Michigan. I’m from Cincinnati. What you’re voting on tomorrow in Proposal B is an earthshaking importance. What you are doing is declaring life or death for an entire class of humans.

Speaker 1: That night, Jack gave his whole presentation. He explained how quickly a fetus develops. He held up poster size photographs, including tiny feet and garbage bag. And he talked about the horrors of failing abortions.

Speaker 5: If you’re going to vote on an abortion law in Michigan, the very least you must do is know what abortion is and what it looks like. Now, these are a little grim, but here they are. Do you want abortion in Michigan?


Speaker 1: Jack Willkie got his answer 24 hours later. Voters said no, they did not want abortion in Michigan. 61% voted against the referendum. If you believe the polls, there was a 20 point swing in the last few weeks of the campaign. Marie Willkie remembers her parents rejoicing over their win.

Speaker 2: Michigan was one of the big states where they thought it was going to go through. You know, an abortion was going to be legal and all that. And then it didn’t. He said the momentum had somewhat shifted.

Speaker 1: Just a couple of months later, in January 1973, the momentum would shift again.

Speaker 4: Good evening. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court today legalized abortions. Thus, the anti-abortion laws of 46 states for rendered unconstitutional.

Speaker 2: And I remember just deep gloom with the decision. You know, it was like, oh, my gosh, now what? And I remember dad saying, we’ll take a few days to mourn. We’re going to be sad a few days, but then we have to get to work. There’s a tremendous amount of work to do now.

Speaker 1: The Willkes got started right away. They helped bring together far flung pro-life groups under one National Right to Life Committee. They published another book, How to Teach the Pro-Life Story, and they became fixtures at the March for Life in Washington, D.C. That march was supposed to be a one time thing in 1974, but by the mid 1980s, it was a huge annual rally.

Speaker 5: Hi, I’m Jack Willkie, president of the National Right to Life. Big game here. Great.

Speaker 1: As opposition to abortion grew. The Willkes tried to walk a narrow line. They distanced themselves from extremists who terrorised abortion clinics and murdered doctors. But they never stopped insisting that their side had the moral high ground.


Speaker 5: They are the violent ones. They kill innocent babies a million and a half a year. What we’re trying to do is stop violence. We are people of peace.

Speaker 1: The Willkes kept expanding their handbook and eventually renamed it Abortion. Questions and Answers. It sold an estimated 1.5 million copies. The latest editions are hundreds of pages long, and Marie Willkie is no longer on the cover. Marie went on to become a doctor, the fourth generation in her family. Barbara Willkie died in 2013. Jack Willkie died two years after that. A lot of things have changed since the Willkes started mailing tapes to their daughter. But in so many ways, the work they started 50 years ago shaped the world we live in now.

Speaker 3: And we’re at it again.

Speaker 1: The graphic pictures on protest signs and highway billboards, the incendiary rhetoric.

Speaker 4: Legalized child killings. Days are numbered. We will win.

Speaker 1: And the fight to transform the Supreme Court.

Speaker 4: It is my profound honor to be the first president in history to attend the March for Life.

Speaker 1: Do you do you revisit this book a lot? Like, how does it feel to to read it?

Speaker 2: Oh, my gosh. I haven’t looked at it in years. I had to go into our den and try and find one. But it’s interesting to think how they started the whole movement and where it’s gone and where it is today. And I actually remember Dad saying once he said, we will not live to see Roe overturned, but you kids will.

Speaker 1: Next time on Slow Burn, a Yale law students experience with abortion convinces her to fight Connecticut’s law herself.


Speaker 6: I mean, it was still amazing to see so many women in court and so many.

Speaker 3: Women telling their truth.

Speaker 6: For the first time.

Speaker 3: You know, these were secrets that we had shared, but now they were telling their truth on their record in a federal court.

Speaker 1: Slogan is produced by Samira Tazari, Sophie Summergrad Soul Werthan and Me Susan Matthews. Derek John is senior supervising producer of Narrative Podcast Editorial Direction by Josh Levin Derek, John and Johanna Zorn Merritt. Jacob is our technical director. Our theme music was composed by Alexis Cuadrado. Derek Johnson did our cover art based on a photo provided by Robert Wheeler. We had research help from Bridget Dunlap.

Speaker 1: Some of the audio you heard in our show comes from Cincinnati Museum Center Library archives from the Cincinnati Right to Life Collection. To see the cover of the handbook on abortion, some photos the Willkes use and the brochure Life or Death go to Flash Cancer. This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.

Speaker 1: Slow Burn is a production of Slate Plus Slate’s membership program. You can sign up for Slate Plus to hear a bonus episode every week this season. We’ll go behind the scenes and you’ll get access to some exclusive interviews that’ll explore more about the history of abortion in America. In this week’s bonus episode, you’ll hear about how opposition to abortion evolved in the years after Roe. To listen to that. Head over to slash slow burn to sign up now. And right now, we’re offering 50% off an annual membership only until June 15th. We couldn’t make a slow burn without the support of Slate Plus. So please consider becoming a member at slash, slow burn.


Speaker 1: And if you’re looking for breaking news analysis of everything going on at the Supreme Court right now, you should subscribe to Slate’s legal podcast Amicus, hosted by Dahlia Lithwick. Amicus has new episodes every Saturday this month to tell you all about the major decisions being released this SCOTUS term, and there will be special episodes for Slate plus members to.

Speaker 1: Special thanks to Josh Electro, Laura Bennett, Rebecca Onion, Christina Cotter Ritchie. Madeleine Ducharme. Evan Chung. Seth Brown Rachel Strom Chao Two Ben Richmond, Bill Carey, Katie Rayford, Logan Lu and Alicia montgomery, Slate’s VP of Audio. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.