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Moments in History

Bradley Mattes   |   May 02, 2023

The reversal of Roe v. Wade was nearly 50 years in the making, and everyone in the movement celebrated this monumental victory. It was especially sweet for those of us who have been pro-life advocates for all or nearly all of that time. We “long-haul” pro-lifers hold fond memories of important moments along the way that helped propel us to this historic achievement. Here are a few.

Dr. and Mrs. Willke’s last speaking engagement

Dr. Jack Willke and his wife Barbara, a nurse, are considered the parents of the pro-life movement. Before Roe, they developed educational tools such as slide sets, brochures, billboards, fair booth displays, videos, etc. used around the world to change hearts and minds on abortion. These materials have been translated into over 30 different languages. Tens of thousands of Americans have become pro-life due to the Wilkes’ tireless efforts to save the babies.

I am one of those many people. 48 years ago, this month I was a senior in high school in Billings, Montana, enrolled in a persuasive speech class. We all selected a topic to present to our class and our ability to sway fellow students greatly impacted our grade. I chose abortion and the local Right to Life group provided the Willke educational materials. Before our speeches we polled the class. They were 50-50 on abortion. The images of fetal development, the shocking reality of abortion’s impact on its tiny victims, and their mothers made an impact. Afterward the class was unanimous for life! I learned early on that pro-life education was a powerful tool to change hearts and minds on abortion.

We owe the Catholic Church and the Knights of Columbus an enormous debt of gratitude for creating a solid foundation on which the pro-life movement was built. In the early days, I was the token non-Catholic. Local chapter leaders would send me to do the debates because, during those days, pro-abortion activists claimed abortion was just a religious issue — a Catholic religious issue. The debate would go something like this. “You Catholics can’t force your religion on us!” Then they would add, “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries!” After their rant I’d calmly say “I don’t own a rosary, but if I did, I promise you it wouldn’t be anywhere near your ovaries. I’m not Catholic and I oppose abortion because it’s the gravest civil injustice of our time.” Then I’d share fetal development 101 and that usually took the wind out of their sails.

Top picture: Dr. Willke and V.P. candidate George H. W. Bush
Bottom picture: Dr. Willke and President George H. W. Bush

During the 1980 Republican Convention, Ronald Reagan selected George H.W. Bush as his running mate, who was generally pro-abortion. So, Jack made a beeline to his convention office and boldly asked for a four-hour meeting to educate him on abortion. And it was granted!

After that marathon educational presentation at Mr. Bush’s Kennebunkport, Maine residence, Jack asked him what his position on abortion was. Mr. Bush smiled with an “Okay you did it” sort of look and said, “I wasn’t here before, but I am now.” He would support a human life amendment. His evolution on abortion helped propel Ronald Reagan to the White House. When Bush became president, he signed every pro-life bill that crossed his desk.

In 1982, Right to Life of Michigan produced a brilliant and compelling message. It included the image of an unborn baby on a black background with large text that read “Choice? Or Child?” Smaller text read, “There are alternatives to abortion. There have to be.”

In 1991, Jack and I founded Life Issues Institute to focus on pro-life education, the foundation on which we build political and legislative victories. As we were taking the steps to launch the Institute, Jack and Barbara departed for Moscow to participate in educational meetings and events. The morning after they left, newspaper headlines covered the attempted coup in Moscow where they were headed!

They were among the few that flew into Moscow and the chaos. Once there, they went directly to Red Square, where they witnessed the statues coming down. Desperate for American dollars, soldiers and citizens were selling everything they had on them. As a result, Jack came back with interesting souvenirs, among them a plethora of different lapel pins that are today displayed in my office.

The nineties ushered in an opportunity for unity. One of the first projects undertaken by Life Issues Institute was seminal research to find out how Americans perceived the pro-life movement. It wasn’t pretty. They saw us as rigid, violent, and anti-women.

We brought pro-life leaders together in Washington, DC to share our findings and develop a unified message in our public response to the upcoming Supreme Court Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision. Pro-abortion forces had been effective with their Park Avenue public relations firms that developed the “who decides” and “pro-choice” rhetoric. It was our chance to turn the tables.

Out of three consecutive meetings held in April, May and June came the “Love Them Both” theme with a statement that in part read, “Your life and the life of your baby are both important and we will not desert either of you. We want to love you both.” The goal was to have every national and state pro-life organization utilizing this messaging. Life Issues Institute designed “Love Them Both” graphics that were shared with Cincinnati Right to Life, which mass produced heart shaped posters, bumper strips, brochures, billboards, etc.

We were united with an effective message that changed the way Americans looked at the abortion issue. To this day, pro-abortion activists continue to be on the defensive.

The “Love Them Both” message circumvented the globe. While I was in South Africa speaking at a national conference, there were heart shaped “Love Them Both” posters posted at the intersections radiating out from the convention center.

Today, youth-led national pro-life groups have resurrected the theme, produced their own version of graphics and are widely sharing them.

As a trio, Jack, Barbara, and I crisscrossed the globe on behalf of saving unborn babies around the world. My trip to Siberia in early April was memorable.

I spoke to a room full of doctors on fetal development that included brochures translated into Russian and a set of fetal models I left with them. They were astounded by my information of early fetal development in pregnancy. These doctors, some of whom delivered babies, had been told “it’s not a baby until the fourth month.” Now I was the one who was astounded!

In Moscow we presented to a room full of medical students on their way to becoming OB/GYN doctors. We shared imagery of fetal development and the ugly reality of what abortion does to its tiny victims. Afterward, several students told us that they would never perform abortions in their future practices.

In the mid-nineties the issue of men and abortion appeared on the radar of the pro-life movement. My involvement was set into motion by a heartrending handwritten letter from a man whose younger brother died by suicide because of the pain of two abortions he was powerless to stop. The anguish I felt for that man and his family inspired me to act. I was a founding member of the Men and Abortion Network. Its first mission was to create awareness that men hurt, too, and provide them a lifeline to heal. To our delight, pregnancy centers across the nation immediately embraced our message and began to help men as part of their mission. As a result, we were able to collectively develop a grassroots network of peer-to-peer counselors who walk with men through their healing process. A website was developed for grieving fathers and those who want to help them.

Even before the infamous Roe decision, pro-lifers were hard at work in what we affectionately called the “service” section of the movement. A growing grassroots network of pregnancy centers soon blossomed into medical centers that offer much more than pregnancy tests, maternity clothes, and diapers. These oases of life and love have become a sophisticated network offering free resources like sonograms, STD testing, and mentoring. Many now include services that extend far beyond pregnancy and delivery.

We’d be remise not to include President Donald J Trump in pro-life history. He came with lots of drama, but he was also the most pro-life president in America’s history. As president he – not his staff – was a constant source of ideas that advanced the cause for life. Most importantly he nominated, and the Senate confirmed three strict constructionist justices to the US Supreme Court that resulted in Roe’s demise. Plus, he facilitated the same caliber of men and women on district and appellate courts, including US District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk who recently ruled that the FDA’s approval of chemical abortion pills was politically motivated and void of credible research.

This is only a snapshot of how pro-life education played a life-saving role over the years in helping to achieve the demise of Roe. It’s also a reflection of many dedicated people from various backgrounds and political views who were united in the goal of ending the brutal and violent killing of unborn babies. If you’d like to add to this list of historical events, submit your thoughts to Life Issues Institute. Please limit your comments to not more than one page, single spaced and email or mail them to our office.

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