CINCINNATI — Dr. John Willke, an obstetrician who helped shape the modern anti-abortion movement with ideas including a belief that a woman can resist conception from a sexual assault, has died, his daughter said Saturday. He was 89.
Willke, who founded the International Right to Life Federation, died Friday at his home in Cincinnati, daughter Marie Meyers said. She said the cause of death wasn't immediately known, but that he had seemed in good health for his age.
"The core of his life was caring for people as a husband, a father and a doctor, and that caring extended to his life's work for unborn children and their mothers," Meyers said.
Willke quit delivering babies in the late 1960s to oppose abortion, retiring from his medical practice in 1988 to fully devote his time to the anti-abortion movement. He participated in protests and congressional hearings and appeared on national television frequently.
In a statement, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine described Willke as a "worldwide leader in the right to life movement."
"He will be remembered as a great teacher and friend and stalwart leader in giving a voice to the most vulnerable in our society," DeWine said.
Other doctors and abortion rights advocates have accused Willke of ignoring facts and science — particularly in his view on rape and pregnancy. U.S. Rep. Todd Aiken of Missouri drew criticism from fellow Republicans and lost his 2012 Senate bid after making comments reflecting Willke's view.
"There's no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape," Willke wrote in 1999 in the journal Christian Life Resources. "This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy."
But the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in 2012 said a woman who is raped "has no control over ovulation, fertilization or implantation of a fertilized egg" and that to "suggest otherwise contradicts basic biological truths."
Willke and his late wife, Barbara, co-authored the "Handbook on Abortion," providing information from an anti-abortion viewpoint. The 1971 book, which sold 1.5 million copies at the height of the sexual revolution and has been reprinted many times and in many languages, influenced generations of anti-abortion activists.
One such activist, Janet Folger Porter, said Saturday that she was heartbroken by Willke's death.
"He was my hero, mentor and friend," said Porter, president of Faith2Action, an Ohio-based anti-abortion group.
A former National Right to Life Committee president, Willke and his wife founded the Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati Inc. in 1970.
Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, said Saturday that much of what Willke put forward as medical facts has been debunked.
"I think it's troubling when medical professionals put out inaccurate information to bolster their political views," Copeland said.
Barbara Willke, who died in April 2013, told The Associated Press in 1999 that the couple didn't originally plan to get involved with abortion until questions from their daughters and friends caused them to take a closer look at the issue.
"My husband said if we got involved it would swallow us up, and I guess it did," she said.
The Willkes had six children, 22 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.