The Semiotics of a Movement: How “Pro-Life” Became a Marketing Campaign

Posted inPolitical Design

In the previous installment of this series, Fetal Imagery and Lure of the Unseen, I wrote about the desire to capture the liminal space between conception and birth. We met Lennart Nilsson, whose infamous fetal photography for a 1965 issue of Life Magazine inadvertently spawned decades of anti-abortion propaganda. Today, I’ll follow the journey of pro-life activists and physicians John and Barbara Willke, who used images like Nilsson’s to turn a quiet religious belief into a nationwide brand campaign.

Content Warning: This story contains descriptions of and links to graphic imagery.

John and Barbara Willke were medical practitioners from Ohio. He delivered babies and she worked as a nurse. They were devout Catholics who believed in abstinence before marriage and gave sex-ed lectures at church that did not include any mention of sex out of wedlock or contraception. In 1964, they published their first book, How to Teach Children the Wonder of Sex, championing chastity at a time when the FDA had just approved the first oral contraceptive. Everything was changing. The anti-establishment winds of the Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, counterculture, and second-wave feminism swept abortion reform into the idealistic upheaval of the late 1960s. Between 1969 and 1971, the underground abortion service Jane Collective helped provide more than 11,000 abortions and Planned Parenthood opened their first health center offering abortion services. Contrary to the fraught debate around abortion now, this kind of move was supported by Republicans at the time; in fact, Senator Prescott Bush sponsored funding for Planned Parenthood and spoke so frequently in favor of family planning that his nickname on the floor was “Rubbers.”

In the midst of this social turmoil, the Willkes quit their medical responsibilities and switched their focus from sex-ed to abortion. They derived credibility amongst religious circles from their good Catholic reputation, but it was their medical background that set them apart with wider audiences. In place of the usual Bible-quoting, they employed scientific terms like fetal development, chromosomes, and fertilization. They turned the creation of personhood into an unquestionable technical matter, and their mastery of rhetoric paved the way to building a platform at national speaking events and publications. At the behest of one of Barbara’s friends, they featured Lennart Nilsson’s accidentally controversial fetal photos in their lectures, and soon pro-lifers all over the country were sending them pictures.

The Willkes quickly learned that imagery was the most effective method of convincing the public to change their position on abortion. Dr. William Drake, a physician from St. Louis, sent over a photo they used frequently over the next several decades. They called it “the bucket shot.” The graphic photo depicted an occurrence that was as rare in 1970s America as it is today: the remains from a late-term abortion, in a metal bucket with some bloody gauze. Drake later admitted to journalist Cynthia Gorney that he added the bucket and gauze for effect because “it just looked like a better picture.” Drake’s seemingly untouched photographs were rearranged, manipulated, and repurposed without context. They were visceral, and that was what mattered. While Nilsson’s photography was meant to highlight the splendor of human reproduction, Drake’s footage was violent and bloody, making the direct link which Nilsson’s did not: abortion as murder.

In 1971, the Willkes published the Handbook on Abortion in an effort to document and disseminate their talks. During an interview with Gorney, Barbara Willke recalled their attempts to distribute the book at the Ohio State Fair that year. They had laid out copies of the book, but no one was stopping by— that is, until they flipped open to the page with the pictures. “And all of a sudden, [people] were just mobbing the booth,” she said. The book eventually sold over 1.5 million copies.

In the months before the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, the Willkes published How to teach people the pro-life story, a modern-day sales manual on how to effectively market the movement. It was a play-by-play on how the Willkes communicated pro-life arguments so that other speakers might follow their lead. As described in the book, they never showed visuals of embryos less than six weeks old because “the audience may change their minds from their conviction that this is a human life.” They began their lectures with pictures of babies nearing full-term and subsequently moved through the fetal development process in reverse chronological order, asking the audience with each image: is this still a human? Their intention, as explained in the book, was to start with a picture that resembled a human to anchor the audience in the belief that they were looking at a living, breathing person.

The Willkes went further to provoke outrage, turning to visual metaphors that compared abortion to large-scale human catastrophes like the Holocaust and slavery. In her book Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars, Gorney describes pictures of fetuses in a garbage bag an unnamed doctor in Winnipeg sent to the Willkes: “The…shot worked like the Dachau concentration camp photographs from 1945: bodies upon bodies, apparently ready for disposal.” Like many pro-life activities in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they compared abortion to genocide, master race, and quality of life arguments. John Willke wrote an entire book ​​Slavery and abortion: History Repeats, evoking the concept of personhood and equating Roe v. Wade with Dred Scott v. Sanford, the 1857 Supreme Court ruling that stated enslaved people were not citizens of the United States.

How to teach the pro-life story was explicit in divulging its visual tactics, the same ones John Willke used in conversation with George H.W. Bush at his Kennebunkport vacation home. Their meeting took place prior to the 1988 presidential election, by which time the issue of abortion had become increasingly partisan. Eight years earlier, Bush ran for President on a platform in support of abortion and Barbara Bush walked into a National Federation of Republican Women meeting wearing a pro-choice button. But, as was the case with his father, Bush’s initially moderate stance came at a political cost. When he met Willke, the soon-to-be President was running his second campaign and wanted to appeal to religious conservatives. After viewing Willke’s lecture, Bush called a meeting with pro-life supporters and pledged his support to a human life amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. In Willke’s words, it was the slideshow that convinced him. One year after their meeting, Bush praised the Supreme Court decision to allow state restrictions on abortion and reiterated his continued dedication “to restore to the people the ability to protect the unborn.”

As John Willke was presenting slides of fetal imagery to Bush, leading pro-choice advocacy organization, NARAL, was holding focus groups in Tampa. In one session, a woman called out, “Who decides?” and the following year, emboldened by the 1989 Supreme Court decision to permit states to levy abortion restrictions, NARAL ran a campaign with “Who Decides” at the forefront. It was catchy, short, and framed the issue as governmental involvement in a woman’s affairs, rather than fetus versus mother. John Willke was not pleased, calling this the pro-choice side’s “new sales pitch.” In response, he conducted his own focus groups through the Life Issues Institute, a pro-life nonprofit he co-founded. Their research showed that even respondents against abortion viewed pro-lifers as “religious zealots” and “fetus lovers” who lacked compassion for women. This was an image problem that Willke solved with a new marketing phrase: “why not love them both?” The new catchphrase made its way into the title of the next Handbook for Abortion in 1997. Speaking at the University for Life Faculty Conference at Loyola College soon thereafter, Willke embarked on his usual spiel about fetal imagery tactics with a new message this time. “Barbara started with five minutes of telling them how compassionate we are to women…Then we told them how many abortions there were. Then we proved it was a baby.” In that speech, he urged his audience to emphasize compassion toward women, to never use the word “pro-choice,” and to respond to any comment regarding the right to choose with, “Why can’t we love them both?”

John and Barbara were always attentive to messaging, visuals, and their effects on people. They popularized phrases like “unborn human” that continue to make appearances in legal proceedings today. Their publications remain the most widely read pro-life material. In the words of historian Carol A. Stabile, The Willkes “put the fetus on the cultural map.” Their platform relied on images and the continual recontextualizing of language. Meanwhile, they taught others to do the same, leaving the pro-choice movement aghast. While there was the security of Roe v. Wade, there were always attempts to overturn it, especially by GOP leaders in search of clout.

In 1973, as John and Barbara Willke were handing out How to teach the pro-life story, the Gloria Steinem-run feminist publication Ms. Magazine ran an article celebrating Roe v. Wade. The title read “Never Again,” and below it was an image of a woman, bleeding to death after attempting an illegal abortion in a motel. Her name was Gerri Santoro. In the next installment of this series, I will write about the 1970s pro-choice movement and how it influenced editorial decisions at Ms. Magazine. These decisions inspired pro-choice supporters to raise their voices while at the same time, upsetting the family and legacy of the woman whose photograph Ms. publicized. The magazine wanted to respond to the proliferation of fetal imagery and anti-abortion propaganda— why not fight fire with fire, sensational image with sensational image?

Divya Mehra is currently a writer and artist-in-residence at NYU Tisch. She teaches classes on visual symbolism and experimental storytelling. She holds degrees in Art + Technology and Economics and previously worked in strategy consulting.

For more information on John & Barbara Willke’s role in the pro-life movement:

  • Holland, Jennifer L. Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement. University of California Press, 2020. 
  • Gorney, Cynthia. Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars. Simon & Schuster, 1998.
  • Greenhouse, Linda, and Reva B. Siegel. Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate before the Supreme Court’s Ruling. Kaplan Pub., 2010. 
  • Williams, Daniel K. Defenders of the Unborn: The pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade. Oxford University Press, 2019.