So let us praise it when we see it:
In 2009, Reva Siegel and I set out to collect primary-source documents that would show how the arguments for and against abortion reform proceeded during the years leading up to Roe v. Wade. We wanted to illustrate the complexity of those years — the diversity of opinion among conservative religious groups, for example — and also to provide evidence to refute the conventional wisdom that the anti-abortion movement was launched in reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision. For the book that we planned, we clearly needed to be able to print a sizable excerpt from the pre-Roe “Handbook on Abortion,” and for that, we needed the Willkes’ permission.
Obtaining permission to reprint documents had not been easy from either side of the debate. The estate of Betty Friedan, the feminist leader and founder of the National Organization for Women, charged us a substantial amount to reprint excerpts from two of her speeches. N.O.W. itself charged for reprinting its 1967 “bill of rights,” a list of the organization’s eight top priorities. Americans United for Life, which emerged quickly after its founding in 1971 as a major player on the pro-life side, refused to deal with us at all.
So it was with some trepidation that we approached Dr. Willke, who was then 84 years old. We wrote to him, indicating the pages from “Handbook on Abortion” that we wanted to include in our book. After a few letters back and forth, he gave us his permission, if not exactly his blessing; clearly he had his doubts, despite our assurances, that we really did intend to provide a fair representation of both sides. He charged us nothing, asking only for two copies of the finished book. The excerpt from “Handbook” ended up filling 12 pages of our book, the longest excerpt from a single document. (Our book, “Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling,” is available as a free download from the Yale Law School library’s web site.)
We didn’t expect Dr. Willke to respond, but a few months after we sent the two copies, a letter arrived, signed by both “Barb” and “Jack.” While they had expected that “we would probably end up in giving you a ‘D-minus,’ “ the Willkes wrote, “we are pleased to tell you that we give you a solid ‘B.’” They said they found the book fair to their side, adding that “we think its treatment of pre-Roe v. Wade is by far the best historical account that we have seen.” (A “B” after such a generous review? No grade inflation at the Willkes’, evidently.)
Dr. Willke was surely under no illusion that our encounter with his life’s work had changed our minds, but he was willing to give us the credit he thought was due. In this space, I do the same.