COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The discredited notion that a woman's body can resist conception in a sexual assault has persisted in U.S. anti-abortion circles for decades, largely because of the efforts of an Ohio obstetrician who is considered a godfather of the movement.
Dr. John C. "Jack" Willke, now 87, founded the National Right to Life Committee and wrote the influential 1971 "Handbook on Abortion," which has shaped the thinking of generations of anti-abortion activists.
Rep. Todd Akin's comments this week on rape and pregnancy helped upend a Senate race and roiled the Republican Party in a tough election year.
Akin, a candidate for the Senate from Missouri, suggested during an interview Sunday that women's bodies can prevent pregnancies in case of "legitimate rape."
Although Akin apologized, leading Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, are pressuring him to abandon his Senate bid, one of several races seen as key to Republican hopes of regaining control of Congress in November.
Akin's comments also thrust abortion to the forefront of the presidential campaign at a time when Romney has been trying to steer the debate away from sensitive social issues and toward the economy.
But the remarks reflect ideas that Willke began peddling many years ago.
"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."
To anti-abortion activists, Willke is a revered figure. To abortion-rights activists, the onetime sex education lecturer perpetuates myths, eschews facts and ignores science. And to fellow physicians, his ideas are pure fiction.
After Akin's remarks, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said a woman who is raped "has no control over ovulation, fertilization or implantation of a fertilized egg. ... To suggest otherwise contradicts basic biological truths."
But the last time Willke appeared at the Ohio Statehouse, Republican lawmakers were "almost worshipful," recalled Cincinnati attorney Al Gerhardstein, an abortion-rights proponent who has often debated Willke. "He's always been a very sincere, passionate advocate for his cause. And I've always been wary that he doesn't let the facts get in the way."
The doctor and his wife, Barbara, have six children. They were prompted to write the handbook by their daughters, who complained about encountering what they regarded as bad information on the subject in college.
The book became the instant bible of the anti-abortion movement, selling 1.5 million copies at the height of the sexual revolution.
It asserts that a douche, vaginal scraping and medications administered quickly after a rape "invariably" prevents pregnancy. "If the rape victim would report her assault properly, there would be, for all practical purposes, no pregnancies from rape," the couple wrote.
Willke stood by the 1999 article in an interview Monday with The Associated Press. He also defended Akin, saying the congressman's main mistake was a reference to "legitimate rape," not his statement that women rarely get pregnant from sexual assault.
Anti-abortion activist Janet Folger Porter has Willke's handbook in her reference library. She said it's popular worldwide because it isn't filled with emotional arguments and religious dogma, but hard facts.
"It's spelled out in Q-and-A form," she said. "The whole thing is not Dr. Willke's opinion or dissertation on the issue. It's independent studies, all of them cited, by issue."
The son and grandson of doctors, Willke married Barbara, a nursing professor, writer and lecturer, in 1948. Together they taught pre-marriage and marriage courses for the Catholic church, and became a popular doctor-and-nurse team speaking on sex, love and eventually abortion. Their first book together was "The Wonder of Sex," a 1964 sex education guide.
Willke built a busy obstetric practice and emerged as Cincinnati's leading expert on conception.
After the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, he put himself at the center of the issue, appearing frequently at protests, Capitol Hill hearings and on national television. He quit practicing medicine in 1988 to devote his full energy to the movement he helped create.
Gerhardstein said the Republican-controlled state Legislature still defers to Willke. Last spring, Willke visited the Statehouse to promote a bill that would impose the nation's most severe abortion restriction, limiting the procedure at the first detectable fetal heartbeat.
After a hearing on the bill, which is still stalled, Willke was invited by the Republican House speaker to ascend the dais and address the assembled legislators.
"I'm thinking, boy, I've never gotten that kind of treatment," Gerhardstein recalled.
Associated Press Writer Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.