Pro-life education pioneer
Long before Dobbs, strategic pro-life messaging and mass media helped change hearts and minds on abortion
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Brad Mattes is president of the Life Issues Institute, an organization that focuses on advancing effective pro-life educational materials. He started the nonprofit in 1991 with the late Dr. John “Jack” Willke, sometimes called the father of the modern-day pro-life movement. Today Mattes hosts the daily radio commentary Life Issues and is president of the International Right to Life Federation. The following is edited for length and clarity.
How did you get started with the pro-life movement? In 1975 I was a senior at a Montana high school. The final assignment in a persuasive speech class was to present information on a controversial topic. A lot of our final grade depended upon how well we persuaded our fellow students. I picked abortion and contacted Right to Life in Billings, and they gave me pro-life material put together by Jack Willke and his wife, Barbara. Before I did the speech, I polled the class, and they were about 50/50 on the issue. I presented the facts of what abortion does to babies and mothers. I showed them the remarkable, stunning beauty of life in the womb. After my presentation, my fellow students were unanimous in support of life. That’s how I learned that pro-life education is an effective way to change hearts and minds on abortion.
You worked closely with Jack Willke until his death in 2015. How did that pro-life partnership begin? I got to know Jack and Barbara while serving on the National Right to Life board in the 1980s. Jack was president at the time. When I assumed the role of president of Montana Right to Life, they came out and spoke at one of our conferences. Soon after, they hired me to assist the political action committee director at National Right to Life. Eventually Jack stepped down as president to dedicate his efforts to pro-life education and asked me to help start Life Issues Institute in 1991. We did that work together for about 26 years until his passing.
Can you tell us about an early Life Issues Institute project? One of the first things we did in the early 1990s was poll Americans to learn how they viewed the pro-life movement. We were coming off of abortion facility arson and shootings of abortionists. The American public—with the eager help of the media—had painted all of us as violent, haters, and anti-woman. We suspected that this was the prevailing picture, and the results of the poll confirmed it. It was not pretty, but it was something we needed to hear. We discussed the research in three consecutive meetings in Washington, D.C., with other pro-life leaders and tried to come up with messaging that could counteract that picture. We settled on the idea of emphasizing the rights of both the mother and the child and came up with the phrase “Love them both.” We tested this pro-woman message in university lectures right away. Instead of getting angry, feminists listened to what we had to say. The pro-abortion side has been on the defense ever since.
You saw that pro-woman message spread to other countries? A few years after that, I was in South Africa, presenting a workshop at a national pro-life conference. As my hosts drove me to the venue, I saw signs posted on busy street corners downtown that said “Love them both.” Life Issues Institute and Cincinnati Right to Life had produced those signs in Ohio and shipped them out to other countries.
Today, you still host the Life Issues radio program, but you also used to be involved in a television show. Around 2005, we began to produce 22 episodes a year of a half-hour weekly TV program called Facing Life Head-On. That ran for eight seasons. We picked up three regional Emmy Awards for excellence in programming, a real breakthrough for the pro-life movement. That really helped to mainstream our message. Our goal was to reach women in childbearing years who may not be with us on the abortion issue. The feedback we got showed we were changing a lot of hearts and minds. As host, I wanted to present compelling people and then stay out of their way as they told their stories. We featured individuals with Down syndrome and talked to their families and neighbors. We dealt with adoption issues. We talked with women who experienced abortion—and men involved in abortions. We did a few programs on embryo adoption. Weeks after former Planned Parenthood center director Abby Johnson left the abortion industry, we flew her to Cincinnati to have her on our show.
Why the emphasis on education? Education is the foundation for political and legislative victories. But then you must take advantage of that and elect pro-life people. Now that Roe v. Wade is overturned and everything goes back to the states, that’s going to be very real. In Mason, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, the City Council voted to make Mason a sanctuary for the unborn. After elections, pro-abortion council members got in and reversed that. Being pro-life in the voting booth counts at every level because you never know how far a candidate is going to climb on that political ladder to success. Even Barack Obama started his political career as a community organizer.
You were a founding member of the Men and Abortion Network. In 1995 or so, I received some emails and letters from fathers who were grieving over children lost to abortion. I told Jack: We’re missing something. We understand the women, but it’s also affecting the guys. He said I was right and that I should pursue this. At the network, we helped create awareness about the ways that abortion impacts men. The pro-life movement really caught on. Pregnancy resource centers were quick to incorporate ministries for hurting fathers.
Does your master’s degree in Biblical counseling help your work with post-abortive men? I believe a Biblical counseling model is the most effective way to counsel. Without it, you’re limited in how far you can take them: To get total freedom, you’ve got to know that your sins are forgiven. I tell men that forgiveness is not agreeing that the abortion was needed or necessary. It’s not accepting the woman’s decision to have that abortion. It’s just a conscious decision of not holding feelings of hatred toward the woman or the people involved in the abortion.
There’s spiritual warfare at work? Men who have been involved in an abortion experience an enormous amount of anger, grief, and shame. You need to start peeling that off like you peel an onion and tell them that Jesus forgives sins and demands that we forgive others—not just because it’s what we need to do but because it will set us free. And when you can show them in Scripture that forgiveness, serving, and healing all go hand in hand, and add to that the power of the Holy Spirit, it is very effective. Through our Men and Abortion Network website, we referred men to counselors all over the country. I counseled fathers in Cincinnati and saw that so many men are open to the message of Jesus when they’re in crisis.
You are president of the International Right to Life Federation. Tell me about that role. I took that position after Dr. Jack Willke stepped down because he was getting older and it was more difficult for him to travel. In that position, I’ve traveled to Europe, South America, Australia, and parts of Africa. Our goal is to help countries that are struggling to pass pro-life legislation by giving them ideas and educational resources. We once flew down to the capital of Chile to combat legislation that would have legalized abortion. We gave lectures about abortion in front of a packed audience in Santiago’s largest university. The local paper covered the event quite extensively on the front page.
Some countries already have good pro-life laws, but they’re feeling external political pressure. Groups like the European Union, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations are bullying countries that have pro-life laws. Those organizations will sometimes withhold desperately needed funds ... because these countries don’t have pro-abortion laws on the books. Malta, Poland, Kenya, and Chile are some countries I’ve seen take hits because of their pro-life laws. It helps them when America is a pro-life influence. With a pro-life president, we could send a pro-life delegation to the UN, and that would affect life issues internationally.
How have you seen abortion-related political developments in America affect the international scene? America’s abortion laws dramatically impact countries around the world. When I travel internationally for pro-life work, often leaders in other countries will tell me, “Please end abortion in America so that we can end it here too.” I keep in touch with our colleagues around the globe, and they are all as excited about the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision as we are. They believe it will impact their country. For instance, Poland has a very pro-life law, but radical feminists, the United Nations, and the European Union are pressuring Polish leaders. Dobbs gives them a leg up. Now they can push back and point to how America realized it went too far with Roe.
Anything surprise you about the aftermath of Dobbs? The level of domestic terrorism pro-life organizations are experiencing and the president’s refusal to address the issue has surprised me. Mr. Biden and the Department of Justice are looking the other way while pregnancy centers and churches burn and are vandalized. The pro-abortion Democrats in the House of Representatives blocked a resolution to condemn this violence, which just eggs on the violence. In Massachusetts, Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for holding pregnancy help centers accountable. Within days, two Massachusetts centers were attacked. If pro-lifers or a pro-life senator had advocated going after Planned Parenthood centers, the media and the government would have gone apoplectic trying to find out who was doing these acts and punishing them accordingly.
What other reactions have we seen at the federal level? We’ve already seen the extremists on Capitol Hill promoting legislation that would invalidate every state pro-life law in the country. We have to counter that. We have a razor-thin majority in this Senate to stop radical pro-abortion legislation, and a pro-abortion majority in the House. We need to see some changes in the midterm elections: Pro-lifers need to be in control of the Senate to stop the radical abortion laws that are coming at us. So far, that delicate balance will stop tax funding of abortion, but it will not enable us to move forward with legislation to require statistical reporting on abortion, for example, or to strengthen conscience protections for medical professionals.
—WORLD has updated this Q&A to clarify the pro-life balance of power in the U.S. Senate.
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