Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 71(2) May 2021

Professor R. L. Whalley

Bob WhalleyRobert Lester Walley was born in Malta of British military parents. He was educated by the De La Salle Brothers in England, and in Pune, India, where he was received into the Catholic Church at the age of 10 years.

Robert qualified in medicine at London University in 1964. His training in obstetrics and gynaecology began in London and continued at the University of Toronto. Dr Walley gained his Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists of England, and a Masters Degree in Population, Maternal and International Health from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Robert was a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Newfoundland Medical School of Memorial University from 1973-2003. In 1985 he was appointed a Consult­ant to the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Health Care Workers, a Vatican Ministry, by Pope John Paul II, and served on the Council until 2002.

The prestigious Man of Faith and Science award, first presented to Prof. Jerome Lejeune of France in 1994, was awarded to Dr Robert Walley by the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations in 1998.
In May 2009, Dr Walley was appointed the first Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecol­ogy of Memorial University, Newfoundland.

On December 9, 2012, he was awarded a decoration of the Holy See, the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal, by Pope Benedict XVI, the highest distinction given to a lay Catholic for service to the Roman Catholic Church. Dr Walley accepted it on behalf of all associated with Mater-Care International (MCI).

On 20th September, 2014, Robert was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy by John Paul II Institute, Melbourne, Australia. Three years later, in 2017, he was presented with the Archbishop Adam Exner Award for Catholic Excellence in Public Life by the Canadian Catholic Civil Rights League, and accepted on behalf of all associated with MCI.

Dr Walley was deeply concerned about unaccept­ably high levels of maternal and perinatal mortality, including obstetric fistulae, in the developing world, and the failure of the Interna­tional Safe Motherhood initiative. His first-hand experience in West Africa, beginning in 1981, prompted him to spearhead the formation of an organisation dedicated to supporting Catholic colleagues and improving maternal health care worldwide. Based on the ethic that all mothers and babies matter, MaterCare International achieved this through new initiatives of service, training, research and advocacy, designed to reduce the tragically high rates of maternal and perinatal mortality and morbidity, and induced abortion.

The concept of a Catholic obstetrical group was first presented at the plenary meeting of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, “Cor Unum,” in the Vatican in 1982. In 1986, an international meeting of Catholic health care professionals, a 15-member group, was convened at a retreat centre in Rome. Initially, the organi­zation was called Opus Vitae. Mission documents were formulated for what would lead to the formation of MCI some years later.

MaterCare International (MCI) Canada was formally established as a new professional body during a meeting of Catholic obstetricians, gynaecologists and midwives held October 11– 15th 1995, at the Life Health Centre in Liver­pool, England. The group had been inspired by the Holy Father’s appeal in the Encyclical “Evan­gelium Vitae”, which called for health profession­als to dedicate themselves to the care of mothers and babies from the moment of conception. The rationale behind this was an awareness that mothers and their unborn children were facing tragically high rates of maternal and perinatal mortality in the developing world, and high rates of abortion and child abuse in the developed world.

Catholic lay health professionals are under threat of extinction, especially in obstetrics and gynae­cology, due to the profound moral and ethical changes in healthcare practices seen in the last 50 years or so. Young Catholics who enter these specialties need the support of Church authorities to receive proper formation and adequate training. MaterCare was the response to that call.

A board of directors was appointed, by-laws were drawn up and approved, and incorporation and registration as a charity in the province of New­foundland, Canada, was obtained in January, 1998. An international office was established in St John’s, Newfoundland. Medical members of MCI were expected to accept the ideals expressed in the “Promise of the Catholic Doctor”. National organizations were established with a Memoran­dum of Understanding with MCI in Canada, Ireland, the UK, Poland, Australia, the United States and Nigeria.

Dr Walley envisaged MCI promoting the fullness of all human life, especially unborn life, through Christian principles, and acting as a prophetic witness by reflecting on the teaching and practice of contemporary maternal and child health care in the light of the gospel and values presented in “Evangelium Vitae.” Drawing on the highest medical and ethical standards, he intended MCI to “breathe” life back into the practice of obstetrics and gynaecology.

Dr Walley observed that the dignity of mothers and babies was violated differently in the developed and developing world. Women and babies in the developed world suffered from a cultural rejection of motherhood. Mothers and babies in the developing world suffered from a cultural neglect of their health needs. Robert strongly emphasized the right to train and practice as an obstetrician and gynaecologist according to one’s properly-formed conscience. He observed that conscientious objection to abortion and artificial birth control had been compromised in many countries.

Between 2001 and 2019, Dr Walley organized eleven conferences in Rome, and similar ones in Warsaw (2007) and Zagreb (2008). These addressed the spiritual, bioethical and professional needs of Catholic ob/gyns. Two of the Rome meetings had a private papal audience - with Pope John Paul II in 2001, and Pope Francis in 2015. In 2002, MCI was formally affiliated with FIAMC (World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations) as a “specialized agency for interventions in favour of motherhood.”

From 1981–1996, Dr Walley and his team developed a model of essential rural obstetrics in Nigeria. Subsequently, MCI funded the development, construction and equipping of a fistula hospital in Ghana (1997–2003).

MCI’s largest project to date, namely Project Isiolo, started in Kenya in 2005. It was run in conjunction with the Bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Isiolo and the Sisters of St Joseph of Tarbes, and involved many facets: developing rural maternity clinics, providing emergency obstetrical transport, educating the community, and constructing and equipping a 30-bed maternity hospital with an outpatient clinic, laboratory and pharmacy, incinerator, waste water plant, kitchen and laundry.

In the early 2000’s, Dr Walley conducted needs assessments for maternal health services in Albania, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Timor Leste. In 2005, he advised the Government of the Republic of Georgia as regards the effects of abortion on obstetric practice and the demography of Georgia. In 2008, Dr Walley was invited to testify as an expert witness at a hearing on a prolife constitutional amendment at the Polish Sejm (parliament) and, on the subject of maternal mortality and morbidity, at hearings of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs, Sub Committee on Africa and Global Health. In 2010, Dr Walley collaborated with the Missionaries of Charity to organize emergency medical care following a devastating earthquake in Haiti. He also participated in the Maternal Mortality Summit entitled “Saving Every Woman, Saving Every Child” in Toronto, Canada in 2014.

Dr Walley actively participated in consecutive Forums for Catholic-Inspired NGO’s organized in Rome by the Secretary of State of the Holy See, and in numerous general medical and specialist meetings, and numerous interviews in interna­tional media.

Dr Walley also produced the following:

  1. A pictorial system for training traditional birth attendants to recognize and refer high risk obstetric cases to a maternity unit.
  2. A Critical Activities in Labour Management course for doctors and midwives.
  3. A training DVD on the surgical and nursing management of obstetric fistula.
  4. Several publications in peer-reviewed journals, mainly on the treatment of post-partum haemorrhage in developing countries, and statements on various medical and bioethical subjects. These can be found on the MCI website.
  5. He developed the original concept of the “91% solution,” relating to the annual tragedy of 300,000 maternal deaths globally, of which 91% are prevent­able with basic obstetric care. He observed that miscarriage and abortion accounted for only 9% of deaths. Paradoxically, almost all government-aid agencies and private charities selectively provide billions of dollars for abortion and contraception, whilst grossly underfunding basic obstetric care.
  6. He proposed a new “Marshall Plan”, this time for mothers in developing countries, inspired by the original 1947 plan developed in response to the devastation in Europe caused by World War II. The Marshall Plan for Mothers provides maternity care based on life and hope – something all mothers have a right to receive. Its aim is to support Church-related health care programmes in developing countries which currently provide only a minority of maternity beds.
  7. Dr Walley and co-workers published the Charter of Maternal Rights. He highlighted that discussions about improving women’s health through better health care have, for many years, neglected mater­nal health. “Mothers are women too,” he would say. Robert was certain that implementing the Charter would improve the lives and health of mothers and babies, and enhance their dignity.

Dr Walley married Susan Mary, a nurse from Guernsey, Channel Islands, on June 30th 1966. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2016. Susan and Robert have lived in St John’s, Newfoundland, since 1973. They have seven children and 15 grandchildren. With much gratitude, Robert frequently acknowledged that "none of this would have been possible" without the great love and strong support of Susan, who "kept the home fires burning" whilst he worked home and abroad, and his wonderful family. He greatly valued the contribution his children made to MaterCare, in particular Simon, and when his grandchildren were involved. At the last Rome conference, Robert was particularly proud of the family session devoted to his grandson Zayn. It was a wonderful countercultural demonstration that parenting a child with Down’s syndrome is indeed “normal” and a great blessing.

“Strong” is a word which resonates with Robert. Robert had a strong personality which commanded respect from the first encounter. Equally strong was his faith and trust in God. He truly put himself in God’s hands. His concern for Catholic health care workers, for the right to prac­tice according to their conscience, and for the presence of God and “His rules” in all spheres of medical practice, was very strong. Robert had a way of stirring one’s “conscience” into action. Even Robert’s final weeks with us had a strong impact. At a personal level, Robert’s frank approach to death taught us a lot about the importance of openness and praying for a good death.

Robert was deeply loved and greatly respected. He will be sadly missed. We are comforted knowing he is with His loving God. Robert won’t be forgotten and his life’s work will go on, supported by his prayers and guided by Our Blessed Mother. Robert died on 22nd June 2020 from cancer at 81 years of age. May he rest in peace.

Prof Bogdan Chazan, Poland
Dr Elvis Šeman, Australia