AUSTRALIA’S first pro-life group to advocate for the rights of people in all stages of life, including the unborn, has turned 50.
In 1970 Right to Life Queensland was established, and quickly became a national entity of pro-life activism in states and territories across Australia.
Winifred Egan was one of the first women to join the ranks of active members who fought for the rights of the vulnerable, beginning with the unborn.
Mrs Egan reminisced about the early days and her subsequent 25 years of service to Right to Life Queensland, now known as Cherish Life, at the organisation’s 50th anniversary dinner on November 27, which was a sellout event.
Speaking to The Catholic Leader after the event, Mrs Egan said 50 years ago there was a strong sense that killing the youngest members of society was wrong.
“Right to Life Queensland started because there was a group of doctors who were meeting because they were concerned about what had already happened in England,” she said referring to countries legalising abortion.
Greg O’Dwyer was recruited to lead the first meeting of Right to Life Queensland, and served as secretary, but when he died three years later, Mrs Egan stepped up as secretary and eventually president.
“It was a different world,” she said.
“There were strong bodies within the wider community that didn’t know a lot about abortion, but it was taboo.”
Right to Life Queensland hosted speaking engagements across the state, trained people to take the pro-life message to the public square and even paid visits to schools to share the science of life at conception.
Then there were the pro-life rallies, which are still organised today.
“We put thousands of people on the streets, with police commissions, in really happy rallies for life,” Mrs Egan said.
“In those 50 years of course the world has turned completely – abortion is now a way of life.
“The people working in Cherish Life, it’s a much harder ask.
“We held the line for a very long time.”
Delaying abortion legislation was the first fight, but there was a second logical next step on everyone’s minds.
“At an interesting point there, when we were first debating abortion, we actually said, well logically the next thing that will come up is euthanasia,” Mrs Egan said.
“And we were all roundly criticised, we were called extremists, and dramatists, and just trying to scare people.
“Then night becomes day …
“But if you lose respect for any part of human life, you lose respect for all of it.”
Mrs Egan said she learnt the most about pro-life activism from Mother Teresa, whom she accompanied during her visit to Australia in 1981.
Throughout its 50 years, Right to Life Queensland, and now Cherish Life, has spread to 13 branches across the state.
In Toowoomba, Dr Donna Purcell has been “fighting the good fight” since 1980, and even longer if you count her university days.
Mrs Egan inspired her to join the Right to Life movement and she’s been with the organisation for the better part of 45 years.
There was a mix of wins and losses during her tenure as president in the ’80s and ’90s, but by far the greatest to affect her personally was being sued for defamation.
She had just had her fourth child when the lawsuit case came through, and she fought against it for four years.
“It was quite a shock to us personally,” Dr Purcell said.
“There were about four or five of them taken out against us by a couple of different abortionists who were very prominent at the time, because they were either in Brisbane challenging the government all the time on their law and were really challenging to be taken to court over their actions.
“The importance of that, apart from being very expensive, was that it was meant to silence us on what we were saying about abortion and their activities.
“We were successful in challenging that and not stepping back from it.”
Another huge success was delaying abortion for nearly five decades until 2018.
Pro-life politicians George Christensen, Amanda Stoker and Ann Leahy, all of whom publicly opposed abortion legislation, were among the supporters at the 50th anniversary dinner.
Today, Teeshan Johnson has the “honour” of continuing the fight for all vulnerable lives, with a key focus on the elderly following Queensland Labor’s promise to introduce euthanasia legislation in February.
“I try not to think of the pressure but I try to think of what’s at stake – there are literally lives at stake, little unborn lives, as well as their mothers, their health and their mental wellbeing, but also now we have the elderly, the sick, the disabled,” Ms Johnson, Cherish Life executive director, said.
“I feel hopeful that in the coming years being pro-life will become the mainstream thought.”
Although the Labor victory was not what Cherish Life supporters hoped for, Ms Johnson said their next strategy was to look at Federal campaigning.
“We’re going to do some federal initiatives now, and we have requests to open branches in other states,” she said.
“We’ve just got a whole lot bigger with every fight.”