Honouring the Prophets: Marilyn Pryor, Champion of The Unborn

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 34, Spring 2005

One of the best known Christian women in New Zealand in the 1970-80s was Marilyn Pryor. A forthright, dynamic woman of conscience, for some years she was the public face of the pro-life national group, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC). In that capacity she engaged with politicians and community groups alike, putting the case for the protection of the unborn in the face of a culture which eventually promoted abortion virtually on demand.

It was not easy. Her time as a national leader in SPUC coincided with the cultural advance of feminism which rightly sought to promote the rights and dignity of women in a traditionally patriarchal society. Marilyn Pryor disagreed with one of the fundamental premises of the general feminist agenda, that it was ‘a woman’s right to choose’. By that was meant the woman alone decided whether, having conceived a child, she would follow through with the pregnancy or have an abortion. Pryor was attacked by many, but nonetheless with humour and consistency kept her beliefs, promoting them at every opportunity.

To stand in the public arena on a pro-life anti-abortion position during the past 25 years has been a lonely position to have been in. While a huge number of people are privately opposed to abortion on principle, those in the public eye are less obvious. Western culture now presumes that abortion should be readily available. It is in all major western countries. To say it shouldn’t be is to challenge one of the foundation stones of feminism and the culture in which we live. It was definitely not a PC position to take. That was no deterrent to Marilyn Pryor.

During her tenure at SPUC, she also helped found Pregnancy Help as a means of reaching out to those who wished to work through the issues of an unexpected pregnancy. There are many walking the streets of our country today who owe their very existence to the behind-the-scenes work of this woman. She also helped found Project Rachel in an effort to reach out to some who had had an abortion and were suffering the after effects.

Besides much public speaking and lobbying, she wrote extensively on right-to-life and family issues. Her first book was The Right to Live, published in 1986, which traced a history of the abortion movement in this country. In more recent times, after travelling to the Netherlands and doing extensive research, she wrote a book Abortion in the Netherlands on why the Dutch abortion level is lower than that of New Zealand.

Shortly before her death on 15 March 2005, she wrote, ‘The damage abortion has done to the demographic structure is an last forcing the Government to face up to the imbalance in the age profile. Now we look at the reality of pensions and the difficulty of a self-sustaining population. Completely demolished too are the claims by the pro-abortionists that the unborn child is just a glob of cells, that it feels no pain, that the aborted mother suffer no ill effects, and that contraception is both reliable and safe.’

Marilyn however had a lively sense of social justice in its much wider sense She had a deep compassion for the underdog, a real concern for race relations and a commitment to ecumenism. She was no narrow-minded one-issue person and had a much broader understanding of pro-life than many of her contemporaries. She believed all life issues were interconnected. She was passionate about human rights and marched against the 1981 Springbok tour. She was strongly opposed to the Foreshore and Seabed legislation. One she admired greatly was the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago, author of the Seamless Garment theology, which in the 1980s sought to bind into a single unit pro-life issues surrounding the arms race, poverty, war, racism, euthanasia, the death penalty and abortion. She became a firm supporters of the NZ Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter A Consistent Ethic of Life which took these seven issues and added one more, the Integrity of Creation – the necessity of protecting the planet from environmental destruction. She considered these eight dimensions of widespread death brought the major pro-life issues under one korowai, a seamless cloak. They should all be recognised as purveyors of death and opposed for that reason. Gospel people transformed by grace could not support any of them.

Marilyn was a woman of boundless energy. She had an engaging personality and was a great storyteller and raconteur. In later years she became director of the pastoral office in Wellington, editor of Wel-com, the archdiocesan paper, the District Prison Board, was a member of both the prison chaplaincy board and of the National Commission on Ecumenism. In the Porirua Basin she helped establish a primary healthcare organisation Pro-Med for those who might not otherwise have been able to afford it. Shortly before her death she joined her local parish Justice and Peace group in raising funds to support an orphanage in Georgia, Russia.

Dying over a period of months of motor neurone disease, she remained committed to her last breath to the belief that life was a gift from the Creator and only God could take it away.

Her legacy is one of clear commitment to the unborn child and the right to a good and decent life of every citizen. In an age of relativity, her commitment to the wider issues of justice made her a person of rare moral character and wisdom.

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