The IVF debate has once again become a political football with posturing on all sides as Canberra tries to come to terms with last week’s High Court decision.
Last week in a unanimous decision the full bench of the High Court quashed the attempt by the Catholic bishops and Attorney-General Daryl Williams to overturn the Federal Court’s McBain decision. (See story page 7.) In the July 2000 Federal Court decision Justice Sundberg ruled that it was not legal under the federal Sex Discrimination Act to refuse infertility treatments to women on the basis of marital status.
In their decision last week the High Court ruled that as neither the bishops nor the attorney-general were party to the original federal court decision, they lack the standing to meddle in concluded litigation.
The decision immediately came under challenge from Prime Minister John Howard who announced his intention to legislate to exempt IVF services from the Sex Discrimination Act. The government intends to reintroduce amendments to the Act that stalled last year in the Senate. Although stopping short of legislating to ban access for lesbians and single women to IVF treatments, the proposed amendments to the Act would allow the States to restrict access as they saw fit.
The reason we have taken this attitude, the prime minister told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell, is not that we wish to discriminate against single women or lesbians. That’s not the reason. We’re looking to the interests of unborn children and I think the government does have a responsibility to express a view, send a signal, as to what its beliefs about the kind of society we ought to be.
Howard’s decision to proceed with the legislation has been roundly condemned by Labor and Democrats leaders.
Labor spokesperson on the status of women Dr Carmen Lawrence called Howard’s current interest in the rights of the child hypocritical in the light of his failure to address the rights of young detained asylum seekers or the rights of the children of the stolen generation.
There’s a great deal of hypocrisy in that kind of talk, Lawrence told the Star, and I frankly think that Howard is only interested in driving another wedge and this has been a good one for him in the past and he’s going to have another go.
Democrats senator Brian Greig described Howard’s proposed amendments as a fruitless exercise and rated their chances of getting through the Senate as extremely slim given a united stand against the legislation by Labor, Democrats and Greens senators.
I think what’s really happening here is not the government pursuing a policy objective in any serious way with a view to social reform but simply Howard flagging to his conservative constituency where he stands on this issue -¦ It’s just political smoke and mirrors, Greig told the Star.
Although senior Liberals including health minister Kaye Patterson have called for a conscience vote on the proposed amendments, Howard this week rejected such calls and said that he expected government members to vote for the legislation.
The call for a conscience vote has also come from the right wing of the Labor party but Lawrence told the Star that she is absolutely certain that her party will hold firm on its stance against the legislation.
We’ve taken [the decision] right through to the level of the national executive and it won’t be undone, I can assure you, Lawrence said.
Lawrence added that the party had taken a strong stand on the government’s proposed amend-ments because it was a clear-cut issue of discrimination.
This is about discrimination. If IVF is available to the clinically infertile, then it’s available to the clinically infertile, Lawrence reiterated. If artificial insemination by donor is available to all those who can demonstrate a commitment to parenthood, then it should be available to all those people, not just the ones who are currently approved of by certain sections of the establishment.
Greig indicated that in spite of some dissent on broader issues around IVF, his party would also hold firm in opposing the amendments.
The Democrats party room is united in opposing this bill and opposing any weakening of the Sex Discrimination Act, Greig said. But at the same time some of my colleagues do have concerns about IVF in a general sense, particularly on the issue of whether a child born from IVF ought to know who her or his father is. Democrats seem to think that that is a right which ought to be open to a child born of IVF.
Both the Democrats and Labor favour the development of a national code of practice which would govern some of these more controversial aspects of IVF practice. How-ever, Lawrence and Greig agreed that the current hothouse atmosphere around IVF issues is not conducive to the development of effective policy.
Howard spends a lot of his time trying to make one section of the community hate another or at least diminish them in some way, Lawrence said. We can all do that, we all know what the hot buttons are but responsible leaders don’t do it, they lead in fact by trying to persuade people that we should all regard our fellow human beings as equally worthy of respect.