Submission on Review of NSW Surrogacy Act 2010

The NSW Attorney-General’s Department is currently reviewing the Surrogacy Act 2010, legislation which allowed equal access to altruistic surrogacy within NSW, but made a criminal offence, with a penalty of to 2 years’ imprisonment, of entering into commercial surrogacy arrangements both within NSW and overseas.

Submissions are due by 30 April (next Wednesday), and full details about the review can be found here: <http://www.lpclrd.lawlink.nsw.gov.au/lpclrd/lpclrd_consultation/lpclrd_stat_reviews.html?s=1810621881 

As with the NHMRC review of the Ethical Guidelines re Assisted Reproductive Technology, this subject matter is complicated, and I am sure that some people reading this blog will disagree with some of my conclusions (particularly re commercial surrogacy). if that’s the case, then I encourage you to leave a comment below and/or write your own submission.

 

The Director,

Justice Policy

Department of Attorney General and Justice

GPO Box 6

SYDNEY NSW 2001

justice.policy@agd.nsw.gov.au

 

Wednesday 23 April

 

 

 

Dear Director,

 

SUBMISSION RE REVIEW OF SURROGACY ACT 2010

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide my personal submission in response to the review of the NSW Surrogacy Act 2010.

 

As suggested by the terms of reference, this submission is separated into two parts: the first examines whether the policy objectives of the Act remain valid, while the second considers whether the terms of the Act remain appropriate for securing those objectives.

 

Part A: Do the policy objectives of the Surrogacy Act 2010 remain valid?

 

The review outlines that the policy objectives of the Surrogacy Act 2010 are to:

 

  • Protect the interests of children born as a result of surrogacy arrangements;
  • Provide legal certainty for parties to surrogacy arrangements, and
  • Prevent the commercialisation of human reproduction.

 

Overall, I believe that the first two of these policy objectives remain valid, while the third should be replaced with the policy objective “To prevent the exploitation of people for the purposes of human reproduction”. I also believe that an additional policy objective should be added: “To recognise and support diversity in family structures and relationships.”

 

Protect the interests of children born as a result of surrogacy arrangements

 

As with likely all other people making submissions to this review, I strongly support the retention of this policy objective. I also agree with the inclusion of this objective as the primary Guiding Principle in section 3 of the Act: “[t]his Act is to be administered by reference to the principle that, in relation to any surrogacy arrangement, the best interests of the child of the surrogacy arrangement are paramount.”

 

I note that the best interests of children born through surrogacy are protected and supported by the equal treatment of all people, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, because, as all reputable research has shown, none of these characteristics are relevant in determining whether an individual or couple will be a good, caring and loving parent(s).

 

The Surrogacy Act 2010 should be commended for not drawing any distinctions on the basis of these attributes, and the non-discriminatory nature of its operative provisions should be retained.

 

However, the role of the Act in affirming the diversity of family structures and relationships that already exist in NSW could be strengthened by the elevation of a principle reflecting this reality in a new stand-alone policy objective.

 

Such a possibility was considered during the second reading speech debate in 2010[1], as well as in the Standing Committee on Law and Justice’s 2009 Report entitled ‘Legislation in Altruistic Surrogacy’, which helped to inform development of the Act.

 

I believe that a new policy objective – namely, “To recognise and support diversity in family structures and relationships” – should be added to the Act to highlight the non-discriminatory approach of the legislation and the fact that all people can be good parents, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

Recommendation 1: A new policy objective should be added to the Surrogacy Act 2010- “To recognise and support diversity in family structures and relationships.”

 

Provide legal certainty for parties to surrogacy arrangements

 

Not only do I believe that this policy objective remains valid, but I also believe that the Act, and its framework for transfer of parentage of children born through surrogacy arrangements, is largely successful in achieving this outcome. Therefore, this policy objective should be retained.

  

Prevent the commercialisation of human reproduction

 

I do not support this policy objective, and believe it should be replaced with a new policy objective: “To prevent the exploitation of people for the purposes of human reproduction.”

 

By way of explanation, I believe the inclusion of the current policy objective is, to some degree, an attempt to address the issue of potential reproductive exploitation (especially of women), but that it confuses the means (a ban on commercial reproduction, including surrogacy) with the ends (preventing reproductive exploitation). It is the ends that should be reflected in the policy objectives rather than the means.

 

Further, I believe that the question whether commercial surrogacy is and always will be wrong, in every possible circumstance, is complex, and one about which different people, well-motivated and passionate about human rights and welfare, can and do reach different conclusions. However, one conclusion about which I hope all people would agree is that people, and especially women, should not be exploited for their reproductive capabilities.

 

Personally, I do not feel confident in saying that every possible arrangement, between a birth mother and the intended parent(s) of the child, is inherently wrong – and wrong to the point where it should be criminalised – simply because of the exchange of money in addition to those which cover the birth mother’s costs.

 

Nor do I necessarily believe that the nature of a surrogacy arrangement automatically and fundamentally changes, from one which is recognised and supported in legislation (altruistic surrogacy), to one which is not only prohibited but attracts a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment (commercial surrogacy), because of the exchange of that money.

 

Of course, I am cognisant of the fact that the introduction of financial ‘rewards’ to the already ethically-complex area of surrogacy arrangements carries with it significant risks. Chief among those are the risk that people, and especially the women acting as surrogate mothers, will be exploited for their reproductive capabilities.

 

However, I also believe there are other ways in which people can be exploited for their reproductive capabilities (such as through emotional and/or familial pressure). Indeed, the Surrogacy Act 2010 already contains a range of safeguards that have nothing to do with commercialisation, but are directed at preventing exploitation (for example, the requirement for an independent counsellor’s report to verify that the birth mother has an “understanding of the social and psychological implications of the making of a parentage order” and “whether any consent given by the birth parent or parents to the parentage order is informed consent, freely and voluntarily given” – subsections 17(3)(a) and (f)).

 

In my view, it is the prevention of exploitation that should be the policy objective in this area, rather than commercialisation per se. This new objective should then be used to guide whether and, if so, how commercial surrogacy arrangements should be allowed (see discussion in part B).

 

Recommendation 2: The policy objective “To prevent the commercialisation of human reproduction” should be replaced with a new policy objective “To prevent the exploitation of people for the purposes of human reproduction.”

 

Part B: Do the terms of the Surrogacy Act 2010 remain appropriate to secure those objectives?

 

For the most part, the provisions of the Surrogacy Act 2010 work well in protecting the interests of children born as a result of surrogacy arrangements and in providing legal certainty for parties to surrogacy arrangements. As indicated in Part A, I also believe that the non-discriminatory way in which the legislation has been drafted could be enhanced further by the addition of a new policy objective (“To recognise and support diversity in family structures and relationships”).

 

However, I believe that there is a clear divergence in determining whether the provisions of the Act remain appropriate depending on which of the two alternative policy objectives discussed in Part A (‘prevent commercialisation’ or ‘prevent exploitation’) is adopted.

 

For example, if the over-arching goal of the legislation remains to prevent commercialisation in any form, then the ban on commercial surrogacy in section 8 (which includes a maximum penalty of 1000 penalty units or 2 years’ imprisonment, or both, for those people who are in contravention) would clearly still be appropriate.

 

The prohibition on commercial surrogacy arrangements entered into overseas by people ordinarily resident or domicile in NSW, as outlined in the ‘geographical nexus for offences’ provision in section 11, would also remain a valid attempt to secure the objective of preventing commercialisation.

 

However, if the policy objective of preventing commercialisation is actually seen as a means to the end of preventing exploitation (which I believe it is), or indeed, if it were to be replaced with the explicit policy objective of preventing exploitation of people and especially women for their reproductive capabilities, then we are forced to consider how these provisions are currently operating, and their impact on people both in NSW and overseas.

 

I suspect that, even before the Surrogacy Act 2010 was introduced, there were few, if any, commercial surrogacy arrangements entered into within NSW, and that this situation would remain the case today.

 

I also believe that there is evidence that the number of overseas commercial surrogacy arrangements was growing at the time of the legislation’s passage, and that, since its introduction, the number of these arrangements entered into by people resident or domiciled in NSW has likely decreased. This could be seen as evidence that the ban has reduced exploitation.

 

However, I also believe that there is sufficient anecdotal and other evidence that some overseas commercial surrogacy arrangements entered into by people living in NSW continue. The overwhelming desire for some individuals or couples to become parents, together with the low numbers of ‘stranger’-child adoptions, both within Australia and internationally, means that this option continues to be at or near the top of the list of possible routes to parenthood. The criminal penalty attached to section 8 is unlikely to deter such people.

 

The result of this is that, while some individuals or couples may choose (or have the money to choose) commercial surrogacy arrangements in countries with strong regulation and low economic disadvantage, which at least reduces the possibility of exploitation, others opt for (or are financially restricted to choosing) countries with little or no regulation, as well as higher economic inequality or disadvantage than Australia, thereby significantly increasing the risks of exploitation of the women acting as surrogate mothers.

 

Thus, while the ban on commercial surrogacy may be effective in preventing the exploitation of women within Australia, I believe it has to be acknowledged that it is not entirely successful in preventing the potential for exploitation of women in other countries.

 

In this context, we are forced to consider whether there are alternative approaches to the question of commercial surrogacy that could lower the overall level of exploitation of all women.

 

At least one option, which should at least be considered, would be legalising commercial surrogacy arrangements within NSW, and placing them within a tightly regulated system with the ability to be overseen by appropriate domestic agencies, while at the same time continuing the prohibition on commercial surrogacy arrangements entered into overseas.

 

This framework – domestic legalisation and overseas ban – arguably may have the best potential to reduce the overall level of reproductive exploitation of women.

 

However, it is difficult to consider the respective advantages or disadvantages of such a framework in the absence of a proposal outlining exactly how a domestic commercial surrogacy scheme could operate. I believe it is nearly impossible to compare the known harms of surrogate exploitation in (some) overseas countries, with the hypothetical risks of exploitation under an unknown domestic commercial surrogacy scheme.

 

For this reason, I believe that the NSW Law Reform Commission or similar body should be given the responsibility to consider this issue, but, rather than recommend whether commercial surrogacy should be legalised or not, they should instead design what a ‘model’ domestic commercial surrogacy scheme would look like, with the guiding principle of minimising the risks of exploitation.

 

This model could then be used as the basis for a genuine and sustained debate, in the community, the media and amongst politicians, about whether the current system (a blanket ban), or a system which allows for tightly-regulated domestic commercial surrogacy, is the best way to reduce the risk of exploitation of all women, and not just those living in NSW.

 

Of course, it may be that it is impossible to design a domestic commercial surrogacy scheme that sufficiently reduces the risks of exploitation of people (and especially women) for their reproductive capabilities.

 

It may also be that, after this process, the majority of people still believe that the ‘commercialisation’ of human reproduction is always wrong, and that commercial surrogacy should always be illegal.

 

However, given we are aware that at least some overseas commercial surrogacy arrangements continue to occur, and appear likely to continue well into the future, I believe it is incumbent upon us to consider whether there are any alternatives to the current regulatory approach and, after considering those alternatives, decide what is the most appropriate way “To prevent the exploitation of people for the purpose of human reproduction.”

  

Recommendation 3: The NSW Law Reform Commission, or similar body, should be asked to design a ‘model’ framework for domestic commercial surrogacy arrangements, with a guiding principle to minimise the risks of the exploitation of people for the purpose of human reproduction.

 

Should you require additional information, or to clarify any of the recommendations included in this submission, I can be contacted at the details below.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

[1]http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/NSWBills.nsf/0/71c024816771a264ca2577c100195683/$FILE/LC%2010210.pdf

Submission on NHMRC Review of Ethical Guidelines for Assisted Reproductive Technology

The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council is currently reviewing Part B of the Ethical Guidelines for the Use of Assisted Reproductive Technology in Clinical Practice and Research, 2007.

These Guidelines provide advice on a wide range of matters, including whether and if so in what circumstances someone can refuse to provide an ART procedure, and whether someone can direct that their gametes or embryos may only be used (or not used) by particular ethnic or social groups. They also currently include a prohibition on commercial surrogacy.

I have made a submission to the inquiry – which I reproduce below – which, as you can tell, largely argues for LGBTI equality, but also adopts a position on commercial surrogacy which I know some might find controversial (and if people do disagree with me I encourage you to leave a comment below).

I believe as many people as possible should make a submission to the review, because it should be informed by voices from across the community, including the LGBTI community (and that includes people who disagree with me on commercial surrogacy too). The details for the review, and how to make a submission, can be found at the following link: <http://consultations.nhmrc.gov.au/public_consultations/assisted_reproductive The closing date is Wednesday 30 April (ie ten days away), so time to get cracking.

Thanks for reading, and as always, let me know what you think.

Project Officer – Assisted Reproductive Technology

Health & Research Ethics Section

National Health and Medical Research Council

GPO Box 1421

CANBERRA ACT 2601

ethics@nhmrc.gov.au

 

Dear Project Officer, 

Review of Part B of the Ethical Guidelines for the Use of Assisted Reproductive Technology in Clinical Practice and Research, 2007

 

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission on the review of Part B of the Ethical Guidelines for the Use of Assisted Reproductive Technology in Clinical Practice and Research, 2007.

 

I do so as an ordinary member of the public, without any special qualification or expertise in assisted reproductive technology (ART), but with a strong interest and passionate commitment to the legal and substantive equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians.

 

I do not propose to answer all 60 of the questions contained in the public consultation document on the NHMRC website, but will instead focus my comments on those issues which are most relevant to LGBTI equality, as well as to the issue of commercial surrogacy.

 

In particular, I would like to make comments about the following five areas:

 

  1. Conscientious Objections
  2. Transmissible Infections
  3. Unknown but Directed Donations
  4. Selection for Particular Characteristics
  5. Commercial Surrogacy

 

  1. Conscientious Objections

 

My first concern is about the breadth of the description of conscientious objections in paragraph 5.9 (page 12 of the consultation document). Specifically, this paragraph provides that “[i]f any member of staff or student expresses a conscientious objection to the treatment of any individual patient or to any ART procedures conducted by the clinic, the clinic must allow him or her to withdraw from involvement in the procedure or program to which he or she objects.”

 

While I note that the provision of ART services may, for some staff members of students, raise ethical concerns, I believe that the drafting of this provision is far too broad, and allows for conscientious objections even when such objections are themselves unethical.

 

For example, the provision as drafted would allow an individual member of staff to refuse to provide ART services to a person on the basis of that person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status (if that person believed that ART services should not be provided to such persons) or on the basis of relationship status (if the person believed that only ‘opposite-sex’ married persons should have access to ART).

 

With the increasing acceptance of LGBTI Australians (as evidenced by the long-overdue introduction of federal anti-discrimination protections in 2013) and of different relationship statuses (including the 2008 reforms to federal de facto relationship recognition), none of these objections – while potentially genuinely held by the individual – should be allowed as the basis for refusing to provide ART services. Nor should conscientious objections on the basis of any of sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status or relationship status be recognized as acceptable or ‘ethical’ in the context of these Guidelines.

 

If paragraph 5.9 is to be retained in the Ethical Guidelines, I recommend that it be amended to specifically note that conscientious objections do not apply, and are not accepted, with respect to the sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status or relationship status of the intended recipient of the ART procedure or service.

 

  1. Transmissible Infections

 

My second concern also relates to the breadth of provisions contained in the Guidelines, in this case paragraph 6.4 (titled Minimise risk of infection, on page 19 of the consultation document). Specifically, sub-paragraph of this section provides that “[c]linics should not accept donations from people at an increased risk of transmissible infections”.

 

While I acknowledge the importance of reducing the risk of transmission of communicable diseases, I believe that the wording of this sub-paragraph allows for potential misinterpretation or misapplication to prohibit donations from all people from a particular demographic group who may be over-represented in notifications for a transmissible infection (for example, men who have sex with men, who are currently disproportionately represented in HIV notifications in Australia).

 

This level of prohibition – at demographic group level – would ignore the particular behaviours or characteristics of the individual, which in practice make that individual more or less susceptible to transmission.

 

My concern is this area is founded on the ongoing exclusion of all men who engage in same-sex sexual intercourse from donating blood, irrespective of their particular behaviours or characteristics and therefore actual risk.

 

It is my view that any risk assessment, if deemed necessary at all, should be performed at individual level, rather than demographic group, and that the Guidelines should make this differentiation explicit in this section.

 

I would also note that the requirement contained in sub-paragraph 6.4.2 (that “[a]ll donors of gametes should undergo appropriate infection control surveillance”) is possibly all that is necessary to be included in this section in any event. If the individual concerned is being tested for relevant infections, and appropriate monitoring is being undertaken, then sub-paragraph 6.4.1 may in fact already be redundant.

 

  1. Unknown but directed donations

 

This concern relates to the paragraphs addressing ‘unknown but directed donation’ of both gametes (paragraph 6.9, at page 20 of the consultation document) and embryos (paragraph 7.6, at page 29).

 

I am strongly opposed to the recognition, even under Ethical Guidelines, of any ability of donors to restrict the use of their gametes or embryos to “certain individuals, such as those from a particular ethnic or social group.”

 

This creates the possibility of donors restricting the use of their gametes or embryos to people of a particular sexual orientation or gender identity (for example, to cisgender heterosexual people), and therefore to excluding other people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. It also appears that this would allow for similar distinctions to be made on the basis of relationship status.

 

I note that paragraph 6.9 highlights that “[t]his type of directed donation is illegal in some jurisdictions.” I believe that it should be made illegal in all jurisdictions. The principle of non-discrimination, including non-discrimination against LGBTI people, should trump any ability of potential donors to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status of relationship status.

 

Even where ‘unknown but directed donations’ are not made illegal under law, the placing of such restrictions on the donation of gametes or embryos should not be respected through these Guidelines (as they currently are in both paragraphs 6.9 and 7.6, which conclude by saying “[i]n the remaining states and territories, clinics must not use the gametes/embryos in a way that is contrary to the wishes of the donor.”)

 

At this point I note that there are two options to implement such a recommendation – and that is to either override any expressed discriminatory preference of the donor and provide the gametes/embryos to others irrespective of whatever qualification was sought, or to reject all such donations and ensure that their gametes/embryos are not used. I am comfortable with either outcome, as they both satisfy the principles of equality/non-discrimination, although I highlight the fact that the former would allow more gametes/embryos to be used by individuals or couples who may require them.

 

  1. Selection for Particular Characteristics

 

Paragraph 11.1 of the Ethical Guidelines (headed Do not select sex for non-medical purposes, on page 48 of the consultation document) states that “sex selection (by whatever means) must not be undertaken except to reduce the risk of transmission of a serious genetic condition”. I support the inclusion of this principle in the Guidelines.

 

However, I note that, in future, there exists the potential that research may create the possibility of determining the likely (or at least increased predisposition towards a specific) sexual orientation or gender identity of a child born as a result of assisted reproductive technology. I also note that, for certain groups within the umbrella term intersex (such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia, and androgen insensitivity syndrome) these diagnostic tests are already a possibility, while additional groups within intersex may be able to be determined in the future.

 

Given that the incredible diversity of sexual orientation (including heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality), gender identity (recognizing those who are cisgender and those who are transgender) and sex (including intersex status) of human life is natural, and that all people, including LGBTI people, are equal, and should be treated as such, I believe the Guidelines should also include a prohibition on the selection of reproductive material on the basis of (likely or prospective) sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

While for sexual orientation and gender identity, this scenario – the screening of embryos for such characteristics – may ultimately prove to be some years or even decades into the future, I believe that it is vital to lay down this signpost, that such discrimination will not be tolerated, now, thereby setting a precedent for if and when it is ever required. In the case of intersex status, such guidelines are necessary now, to support and recognize sex diversity.

 

  1. Commercial Surrogacy

 

Finally, I note that paragraph 13.1 of the Ethical Guidelines (on page 52 of the consultation document) states that “[i]t is ethically unacceptable to undertake or facilitate surrogate pregnancy for commercial purposes.”

 

While I agree that commercial surrogacy raises a variety of complex ethical issues, I do not necessarily agree with such a broad-sweeping and all-encompassing statement against commercial surrogacy. I do not believe there is sufficient evidence to assert that in every single situation commercial surrogacy is ‘unethical’ or ‘wrong’.

 

Of course, I am, like most people, sensitive to the very real potential for commercial surrogacy to result in the exploitation of women for their reproductive capabilities. This has to be a major, if not the major, consideration in determining whether to allow commercial surrogacy and if so what form of regulation might be appropriate.

 

However, I am also aware that the current legal situation – where commercial surrogacy in Australia is banned, and as a direct result of these laws an increasing number of Australian individuals and couples are engaging in commercial surrogacy arrangements overseas – may in fact cause a far greater degree of exploitation of women, especially in developing countries and/or countries which do not closely regulate surrogacy arrangements.

 

It may be that a domestic ban on commercial surrogacy has, contrary to the intended outcome of those who introduced it, in fact resulted in greater exploitation of women when considered as a whole. It may also be that, creating a domestic commercial surrogacy scheme, which would allow for direct oversight by Commonwealth (or State and Territory) authorities, could lead to a significant reduction in the potential for such exploitation.

 

I do not expect the review process considering these Guidelines to come to a conclusion about these difficult matters. Nor am I willing, or in a position, to even attempt to suggest what a domestic commercial surrogacy scheme would look like.

 

However, I do believe that this is an issue that requires further investigation, and could be the subject of a comprehensive review by the Australian Law Reform Commission, or their State and Territory equivalents.

 

The ALRC could be asked not to review whether such a scheme should be adopted but to determine, if commercial surrogacy was to be allowed in Australia, what the best possible scheme (with the least potential for the exploitation of women) would look like. The Parliament, and the wider community, could then discuss and debate the option that was put forward and make an informed choice about whether such a model was preferable to the ongoing domestic ban on commercial surrogacy (and the corresponding trend to overseas surrogacy arrangements).

 

I believe that such a debate, informed not just by a practical proposal but also by the real-world consequences of the current ban, is vital before we can truly come to grips with and possibly resolve whether a permanent ban on commercial surrogacy is ethical or otherwise.

 

Thank you for taking my submission into consideration.

 

Sincerely,

 

Alastair Lawrie

20 April 2014

 

Dear Joe Hockey: If you’re serious about cutting expenditure, you must axe school chaplains

As promised during the 2013 federal election campaign, one of the first actions of the Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National Government was to establish a National Commission of Audit, to review all Commonwealth expenditure in an effort to reduce spending and ultimately deliver a Budget surplus.

 

Indeed, the Terms of Reference for the Commission of Audit described it as a “full-scale review of the activities of the Commonwealth government to:

-ensure taxpayers are receiving value-for-money from each dollar spent;

-eliminate wasteful spending; …

-identify areas or programs where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate…” [among other objectives].

 

The Commission’s first report was delivered to the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, in mid-February, and the second was handed over at the end of March. The contents of both reports were, quite cynically, kept from the public ahead of the Western Australian half-Senate election on 5 April (because you wouldn’t want an electorate to actually be informed about impending spending cuts before they vote), although, with only one month left until the Federal Budget is handed down it’s highly likely they will be released in the next week or two.

 

It is expected that the Commission will recommended that the axe fall on (or at least make significant cuts to) a wide range of different programs, with apparently ‘authorised’ leaks focusing on things like the aged pension, Medicare (through a $6 co-payment) and other vital health, education and welfare services.

 

However, there is one program that, I believe, meets all of the above criteria and thoroughly deserves to be cut as part of any serious expenditure review: the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. It is almost impossible to argue that putting ministers of religion into government schools could ever be value-for-money, when compared with almost any other government expense. As well as being enormously wasteful spending, it would also seem to be the definition of a program where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate.

 

And yet, given the highly political nature of the Commission of Audit, I suspect it is unlikely the National School Chaplaincy Program is under any real threat. Even if the Commission were to recommend its abolition, it is hard to believe that Joe Hockey would actually follow through on any such advice when he rises to the dispatch box on the night of Tuesday 13 May.

 

More’s the pity. The National School Chaplaincy Program is amongst the worst examples of public policy over the past decade (and there have been some absolute shockers in that time). It was introduced by John Howard in the dying days of his government (2007), as he realised his grip on power was loosening with age – basically, it was a sop to ultra-conservatives and religious fundamentalists (both of which can be found in the form of the Australian Christian Lobby) to entice them to remain aboard his sinking electoral ship.

 

Alas, in a demonstration that poor policy, and religious pork-barrelling, can be bipartisan, the incoming Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, maintained the National Schools Chaplaincy Program throughout his first stint in the Lodge. When it came time to review the first three years of its operation, frustratingly he and his then Deputy, Education Minister Julia Gillard, chose to continue, rather than close, the program.

 

As Prime Minister in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, Gillard then announced a $222 million extension of the program til the end of this year (2014). This money was also provided to allow for expansion of the scheme’s coverage, from 2,700 schools up to 3,550 schools.

 

The only figure that accomplished anything to at least partially mitigate the genuine awfulness of the National Schools Chaplaincy Program over the past seven years was Education Minister Peter Garrett, who changed the program guidelines from the start of 2012 to allow schools to choose between chaplains or qualified student counsellors (hence the revised name). He also attempted to introduce a requirement that all workers, including chaplains, have some level of relevant qualifications, although recognition of ‘prior learning’ on the job was also encouraged.

 

Nevertheless, the vast majority of people employed as a result of this scheme remain ministers of religion. Imagine that: in 2014, the Commonwealth Government provides up to $24,000 per year to more than three and a half thousand schools to subsidise the employment of someone whose primary ‘qualification’, indeed whose primary vocation full stop, is to proselytise.

 

Ironically, the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program Guidelines then go to great lengths to attempt to limit the ability of chaplains to proselytise or evangelise from their position of authority within the school community, which is about as useful as telling a tree to stop growing leaves (or telling Cory Bernardi to stop being a bigot). It seems like the apotheosis of a set of rules where adherence, rather than breach, will be the exception.

 

The Guidelines themselves are also full of loopholes, allowing chaplains to “provid[e] services with a spiritual content (excluding religious education) including facilitating discussion groups and lunch time clubs” with approval and consent, as well as “performing religious services/rites (such as worship or prayer during school assembly etc), with… appropriate prior consent”.

 

This is an obvious and serious contravention of the principle of the separation of church and state. In the United States, such a program – paying for men (and some women) of faith to introduce their religion into government schools – would be struck out as unconstitutional by their Supreme Court.

 

Sadly, the anaemic interpretation of section 116 of the Constitution adopted by the High Court of Australia in the “DOGS case” [Attorney-General (Vic); Ex Rel Black v Commonwealth [1981] HCA 2; (1981) 146 CLR 559 (2 February 1981)] meant that it was never going to be struck down here, or at least not on those grounds.

 

Even after the program was successfully challenged by Toowoomba father, and man of principle, Ron Williams in 2012, with the High Court finding that the scheme did not have a legislative basis to appropriate money, the Government squibbed the ideal chance to abandon a flawed program and instead rushed through legislation to support its ongoing operation [as an aside, the High Court will be hearing a further challenge from Mr Williams, on May 6-8 2014, that the rushed omnibus Bill was itself unconstitutional].

 

And even if the National School Chaplaincy Program is ultimately found to be constitutional, there is still absolutely zero evidence that it is effective at improving the overall welfare of students.

 

If any of the Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Rudd (again) or now Abbott Governments genuinely considered that student welfare was a matter of priority, they would properly fund, rather than part subsidise, actual student counsellors or social workers to perform that function in every school, not implement a scheme where cashed-up churches could target individual cash-starved schools and offer the ‘services’ of ministers of religion, essentially as a backdoor way of indoctrinating a fresh generation of children.

 

There are ways in which the introduction of ministers of religion into schools can lead to direct harm too, not least of which being the issue of potential child sex abuse. In fact, at the same time as the hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, the Government continues to encourage the employment of ministers of religion in public schools, with a code of conduct that allows them to have physical contact with students because “there may be some circumstances where physical contact may be appropriate such as where the student is injured or distraught”. [NB Obviously I am not saying that most, or even many, school chaplains are child sex abusers, but it seems unnecessary, and unnecessarily risky, to bring in people from institutions with a long history of covering-up such abuse and placing them in positions of trust in public schools.]

 

In addition, some (although obviously not all) ministers of religion also present a clear and present danger to young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students, given the blatant homophobia adopted by particular churches and their officials. This threat is explicitly acknowledged by the Guidelines, which in response attempts to prohibit discriminatory behaviour on the basis of sexuality (although it doesn’t appear as though either gender identity or intersex status are mentioned at all).

 

In the same way as the prohibition on ‘proselytising’ described above, however, it is inevitable that there will be some ministers of religion, in some schools, who deliberately flout those rules, and in the process cause untold harm to young LGBTI students.

 

In short, the National Schools Chaplaincy Program is philosophically unsound, has no evidence that it benefits student welfare, is expensive, potentially causes harm and is clearly an inappropriate activity to be funded through taxpayers’ money. Surely, out of all of the programs funded by the Commonwealth, across almost all areas, it should be at or near the top of any Commission of Audit ‘hit-list’.

 

Even if the Commission of Audit abrogates its basic responsibility to recommend that the National School Chaplaincy Program be axed, Treasurer Joe Hockey will still have to make a decision on the future of the program as part of the 2014-15 Budget, because, as noted earlier, funding for the scheme runs out at the end of this year.

 

What action Joe Hockey takes on this will reveal a great deal about what kind of Treasurer he intends to be. Of all the incoming Abbott Ministers, Hockey has been the loudest in condemning middle-class welfare, in arguing that the role of Government must be smaller, and that inappropriate or unjustifiable programs should be cut.

 

Well, here is an ideal opportunity to live up to at least some of that rhetoric, savings upwards of $222 million in the process (that’s the equivalent of one and a half $6 GP co-payments for every person in Australia). If he does so on 13 May, then he should be applauded for it (noting of course that there might, just might, be some other things in the Budget that warrant a somewhat different response).

 

If Hockey fails to rise to the occasion, and extends or even expands funding for ministers of religion in our public schools, then it will show that he is not serious at all about reining in inappropriate spending, and does not believe in small Government – instead, it will simply demonstrate that he believes in big government of a different kind, one that takes money from genuine welfare programs and places it in the hands of ministers of religion for the propagation of their beliefs.

 

So, now it’s over to you Joe: would you rather take money from people who simply want to see their doctor via a bulk-billed appointment, or from a program which funds the placement of ministers of religion into our public schools? I know which one I would choose. I guess we’ll find out on Budget night which one you do.

Submission to National Curriculum Review re Health & Physical Education Curriculum

The following is my submission to the review of the national curriculum, initiated by the Commonwealth Minister for Education, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP at the end of 2013. Given the appointment of Mr Kevin Donnelly to co-chair this review, I am not confident that all, or indeed, any of the concerns below will be listened to. But the inclusion of LGBTI students and content in our schools system is so important that I believe it is still worth a shot.

National Curriculum Review Submission

Thursday 13 March 2014

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission on the development of the national school curriculum.

In this submission I will limit my comments to the development of the national Health & Physical Education (HPE) curriculum. In particular, I will be commenting on whether the HPE curriculum as drafted addresses the needs of, and genuinely includes, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students.

I have previously made submissions on the initial public consultation draft of the HPE curriculum, released in December 2012 (a copy of my submission is provided at <http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/04/11/submission-on-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ), and on the revised draft released for limited public consultation in June and July 2013 (see <http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/07/30/submission-on-redrafted-national-health-physical-education-curriculum/ ).

In both of those submissions I was strongly critical of the fact that the draft HPE curriculums did not genuinely attempt to include LGBTI students (including omission of the words lesbian, gay or bisexual), did not provide adequate sexual health education, and did not provide adequate information regarding HIV and other Blood Borne Viruses (BBVs), including viral hepatitis.

A second revised draft of the curriculum was prepared by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) ahead of the meeting of Commonwealth, State and Territory Education Ministers in November 2013. It has been reported that Education Ministers did not agree to the second revised draft, but instead simply noted its development in anticipation of this review.

Nevertheless, the second revised draft HPE curriculum was published in February 2014 on the Australian Curriculum website (www.australiancurriculum.edu.au).

I have analysed the second revised draft, and sincerely hope that my comments below convey the seriousness of my concerns about the ongoing exclusion of LGBTI students and content, and the potential negative health impacts that this exclusion will have over the short, medium and long-term.

The current version of the national Health & Physical Education curriculum does nothing to put all ‘Students First’, which I understand to be the guiding principle of this review. In fact, by continuing to exclude some students, and marginalising content which is relevant to their needs, the draft HPE curriculum places lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students last.

If the HPE curriculum were to be implemented as it currently stands, it would actively contribute to, and reinforce, the disproportionate rates of mental health problems, depression and, most tragically, suicide, which continue to affect young LGBTI people.

By failing to include detailed BBV and sexual health education, the HPE curriculum would also leave young people, and gay and bisexual men and trans* people specifically, exposed to unnecessary risk of transmission of HIV and other infections.

And by not ensuring that all students are provided with information that is relevant to their own needs and personal circumstances, the HPE curriculum will undermine the fundamental human right to health of the next generation of young LGBTI people. This right must be respected, and not denied to people merely on the basis of other peoples’ attitudes towards their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

This review is an(other) opportunity to address some of the serious shortcomings of the draft HPE curriculum. Please seize this opportunity and recommend that the curriculum be amended to ensure LGBTI students are included, with content that is relevant and targeted to meet their needs, including around sexual health and BBV education.

The remainder of this submission will look at five key areas of the draft HPE curriculum. They are:

  • Terminology
  • Student Diversity
  • Bullying & Discrimination
  • Sexual Health, and
  • HIV and other BBVs.

Terminology

One significant problem that has consistently appeared through the initial draft, revised draft and now second revised draft of the Health & Physical Education curriculum is that of terminology. Specifically, the HPE curriculum has either completely excluded terms that are essential for young people to learn, or included terms or definitions that are not appropriate in the circumstances.

The biggest problem in terminology, featured in all three drafts, has been the failure to even include the words lesbian, gay or bisexual. Despite these being the most common forms of identification for people whose sexual orientation is ‘not heterosexual’, these terms have never appeared in any version of this document.

In fact, the ongoing refusal to name lesbians, gay men and bisexuals – despite the fact that students will have heard these terms regularly amongst their families and friends, in culture and in broader society, and that an increasing number of young people, including students, will be using these terms to describe themselves – is almost bizarre in its stubbornness to deny reality.

Even if there may be a reason for sometimes using the umbrella term same-sex attracted, to ensure that people who may be sexually attracted to people of their own sex but who do not use the terms lesbian, gay or bisexual to identify themselves are included, there is absolutely no justification for not naming lesbian, gay and bisexual identities within the HPE curriculum (for example, by using the description “same-sex attracted, including lesbian, gay and bisexual people”). The failure to do so contributes to the marginalisation of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people.

On a related issue, the HPE curriculum as drafted appears to use the incredibly broad, and arguably poorly-defined, term ‘sexuality’ at multiple points in the document when ‘sexual orientation’ would be more appropriate.

For example, the Glossary defines ‘sexuality’ as “[a] central aspect of being human throughout life. Sexuality encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction and is influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors”. The breadth of this definition makes some of the references to sexuality in the curriculum either too vague to be practicable, or even unintelligible.

The more widely-accepted term ‘sexual orientation’, which the curriculum does not define, and only appears to use once (in the definition of ‘sexuality’, reproduced above), would be more constructive, especially when references are made to differences or diversity in ‘sexuality’. Using the term sexual orientation would also more clearly include different orientations (including lesbian, gay and bisexual) than using the term sexuality alone.

On a positive note, there have been some improvements in references to, and definitions for, diversity in gender identity, including transgender people (which at least is included as part of the Glossary definition of ‘gender diverse’).

There have also been improvements in terms of the recognition of intersex people, who are now at least referenced in the statement on student diversity, and provided with a separate definition in the Glossary (where previously it had been erroneously included within the definition of gender diverse).

Nevertheless, defining a term in the Glossary and then using it once in the main text of the curriculum itself (and even then only as part of an ‘aspirational statement’ at the beginning of the document) is not sufficient to guarantee that the needs of transgender and intersex students are met.

In summary, the HPE curriculum needs to be significantly amended, such that it actually includes the terms lesbian, gay and bisexual, and that it adequately includes information about these sexual orientations, as well as transgender and intersex people, throughout the document.

Student Diversity

As discussed above, the HPE curriculum includes a statement on ‘Student Diversity’ at the beginning of the document, and this includes two paragraphs on ‘Same-sex attracted and gender-diverse students’.

I welcome some of the changes that have been made to this section between the revised draft and the second revised draft. In particular, these paragraphs now make a variety of positive statements (including that “it is crucial to acknowledge and affirm diversity in relation to sexuality and gender’” – noting my view, expressed earlier, that the use of ‘sexual orientation’ would be preferable here – while talking about “inclusive… programs” and the needs of “all students”).

Indeed, the last sentence of the section is particularly encouraging where it notes that being inclusive and relevant is “particularly important when teaching about reproduction and sexual health, to ensure that the needs of all students are met, including students who may be same-sex attracted, gender diverse or intersex”.

However, these positive developments continue to be undermined by the preceding statements that the HPE curriculum “is designed to allow schools flexibility to meet the learning needs of all young people, particularly in the health focus area of relationships and sexuality” (emphasis added) and that “[a]ll schools communities have a responsibility when implementing the HPE curriculum to ensure that teaching is inclusive and relevant to the lived experiences of all students” (emphasis added).

Both of these statements appear to leave the decision whether, and in what way, schools will include LGBTI students and content up to the schools themselves. In the first instance, whether LGBTI students and content are included at all is too important to be left to the ‘flexibility’ of the school itself.

Second, and far more importantly, the reference to ‘lived experiences’ could be argued to leave a loophole for schools to assert that, unless students first identify themselves or disclose their status as LGBTI, they do not exist in the eyes of the school and therefore the school does not have a responsibility to include them or content relevant to their needs.

This approach – apparently leaving it up to students to ‘come out’ before they are entitled to receive vital health information, despite the fact that doing so can, in many Australian jurisdictions, lead to the potential expulsion of that student, let alone other personal consequences for the student with their family or friends – fundamentally undermines the concept of health, and health education, as a universal human right.

And, while this appears to be a somewhat negative and narrow interpretation of these paragraphs, it is a realistic one given that a statement which appeared in the initial consultation draft, which stated that “same-sex attracted and gender diverse students exist in all Australian schools” was abandoned in the revised draft, and, despite arguments put forward for its re-inclusion was not included in the second revised draft.

In my view, whether to include LGBTI students and content should not be an issue of ‘flexibility’ between different schools. Instead, there should be a minimum level of LGBTI education provided to every student in every school – and, after all, isn’t a national minimum standard what the curriculum should be aiming to achieve?

This would be further supported by the re-inclusion of a statement which notes that “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students exists across all Australian schools, and all schools must provide LGBTI-specific content to each and every student”.

Bullying & Discrimination

One area where there has been significant improvement from the initial draft and revised draft to the second revised draft has been an increase in content that attempts to redress anti-LGBTI bullying and discrimination.

In particular, I welcome the commitment in the Glossary definition of ‘discrimination’ that “[t]he types of discrimination that students must learn about include racial, sex and gender discrimination, homophobia and transphobia” (emphasis added).

I also welcome the increased content in year band descriptions that explicitly includes learning about homophobia, in years 7/8 and 9/10.

However, there are still a range of improvements that could be made to ensure that the curriculum adequately informs students about the need to stamp out discrimination and bullying of LGBTI students.

First, it is important to note that ‘homophobia’ does not necessarily include all forms of discrimination or prejudice against LGBTI people. The inclusion of transphobia in the Glossary is valuable, however, it should also be included in the year band descriptions to ensure that it is not overlooked. Both the Glossary and year band descriptions should also include biphobia and anti-intersex discrimination, which should not automatically be subsumed within a catch-all category of ‘homophobia’.

Second, discussion of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex discrimination should not be left until years 7/8 to be introduced into the HPE curriculum, but should be commenced in years 5/6 alongside education about racism.

This is vital not only because anti-LGBTI bullying and discrimination can occur from a young age (including all-too-common insults like “that’s so gay”), but also because some young lesbian, gay and bisexual students are coming out earlier and earlier (and deserve to be protected), while some trans* and intersex youth may have disclosed their status earlier still.

Third, in the year band description for years 9/10, heading “[c]ritique behaviours and contextual factors that influence health and wellbeing of their communities” instead of using the term “such as… homophobia” (emphasis added) the curriculum should say “including homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and anti-intersex prejudice” to ensure that schools cannot opt out of providing this content.

Fourth, I would highlight the inconsistency in providing information about homophobia and transphobia to students, which as I have indicated above is a positive development, with the ongoing exclusion of the words lesbian, gay and bisexual from the document in its entirety, and the exclusion of the words transgender and intersex from the year band descriptions (which provide the main content of the curriculum).

It would seem nigh on impossible to appropriately teach students about the negatives of homophobia and transphobia (together with biphobia and anti-intersex discrimination, which should be added) at the same time that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students are either not explicitly mentioned in the year band descriptions, or not even mentioned at all in the entire curriculum.

Sexual health

One of the key aspects of any Health & Physical Education curriculum must be the provision of comprehensive, inclusive and up-to-date education around sexual health.

Unfortunately, none of the three drafts of the HPE curriculum released to date have provided even a bare minimum of information about the best practices to support sexual health, not just for LGBTI people, but also for cisgender heterosexual students.

While the Glossary does at least provide a definition of ‘sexual health’ (“[a] state of physical, mental and social wellbeing in relation to sexuality. It requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence”), there is either limited or no support to implement this in practice in the year band descriptions.

In the year bands 5/6 and 7/8, which represent key ages for sexual health education, there is some discussion of physical changes surrounding puberty, and even changing feelings and attractions, but there does not appear to be any unit or module where students are taught the ‘nitty-gritty’ of sexual health, including discussion of different sexual practices, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and the best ways to reduce the risks of STI transmission (including but not limited to condom usage).

I continue to find it extraordinary that the national minimum standard for Health & Physical Education to students does not even refer to STIs or condoms.

One of the arguments that has been mounted in defence of this omission is that this level of detail is not necessary in the curriculum, and that it will be covered as different jurisdictions and school systems implement their own syllabus.

I completely disagree. Given how fundamental sexual health is to the health and wellbeing of young people, surely the national HPE curriculum is the perfect place to guarantee that all students, rights across the country and irrespective of whether they attend government or non-government schools, receive the best possible information.

In addition, the reticence to provide any real detail around sexual health in the curriculum, on the basis that ‘specifics’ are not required, looks more like evasion when compared with some of the other sections of the curriculum which are, in fact, quite detailed (for example, in the year 5/6 band description it suggests “experimenting with different music genres such as Indian Bhangra music when performing creative dances”).

If something as specific as Indian Bhangra music can be named in the HPE document, then there must also be space for detailed discussion of the importance of sexual health, different sexual practices, STIs and condoms.

HIV and other BBVs

My fifth and final concern is related to the fourth, and that is the complete exclusion of HIV, and other BBVs like viral hepatitis, from the curriculum.

As I have written previously, I simply cannot understand that a national Health & Physical Education curriculum, developed and written in the years 2012 and 2013, does not even refer to HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, which together directly affect almost half a million Australians.

It is vital that students learn about these BBVs, and most importantly how to reduce the risks of their transmission (for example, condom usage, hepatitis B vaccination, not sharing injecting equipment and safe tattooing and body art practices). If we do not provide this information, at the age that young people need it most, then we are failing in our duty of care towards the next generation.

The ongoing exclusion of HIV in particular looks odd (or, to be less charitable, short-sighted and ill-conceived). More than 30 years into the HIV epidemic in Australia, and with Melbourne hosting the 20th International AIDS Conference in July 2014, the proposed national minimum standard for Health & Physical Education curriculum does not even bother to mention it.

This is far from the ‘best practice’ approach that Australia adopted to the HIV epidemic in the 1980s. A best practice approach to the HPE curriculum now would, as a minimum, ensure that all students learn about HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, and the best ways to reduce the risks of transmission.

 

Conclusion

 

As I have outlined above, I have serious concerns about the second revised draft Health & Physical Education curriculum, including its continued exclusion of LGBTI students and content relevant to their needs, as well as minimal or non-existent education regarding sexual health and HIV and other BBVs.

As reviewers of the national curriculum, I believe it is your responsibility to remedy these significant shortcomings, and ensure that the final HPE curriculum adopted is one that provides for the best possible health education and outcomes for all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students.

That is my definition of Students First.

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

Letter to Prime Minister Abbott re Inter-Country Adoption by Same-Sex Couples

The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Prime Minister

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

 

Cc Dr Ian Watt

Secretary

Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet

PO Box 6500

CANBERRA ACT 2600

 

Saturday March 8 2014

 

Dear Prime Minister

 

INTER-COUNTRY ADOPTIONS BY SAME-SEX COUPLES

 

I am writing regarding the issue of inter-country adoptions. Specifically, I call on you to ensure that the processes governing inter-country adoptions treat all couples equally, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

I note that you announced in December 2013 that the Department of Premier and Cabinet would be investigating the issue of inter-country adoptions, reporting to you on ways the processes governing inter-country adoptions can be streamlined ahead of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting, now scheduled for Friday 2 May in Canberra.

 

I also note recent reports about the potential for new arrangements for recognising adoptions by Australians with respect to children from Taiwan and South Korea.

 

However, I am unaware of any reports about work underway to ensure that all bilateral and, where relevant, multilateral, agreements concerning adoption entered into by Australia recognise the equal rights of all couples, including same-sex couples, to adopt.

 

There is no legitimate reason to prevent couples that may include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) individuals from adopting.

 

In fact, the most recent report on the issue of same-sex parenting, commissioned by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, reaffirmed independent research over the past decade in finding that “there is now strong evidence that same-sex parented families constitute supportive environments in which to raise children.”

 

The report – Same-Sex Parented Families in Australia by Dr Deborah Dempsey (December 2013) – further confirmed that “children in such families do as well emotionally, socially and educationally as their peers from heterosexual couple families.”

 

Speaking about the report to the Sydney Morning Herald in February 2014, author Dr Dempsey said “[i]t’s not the family structure that matters so much as the kind of care; that children are loved, and are taken care of.” In practice, same-sex couples are just as capable of providing for the best interests of the child as opposite-sex couples.

 

Given these and other research results, I seek your commitment to ensure there is no discrimination against same-sex couples contained in any inter-country adoption agreement which Australia signs.

 

On a related issue, one of the administrative barriers to efficient inter-country adoption processes must be the variety of different, often conflicting, adoption criteria that operate in Australian states and territories.

 

For example, while my fiancé Steven and I would likely be eligible to adopt in Sydney, we would not be eligible to adopt were we to relocate to Melbourne. I doubt that our suitability as parents would differ simply because we moved 1000km to the South.

 

As before, there is no legitimate reason to prevent couples that include LGBTI individuals from adopting, and that must include within and between Australian jurisdictions.

 

The report which you have commissioned and will be presenting to the COAG meeting in May is an ideal opportunity for you to call on the states and territories to adopt uniform adoption laws, in particular to ensure that all Australian states and territories allow all couples to adopt, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

This would be a benefit not just to the administrative efficiency of Australia’s inter-country adoption processes, but also to the equal rights and status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians.

 

Finally, I note during the week reports of disagreement within the Coalition partyroom on the subject of single and same-sex couple parenting. Specifically, it was reported that Senator Cory Bernardi expressed his support for Minister Kevin Andrews’ defence of so-called ‘traditional families’.

 

In response, Liberal MP for Herbert, Ewen Jones, defended families headed by single people, and same-sex couples, saying that what was more important was that children were loved, not what gender their parents were. Mr Jones later told Fairfax Radio “I think it’s the quality of the role model, male or female, not the sexuality of the parents that maters” – a sentiment similar to that expressed by Dr Dempsey, above.

 

It was also reported that you responded to the debate by saying “[w]e need to be as supportive of people as possible, regardless of their circumstances.”

 

Taking you at your word, I sincerely hope that you will be supportive of all Australian couples, including same-sex or otherwise LGBTI-inclusive couples, having the same rights to adopt children from other countries.

 

You have the chance to demonstrate this support through the review of inter-country adoption which you have commissioned, and through your advocacy at the upcoming COAG meeting which will discuss this issue. I and other same-sex couples around the country will be watching which approach you take.

 

Thank you in for your consideration of this correspondence.

 

Sincerely,

 

Alastair Lawrie

The last major battle for gay & lesbian legal equality in Australia won’t be about marriage

This Saturday, the 36th annual Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade will work its way up Oxford St with its now traditional mix of politics, colour and movement, and above all, pride. Pride in who we are, pride in our community, and pride in what we have managed to achieve.

Because life is unarguably better for the vast majority of Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) population in 2014 than it has ever been before. And that indeed is something to be proud about.

Following the first Mardi Gras on 24 June 1978, many of the barriers to legal equality have been removed. NSW passed anti-discrimination laws in 1982, followed by the decriminalisation of gay sex in 1984. Same-sex couples have since achieved de facto relationship recognition, and there is now equal access to assisted reproductive technology and adoption in most Australian jurisdictions.

It is likely that one area where legal rights have yet to be achieved will, once again, be the dominant theme of many of the more politically-oriented floats in this year’s parade – the Australian Parliament’s ongoing refusal to recognise marriage equality between all couples.

As someone who is engaged to be married, and who has been for more than four years but is currently prohibited from doing so, I understand why marriage equality is an issue which arouses such intense passion, and an admirable level of commitment from many activists around Australia.

But marriage equality is also something which most of us know is probably, some might say almost inevitably, going to be achieved at some point in the next five, at most 10, years.

When that day comes, when the first couples legally married under federal law have shared their vows and celebrated their commitments to each other in front of their families and friends, there will still be a major outstanding issue of legal inequality confronting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Australians.

It appears just as inevitable that, long after those couples dance their waltzes and cut their wedding cakes, the anti-discrimination protections which are offered to LGBT Australians under most state and federal laws will continue to be seriously undermined by the wide-ranging exceptions which are offered to religious organisations (NB Intersex is not included here because religious exemptions under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 do not apply on those grounds).

These exceptions allow religious schools to actively discriminate against LGBT teachers and students. Religious hospitals and community welfare organisations can utilise these loopholes to discriminate against LGBT employees, as well as patients and clients. And, while the historic federal reforms passed via the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 do not allow religious-operated aged care facilities to discriminate against LGBT people accessing their services, LGBT people can still be denied employment in those facilities simply because of who they are.

All of these services – education and health, community welfare and aged care – are located firmly and squarely in the public sphere, and address some of the most fundamental human needs in life. It is these same characteristics, that they are public services meeting public needs, that are used to justify the substantial amounts of public funding which subsidise the religious organisations running them, money which comes from all taxpayers, religious and non-religious, LGBTI and non-LGBTI alike.

Yet, despite operating in the public sphere, almost always using public money, these organisations are granted exceptions from the same legal obligations that are imposed on any other group, namely the responsibility not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The justification for these ‘special rights’? Basically, that the ability to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is so fundamental to the exercise of religious freedom that it cannot be limited.

Note that we are not here talking about who is appointed as office-holders, including ministers, within a religion itself, what a particular religion may or may not believe in terms of morality, how religious ceremonies are undertaken, or even who can attend a religious ceremony. These are things that are central to religious freedom, and most people would not advocate the imposition of limits on the ability of religious organisations to discriminate in these areas.

Instead, some religious organisations (and we must say some, because not all groups hold these views) believe that they should have the right to fire a gay teacher, to expel a bisexual school student, to refuse to employ a lesbian aged care worker, or to deny services to someone who is transgender, even when all of the above is clearly done in the public sphere.

This is a much more substantive denial of rights than simply being denied access to marriage rites. Religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws can affect LGBT people in multiple areas of their lives, including times and places when they are at their most vulnerable. In practical terms, I believe it is religious exceptions and not marriage inequality that is the biggest battle left to be won for full gay and lesbian legal equality.

It is also a battle that looks set to be fought more ferociously than that over marriage equality. Some of the largest religious organisations in the country don’t just support these exceptions, they are prepared to wage cultural war to defend them.

The Wesley Mission recently spent eight years, and went all the way to the NSW Court of Appeal, defending their right to deny allowing a male same-sex couple to become foster carers to children in need. Wesley did so on the basis that: “[t]he biblical teaching on human sexuality makes it clear that monogamous heterosexual partnership within marriage is both the norm and ideal.” (OW & OV v Members of the Board of the Wesley Mission Council [2010] NSWADT 293 (10 December 2010).

Further, they submitted that: “Wesley Mission’s tradition views a monogamous heterosexual partnership in marriage as the ideal family role model for the vulnerable and sometimes damaged children we foster. Other understandings fall short of that norm.” And finally that “[t]he proposition that we should provide a framework for children to be cared for and nurtured within the context of a homosexual lifestyle is fundamentally unacceptable to our evangelical teaching and practice.”

The irony, some might say hypocrisy, of these statements is that, in the same case, Wesley Mission admitted that single people could themselves become foster carers through their service. Apparently they believed that two dads or two mums had less to offer foster children than one.

The net effect of the Wesley Mission case was to provide judicial confirmation of the breadth of the religious exceptions offered under section 56(d) of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977. That section reads: “[n]othing in this Act affects: any other act or practice of a body established to propagate religion that conforms to the doctrines of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of the adherents of that religion.”

In short, if you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, then you have no legal right or expectation to be treated fairly and without discrimination by a religious body in NSW.

It is no surprise then that, when the Federal Parliament was considering the Exposure Draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination (HRAD) Bill 2012, the precursor of the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013, key NSW religious organisations would argue for religious exceptions to be established in Commonwealth law, too.

What is perhaps surprising is that some churches made submissions to the Senate inquiry considering the HRAD Bill that these exceptions do not go far enough.

The Standing Committee of the Synod of the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney, and the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney (including the Diocese of Parramatta and the Catholic Education Commission of NSW), both argued that the concept of exceptions was problematic, and that the right to discriminate against LGBT people should instead be re-contextualised as a positive right.

From the Anglican submission: “[w]hile exceptions are necessary, casting the protection of these rights in a wholly negative manner, in the form of ‘exceptions’, does not do justice to their importance. It suggests they are merely to be tolerated rather than positively recognised and upheld as legitimate and important in themselves.”

Meanwhile, in a ‘Diedre Chambers’ style coincidence, the Catholic submission also wrote: “the terminology of “exceptions” is problematic and fails to acknowledge that the right of freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, which the Commonwealth government is obliged to protect under international law. In our view, the terminology of “exceptions” should be replaced with the terminology of “protections”. Using the terminology of “protections” would recognise that conduct which is deemed not to be unlawful because it is covered by an exception related to religion is in fact lawful because it accords with the fundamental human right of freedom of religion” [emphasis in original].

Both submissions also go further than concerns surrounding terminology to argue that the exceptions which are offered to religious organisations should also be available to individuals – that is, that their personal beliefs should allow them to discriminate, even in their professional lives and when not working for a religious organisation.

For example, the Anglican submission recommended that “[a]n employee should not be required by their employer to undertake particular tasks or provide services in a particular context that are contrary to the employee’s genuinely held religious convictions where this is reasonable.”

Thankfully, that style of exception, which is located somewhere on the bottom half of the slippery slope down to the abhorrent type of laws currently attracting controversy in the US State of Arizona, was not included in the final Commonwealth legislation. But in making that submission, the Anglican Church of Sydney has made clear the direction it wants anti-discrimination, or more accurately, pro-discrimination, laws to head [As an aside, if it had been passed then, when marriage equality does eventually become a reality, such provisions would have allowed individual employees to refuse to sell wedding cakes, or serve as wedding photographers, merely because of the sexual orientation and/or gender identities of the couples involved].

And they will fight equally hard to ensure that the current framework of exceptions applies in as many contexts as possible. The eventual removal of these exceptions in terms of people accessing aged care services was strongly resisted from some religious bodies, even if their arguments for doing so were quite weak (the Anglican submission on the HRAD Bill suggested that “[i]t may be unsettling to these communities to have residents who do not share their beliefs, values and ethos facility on matters of sexual practice”).

They have been more successful in fighting against recent proposed changes to NSW law that were simply attempting to remove the right of religious and other private schools to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender students (NB Bisexuality is shamefully still not a protected attribute in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977). Alex Greenwich’s amendments are currently on hold, at least in part because of the influence of the two major churches in the Parliament.

As we have seen, some religious organisations have demonstrated over the past 10 years that they are prepared to fight, by whatever means necessary (through the courts, in parliamentary inquiries, by lobbying parliamentarians directly and in public debate) to maintain and even extend the reach of these exceptions.

While this may seem to some like a theoretical (or even theological) debate, they are not doing so because they want the law to recognise abstract rights – they are engaged in this battle because they want the retain the ability to actively discriminate against LGBT people in real life.

Sadly, there are too many stories of this happening, of religious exceptions causing real-world harm to LGBT people. In the lead-up to Mr Greenwich’s Bill being introduced, several lesbian and gay students came forward with stories of being sent to the counsellor’s office for being “sick” (that is, for being gay), of being called disgusting and a disgrace – by a teacher no less – and threatened with exclusion from senior school, and of being told not to talk about their sexuality in addition to being excluded from school events (source: “Discrimination has no place in schools” Alex Greenwich, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September, 2013).

Not forgetting the recent incident where the Sacred Heart Primary School at Broken Hill, which falls within the Wilcannia-Forbes Catholic Diocese, rejected a young girl’s kindergarten application simply because her parents were two women (source: “Same-sex enrolment row prompts call for law change” ABC News Online, 15 December 2011).

Of course, these are just some of the stories that we are aware about. Most people who are discriminated against by religious organisations, either directly or indirectly, do not speak up, because they are aware that the discriminatory actions of those bodies are entirely lawful, or because they fear retribution from those organisations if they do so.

Which brings me back to the Mardi Gras Parade. While for many of us the decision to participate on Saturday is an easy one, choosing to celebrate pride in who we are and as part of our community, for others the decision whether to be visible or not in this manner can be significantly more complicated.

For people already engaged with religious organisations in different ways, or whose profession may involve applying for jobs with them (for example, more than a third of schools in Australia are religious, an even higher proportion amongst secondary schools), choosing to be ‘out’ through Mardi Gras can have serious repercussions.

Some people can and do have a legitimate fear that being identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender could result in them being fired, or being refused employment in the first place, in being expelled from school (or seriously mistreated while there), or being denied necessary services. Neither state nor federal anti-discrimination law would currently protect them in these circumstances.

In this respect, despite all of the progress in law reform since the first Mardi Gras parade was held back in 1978, there is still an incredibly long way to go. That is the reason why this Saturday I will not be marching for marriage equality, despite the immediate personal benefit that such a law change would bring to myself and my fiancé Steve, and thousands of other couples like us.

Instead, I will be marching to call for an end to religious exceptions in state and federal anti-discrimination laws. Of course, given all of the above, I am acutely aware of how difficult this law reform will be, and that our ‘opposition’ will protect their current position of privilege with all their might. But in order for LGBT Australians to finally be equal under the law these religious exceptions must be abolished. It is time that we begin the fight to bring these unjust provisions to an end.

To sign the NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby petition calling for an end to religious exceptions to state and federal anti-discrimination law, click here: http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/senator-hon-george-brandis-remove-religious-exceptions-from-anti-discrimination-laws

Explanatory notes: I have attempted to be clear in this post about when I am speaking about gay and lesbian, or LGBT, or LGBTI, because sometimes the law affects these groups in different ways (and please accept my apologies if I have made some errors in this respect). For example, removing religious exceptions cannot be the last major battle for bisexual legal equality – especially if they are not included in the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act in the first place.

Equally, I am not in a position to argue that religious exceptions are the biggest legal issue confronting transgender Australians when uniform positive recognition of gender identity is not yet a reality. And, while intersex people are not subject to religious exceptions under the Sex Discrimination Act, I also wouldn’t describe this issue as more important than banning involuntary medical sterilisation, something I have written about previously (see link: http://alastairlawrie.net/2013/12/25/no-3-senate-report-on-involuntary-or-coerced-sterilisation-of-intersex-people-in-australia/).

Finally, while I wrote in the second paragraph that, for the vast majority of LGBTI Australians, life is unarguably better than it has ever been before, I do not wish to underestimate the ongoing problems of mental illness, depression and suicide which affect many young LGBTI people, or indeed the plight of LGBTI asylum-seekers, who Australia continues to send to Nauru and Manus Island, PNG, for ‘processing and resettlement’.

 

One (more) final thing: if you liked this post, please consider sharing. Thanks, Alastair

Is there a moral obligation on athletes to come out?

Following my post in January (“In search of the elusive gay or bisexual male tennis player”) I was asked by the Star Observer to write about lesbian, gay and bisexual sportspeople and whether they should be out or not. I took that to mean whether there is a moral obligation on LGB athletes to come out – and my piece discussing that topic can be found at the following link: <http://www.starobserver.com.au/opinion/soapbox-opinion/to-be-out-or-not-out-in-sport/118055

Coincidentally, it was written on the weekend before Mike Sam came out, making the topic of lesbian, gay and bisexual involvement in sport quite topical.

Of course, I really wish I could have written that yes, they do have a moral obligation, in particular to other members of the LGB community – but that would ignore both the individual behind the ‘athlete’, including their personal story (and struggles that we may not be aware of), and the many reasons why they may choose not to be out in their chosen sport, including homophobia and biphobia. In any event, I hope that I have done the topic justice, and would love to know your thoughts about what I wrote.

Two final notes: firstly, I deliberately chose not to cover the issues of trans* and intersex involvement in sports, because I didn’t feel that I had the necessary expertise to write about those subjects. Besides, I am confident there are many people better placed to write about trans* and sport, and intersex and sport, respectively.

Second, I was a little surprised that my references to ‘outing’, specifically that I believe there might be some circumstances in which outing a virulently or malevolently homophobic politician might be acceptable, didn’t attract any critical responses. Perhaps that position is a little less controversial than I thought? In any event, I might write more on the topic of outing at a later date.