Assisted Reproductive Treatment Amendment (Consent) Bill 2019

June 19, 2019

I rise to make a contribution on the Assisted Reproductive Treatment Amendment (Consent) Bill 2019. Before launching into what I want to say, I would really like to acknowledge the contribution just made by the member for Yuroke. Some of the most meaningful speeches are the speeches that members give from the heart and from their own experience, and I would like to acknowledge what a very significant contribution that was.

I myself know I dodged that bullet, and I think we all appreciate what a difficult journey it can be for those who do need to engage in assisted reproductive technology. It is something no-one wants to have to go through, but often we are for various reasons put in situations where we might have to face it, particularly given that many of us want to start our reproductive lives a little bit later than used to be the case in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations.

This bill was introduced into the house only two weeks ago, so there has not been a lot of time for consultation in relation to it. I was pleased to hear that the member for Lowan gave quite a detailed analysis of the bill and raised some of the concerns that have been perhaps just emailed to some of us in recent times. In relation to those particular issues that may be problems with this bill, I can only say that luckily there is an opportunity for them to be looked at between now and this bill presumably being passed in the other place, and I would urge the government to take on board some of those issues that are perhaps technicalities in some way but that might lead to some improvement in the bill. In a sense this is a bill that clearly sweeps away the last vestiges of the notion of ownership of women within marriage, and I believe it would be broadly supported by the Victorian community.

I note that the government committed to taking this course during the 2018 election campaign, and the bill also follows a Federal Court ruling late last year which held that the requirement to seek the consent of one’s spouse in the circumstances of a case where the woman was separated from her spouse but not divorced and wanted to access assisted reproductive treatment using donor sperm discriminated against women on the basis of their marital status. We now have this legislation before this house. The purpose of the bill is to remove the requirement that a woman needs that consent from her spouse to access assisted reproductive treatment using donor sperm if she is separated but not divorced from her spouse. It also amends the Status of Children Act 1974 to ensure it operates consistently with the Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act and to replace redundant references to a provision regarding counselling requirements and also relating to substitute parentage orders granted by a court for surrogacy arrangements.

It is interesting in the context of this bill to reflect on the history of women’s rights and to see what has really been a very long and hard-fought battle to get to the position we find ourselves in today. While there have been very many milestones for women’s rights over the past 200 years, I want to refer to some of the major ones. The first women’s suffrage society in Australia, thanks in large part to the efforts of Annie Lowe and Henrietta Dugdale, was established in 1884. That was followed by a monster petition in 1891, where dedicated women took to the streets on foot in that year to collect signatures for a petition to present to the Parliament of Victoria seeking the right to vote. The result was an impressive 30 000 signatures. South Australia was the first Australian colony to give women the vote in 1895 and only the fourth place in the world to do so, following New Zealand 18 months earlier. South Australian women also had the right to stand for elections at that time, and it was the only place in the world where that was allowed to happen.

In 1903 one of the first women to stand for election in the federal Parliament was Vida Goldstein. She was a suffragette, social reformist and fervent campaigner for equal property rights for spouses and the abolition of child labour. Those suffragettes were amazing people. They gave up many aspects of their life to pursue their demands for rights for women. Some died, some were imprisoned. When you look at what went on in England when women were pursuing their rights, some chained themselves to fences. They were beaten up, and some even went on hunger strikes and died. So this was an incredible commitment that led to unbelievable change in our society, which has led to a situation where we are now really just very accepting of and quite complacent about our rights.

I think we do need to be reminded sometimes that we always need to be vigilant. Back in 1915 the Housewives Cooperative Association had 77 000 members. This is an amazing concept of what women were doing back then, and of course most women were in the home. The Country Women’s Association formed in 1922—a non-sectarian, non-party-political, not-for-profit group who were very much listened to by governments. To this day the doors of the Prime Minister are always open for the Country Women’s Association. The right to stand in Victorian elections for women came in 1924, and it was 1943 before the first woman was elected to the House of Representatives, Dame Enid Lyons. In 1956 the marriage bar was lifted. The situation had been that women working in education were not permitted to teach after they were married. They were considered just temporary employees who would of course go back to the home after they were married.

Access to the contraceptive pill happened in 1961. For the first time women could prevent pregnancy by taking the contraceptive pill. Although initially it was available only to women with a prescription and a husband, the first contraceptive pill was also burdened with a 27.5 per cent luxury tax. Married women were no longer forced to relinquish their paid employment in the commonwealth public service in 1966. In 1967 a constitutional referendum recognised Indigenous men and women as Australian citizens. The first abortion rights were granted in 1969. A landmark Supreme Court ruling, the Menhennitt ruling, really opened the gate to the possibility of women being able to obtain lawful abortions.

The Women’s Electoral Lobby was established in 1972. The right to equal pay was achieved in 1972. It took until 1972 for the contraceptive pill to become more widely available, and that was as a result of the Women’s Electoral Lobby pressuring the Labor government to take a different approach on contraceptives—abolish the luxury tax and put the pill on the national health scheme list. There is a sort of resonance here. So much happened in 1972 that really lifted women’s rights—child care benefits, single mothers benefits, paid maternity leave.

Then 1975, a very important year, was the first year women—or men—could file for divorce on a no-fault basis. That was a very significant change and saw a massive increase in the number of divorces for quite a long time until it started to even out. Also in 1975 the first World Conference on Women was held by the United Nations and International Women’s Year was held. In 1975 rape in marriage was outlawed in South Australia, and eventually the other states followed. The first female High Court judge was appointed in 1987, and it took until 1990 to have the first female Premier of Victoria. All of these things are part of a journey towards the emancipation of women.

In many ways it has been a very long journey, and there still remain many areas in our society where discrimination exists for many people, and not just women. Rules and attitudes do need to continue to change. The intent behind this bill is a worthy one, but I do urge the government to look at it more closely and attend to the technical matters that have been raised and to consult more widely with the groups that have raised those issues. In the end it is really a pathway to providing that opportunity to women who really want to conceive a child to do so and to removing this existing barrier that has been identified as needing to go.

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