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The Federal Government and the Catholic Church conspire to oppose IVF for single and lesbian women

By Jane O'Dwyer - posted Wednesday, 15 November 2000

Attempts by the Federal Government and Catholic Bishops to deny access to IVF treatment by single and lesbian women should be viewed with the greatest concern. Suddenly the gains made for women by feminism seem terribly fragile - thanks to a clever but nasty piece of political skullduggery on John Howard's part, and some Church interference by the Catholic Bishops.

In John McBain v the State of Victoria & Ors Dr McBain wanted to provide infertility treatment to a Ms Meldrum. The Victorian Infertility Treatment Act provides that a woman must be either married and living with her husband, or in a de facto relationship to receive infertility treatment. Ms Meldrum was in neither category. However, Section 22 of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for a person to refuse to provide services to another person on the ground of the other person's marital status. The court held that the Commonwealth Law over-rode the State law and that Dr McBain could administer the treatment.

The State of Victoria took the unusual step of not defending the case, and as a result the judge allowed the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and the Australian Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church to be heard as "amici curiae" or friends of the court. Now the Bishops are seeking leave from the High Court to appeal at the same time as the Federal Government is proposing to alter the Sex Discrimination Act to allow the States to make their own arrangements on these matters.


There are two streams of attack on the rights of women here - the Federal Government, and the Catholic Church. While both have adopted the protection of the child as their rationale, the underlying agenda of each is very different. Because of that I will address them separately. In the case of the Federal Government it is a political stunt gone too far. In the case of the Catholic Bishops it is about a fundamental objection to IVF, and an attempt to force a narrow vision of family values on all Australians.

Let’s look first at the Catholic Bishops. They justified their involvement as ‘protecting the rights of the child’. However, the Bishops very quickly revealed another reason for their involvement stating that they intervened "…because there would otherwise have been no-one else present to plead the cause of marriage." In other words, the Catholic Church participated simply to impose its view of morality and family on all women – not just Catholic women.

There is no doubt the Catholic Church’s long held opposition to IVF underlies the action. However, not once has the Church admitted this – after all it is only trying to restrict access in this case to a very limited number of people.

Issues of access to IVF for single and lesbian women actually affect only a very, very small number of people - less than 100 a year. A much greater number of children born into conventional families face a lifelong struggle to recover from physical and sexual abuse, abandonment by a parent, or simply being unwanted. No one can possibly deny that any woman who chooses to subject herself to the excessive trauma of IVF will very much want and love any child born as a result.

It looks like the Bishops are willing to spend a great deal of money on preventing 100 or so women from becoming mothers. If they are really concerned about the rights of the child, why are they not spending that money on providing services for children traumatised by child sex or physical abuse, or assisting struggling parents look after the needs of their child?

That a group of men, with no authority other than heading up one of the many religious groups in Australia, consider it proper to challenge reasonably long standing laws of the nation to impose their moral agenda is disturbing to say the least.


Australia is not a Catholic country and we have Government and Judicial institutions that reflect the secular nature of our society. A Church, Christian or otherwise, does not have a right to impose its world view on everyone.

The Catholic Bishops are not moral guardians for ordinary Australians nor do they represent the mainstream. Nothing alters the fact that the Bishops are a group of men who don’t have sexual or romantic relationships with women, and who will never be parents. Their knowledge of women, relationships and parenting is strictly theoretical.

And let’s not forget the views the Bishops hold on a number of other issues affecting women like birth control and abortion. They also aren’t too keen on the participation of mothers in the work force, premarital sex, and same sex relationships. The Pandora’s Box that might be opened by their attempt to override anti-discrimination laws is frightening. Success in the IVF case would no doubt spur them on to further action to impose their morality and world view on the rest of us.

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About the Author

Jane O'Dwyer is general manager of Sports Medicine Australia.

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