ONE OF THE AREAS in which Australia’s medical scientists have helped lead the way is the development of in vitro fertilization (“IVF”). Monash University in Melbourne has been the centre, not just of this research, but also of the ethical and moral discussions that inevitably arise from it.

I remember one of the distinguished pioneers of IVF technology speaking at a Ballarat Diocesan Clergy School in 1984. Until then most of us had only heard bio-ethicists argue for IVF in the most guarded way, as a blessing for childless couples. In order to commend their work to the community at large and to the churches in particular, apologists of IVF constantly implied that their research was bounded by rigorous moral, ethical and common-sense restraints.

Those were the days when Australia’s media carried story after story about the wonders of this research, encouraging wide public discussion of the ethical issues surrounding embryo experimentation and related areas.

Since those days there has been a quiet acceptance of IVF in most areas of Australian society.

There is now, however, a significant debate going on in Australia about whether or not lesbian couples and other single women should be permitted to make use of the expensive IVF program. Laws governing these matters are the preserve of the States in Australia. The State of Victoria has prevented single women from using IVF, but last month a senior judge ruled this State law to be invalid under the Commonwealth of Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act.

With that, conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, announced his Federal Government’s intention to amend the Sex Discrimination Act so as to permit the States to legislate in the way that Victoria had. At the heart of John Howard’s reaction was his clearly stated view that “children have the right to two parents and their affection.”

Predictably this has caused a storm in the community. Most church leaders who have spoken on the matter have supported Howard, and it is fairly certain that the majority of Australians agree with him. However there has surfaced a degree of politically correct indignation on the part of those who continue to assert the “right” of lesbian couples to conceive children using IVF. And the media have, on the whole, been supportive of their campaign. Indeed, current affairs programs have gone out of their way to vilify John Howard, the church leaders, and anyone else who speaks against the full democratic “right” of all single women, whether in lesbian relationships or not, to avail themselves of our new reproductive technology.

The issue erupted just before the beginning of the National Conference of the Labor Party (the Federal Opposition). It was a week when Australians could reasonably have expected the Labor Party to occupy the media’s attention. But the Prime Minister skilfully used the IVF debate to keep the Labor Party off the front pages, promoting himself as the head of a government for “mainstream” Australia.

At first it was not clear what the Labor Party is response would be. Opposition leader Kim Beazley, himself a practising Christian, is known to have similar family values to those of the Prime Minister. He has presided over a perceived shift from the economic rationalism of the previous Keating government, to what many Australians would regard as “traditional Labor” values. A significant minority of his MP’s is known to be supportive of the Prime Minister’s attitude towards single women and IVF. Some expected that when the debate came on in the Parliament, Labor members would have the luxury of a conscience vote. That was ruled out by Kim Beazley, in a move obviously designed to placate the more radically feminist elements of the party. Beazley explained that it was not Labor’s policy to co-operate with the removal of what many women had come to believe is a “right” to which they are entitled.

A very small third party, the Australian Democrats, holds the balance of power in the Senate, the Upper House of Federal Parliament. The Democrats are committed to defeating the Prime Minister’s amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act. So, unless there are Labor senators prepared to cross the floor (and that’s fairly unlikely), the amendments will not become law.

One significant thing to emerge in the public debate so far is that younger people (from teenagers to the mid-thirties) seem to be much more conservative in their thinking on family life than the baby-boomer generation now in their 40’s and 50’s. They may be inclined to cohabit before marriage, but when it comes to the best environment for the nurturing of children, they are in agreement which John Howard and the church leaders who emphasise the right of each child, where possible, to the love and affection of both mother and father.

As in other western countries, hardly a family in Australia is untouched by the trauma of divorce, which runs at close to fifty per cent of all marriages. Most Australians believe that there are already too many children growing up without the close involvement of both parents, and that this is having a devastating effect on the children involved, especially on those adolescent boys who go without a father figure in their formative years. The churches’ credibility in this particular debate arises from the fact that the vast majority of parishes and congregations have an exemplary record in caring for and supporting both the victims of family breakdown and all those single mothers whose courage in saying “no” to the quick fix of abortion is quite properly admired and affirmed.

Everybody knows of real heroism and self sacrifice among single parent families. The Prime Minister and the churches are simply saying is that it is not a good idea to deliberately (and at vast expense to the community) add to their number, by making IVF treatment available to infertile single women living alone or in same sex relationships. It says a lot about the decadence of our society that this point is not regarded more widely as self-evident.

The really disturbing thing in the debate about IVF for single women is the emphasis on the “right” of the woman to seek “fulfilment” through having a child. Obviously this right is seen by these rather old fashioned feminists as outweighing the rights of children. The paradox is that in ethical discussions in general the trend is in the other direction, that is, that the rights of the child are paramount, which is why even the most liberal societies cannot tolerate paedophilia.

Writing about these things in the national newspaper The Weekend Australian, a young commentator, Angela Shanahan, admits that “it is not hard to understand the desire to bear a child.” With great insight she continues, “The desire for love is very strong, particularly in a person who feels deprived of love. But a child is not an object manufactured to give love, even if they are also the recipient of love. The adolescent years soon teach parents that lesson.”

In her article, Shanahan describes a friend who recently announced that she and her husband were expecting their fifth child. They neither own a house nor have a mortgage on one, and by other people’s standards are struggling financially ? everything they earn is spent on the children. They love each other and their children. Her friend regards her children “not as products of her desire alone, but as precious gifts ? a privilege whose nurturing she shares with the man who was responsible for the gift of her children. Parents who have such an attitude do not seek compensation for their own emotional shortcomings in their children. The reason is that such a child is regarded first and foremost as an individual, as unique, and therefore ultimately, free”.

The article contrasts this attitude with the rights based response of the woman in Victoria whose successful court ruling the Prime Minister decided to overturn: “How can he possibly do this to me and the other women?” Shanahan concludes, “Ask yourself whose family you would rather have been born into?” Whose family indeed!

David Chislett is National Secretary of Forward in Faith Australia.