South Australia Sets Dangerous Precedent

Greens Tammy Franks MLC

A new kind of “religious exemption” sets a dangerous precedent for Equal Marriage law

The upper house of the South Australian parliament yesterday passed the Statutes Amendment (Surrogacy Eligibility) Bill 2016. The bill would give same sex couples access to surrogacy and assisted reproduction therapy (ART).

But there’s a sting in the tail. Family First added an amendment allowing ART providers to refuse services to people based on their sexual orientation or marital status. Or to put it bluntly, to turn away people who are LGBTI or unmarried.

That amendment was itself amended to require a register of these conscientious objectors, so that same-sex couples and singles would know in advance not to approach them.

This is a new and dangerous kind of exemption clause. At present, medical staff may decline to carry out procedures to which they have a moral or religious exemption, such as abortion, or contraception. But they cannot refuse service to someone based on their personal characteristics.

If the bill passes the lower house with the amendment in place, surrogacy and ART providers will be able to turn people away based purely on who they are, which of course will impact mainly LGBTI couples.

Supporting the amendment, Liberal Shadow Minister for Health Stephen Wade said it was a well-established principle that medical practitioners and other health practitioners can on moral grounds, whether that be religious or otherwise, choose not to administer a particular treatment.

But Liberal Deputy State Leader Michelle Lensink rejected that argument: this was very different to allowing doctors to refuse to provide, for example, abortions.

“I do not actually accept that these amendments are comparable to medical terminations because that conscientious objection is usually based on medical practitioners objecting to the procedure and administering it, whereas in these amendments it is an objection to providing a service to a particular client group.”

Kelly Vincent of the Dignity for Disability Party said it would be like allowing Qantas to refuse to board a passenger on their way to an event they objected to, or a café owner refusing to serve someone a coffee because they were on a date with someone of the same sex.

“I think it is wrong to allow anyone to use their religious beliefs to not provide a service to a particular group. The Hon. Ms Lensink has made a good point: this is not about whether or not they agree with the actual procedure or service holus-bolus; this is about denying it to a particular group.

I do support freedom of belief, including religion, in one’s private life. I do not have any issue with that. I do not believe that this should extend to the provision of non-religious specific services.”

Following passage of the bill Greens member Tammy Franks said

“While this change goes against the full equality aim of the Bill, a subsequent amendment, which was passed, requires a public list of providers who register as a ‘conscientious objector’ to be provided.

This will allow the public to know who discriminates and allows people to check the ethics of their provider before contacting them.”

This is not much comfort. If the lower house passes this bill without first removing this amendment they will be entrenching discrimination based on personal characteristics into law.

The danger is that extreme right religious objectors to marriage equality will seize on this precedent to legitimise their demand for discrimination to be written into the marriage equality bill.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)