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Monday, 25 June 2001
Page: 24966

Senator HARRADINE (2:37 PM) —I ask the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Aged Care a question. The Bulletin says that Sydney IVF is offering couples pre-implantation genetic testing for sex selection for personal reasons. What is the government going to do about that? Will the government assure the Senate that Medicare payments are not being made for that procedure? I also draw the minister's attention to the Compass program last night, which documented the concerns of people with disability about genetic screening and abortion, and highlighted the importance of understanding disability as different, rather than inherent tragedy. I ask the minister: what is the government's policy on prenatal screening and abortion on the grounds of disability? How are people with disabilities involved in the formulation of government policy on this matter?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —Senator, I have something of an answer for you in the area on which you ask, but I will refer your whole question in any event to Dr Wooldridge and get him to respond if he has anything further to add. The minister is aware of comments made by Justice Kirby on 24 June that were reported in the press, and these may be the area you are referring to or you might have had just that specific example and not seen this report. In any event, it did deal with children with genetic defects and the question of elimination of children with genetic defects following diagnosis via genetic screening. My advice is that the responsibility for enacting legislation in relation to the use of genetic screening in termination of pregnancy does lie with the state and territory governments. As you may be aware, Senator, on 8 June the Council of Australian Governments met and agreed that jurisdictions will work towards a nationally consistent approach to regulate assisted reproductive technology and the related emerging human technologies. In reaching agreement on that issue, the heads of government were particularly aware of the need to engage the community on the matter and to ensure that all sectors of the community benefit fully from advances in medical science while at the same time prohibiting unacceptable practices. Senator, I will refer your question to Dr Wooldridge and see whether there is anything he can add to that.

Senator HARRADINE —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. I asked specifically in an area of competence of the federal government—on Medicare. Will the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Aged Care give an absolute guarantee to this chamber that for those procedures of sex selection for personal reasons—have a look at their web site—Sydney IVF will not be paid by the taxpayer? I ask the minister also: why has the government been so long in filling the vacancy in the Australian Health Ethics Committee of a person with an understanding of the concerns of people with a disability? When will that position be filled? I ask the minister to assure the Senate that the Australian Health Ethics Committee position will be filled quickly and that an evidence based approach, bearing in mind the experience, credentials and standing of the nominees for this position, be taken. I ask the minister to assure the Senate on those two points, please.

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Family and Community Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women) —Senator, to a certain extent, some of the remainder of your question was dealt with in estimates. I think we covered that topic fairly thoroughly.

Senator Harradine —No.

Senator VANSTONE —Perhaps I can just finish before you prejudge the answer, Senator. I did say to you there that I would take that matter up with the minister, and I hope that we can get back to you with any further explanations of that matter. But I also said at the beginning of my answer that I had some limited material here and that I would refer the rest of your answer to the relevant minister and get back to you—and that, of course, includes that aspect of your question that related to Medicare payments. The advice I have is that the newest member of the Australian Health Ethics Committee, who has I think been recently appointed, is Ms Caroline Bowditch. She is in the membership category of a person with an understanding of concerns of people with a disability. Her current position is the genetic support coordinator of the genetic support network of Victoria. (Time expired)