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Thursday, 10 February 2011
Page: 469

Senator BARNETT (12:33 PM) —I present the report of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee on donor conception practices in Australia, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator BARNETT —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

In speaking to this motion, right up front I want to say, on behalf of the committee, that this is a unanimous report and I am very thankful to the other members of the committee, many of whom are in the chamber with me today. I acknowledge Senator Crossin, the deputy chair of the committee, and the other senators who all worked very hard and diligently to produce this report. It is a 100-page report with over 30 recommendations. I would also like to place on record the wonderful support we had from our committee secretariat in this regard. I acknowledge, obviously, Julie Dennett, our committee secretary, but also Lucy Sargeson, who was the principal research officer and did a wonderful job in support of our committee.

This is a complex issue and we received a number of representations from around Australia with respect to the problems, concerns and lack of rights of donor conceived people and their families. As a result of those representations, not only senators but also members of the House of Representatives sought and requested an inquiry into this matter. As a result of that democratic process being in play, the response was that, yes, there was merit in such an inquiry. That has taken place over many months, before the last election and more recently.

The committee received 162 submissions to the inquiry, and public hearings were held in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. Before I address some of the major findings of the report, I want to say on behalf of the committee that we shared the concern given in evidence to the committee, in particular by donor conceived people and their parents, that the system we have in Australia today for regulating donor conception practices is failing donor conceived individuals and their families. It is entirely insufficient and inadequate and there needs to be major reform in this area across the country, particularly at a state and territory level. I will expand on those remarks shortly.

I want to put on record my particular thanks to the donor conceived individuals who shared their personal stories with us at the Melbourne hearing. It would have been problematic and emotionally difficult for them to share in the way they did. On behalf of the committee, I want to say that we are very thankful for the way they did that. It is so regrettable and so sad that many donor conceived individuals are not able to track down the identity of their parentage. Of course, knowing one’s identity is critical and vitally important to knowing who you are and being able to reach your potential as an individual in this nation, Australia. My heart goes out to them. I express my empathy and sympathy for them, and say that I am sorry the system has failed them in past decades. I hope, as a result of this report, that we can make a difference for donor conceived individuals who are currently alive and, indeed, for future donor conceived individuals and their families.

We have made a number of recommendations regarding the regulation of donor conception practices in Australia. In particular we have recommended that state and territory governments create separate but uniform legislative regimes which prohibit donor anonymity—a very key point—and we all supported that unanimously  in the report. We have recommended limits on the number of families that donors are able to assist and we have recommended the provision of rights of access to information about donors for donor conceived individuals. Another recommendation is that the Australian government do everything possible, including through the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, to ensure the establishment of a national register, by states and territories, for donor conceived individuals as a matter of priority.

I acknowledge that four states have legislation in this area—New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. Unfortunately, to date the other states and territories do not. There needs to be a national approach to this issue and we have made recommendations in that regard. We have also recommended that the Australian government should conduct a review into the current regulatory framework for overseeing compliance by clinics under the National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines. We have recommended that, except in specific circumstances, the importation of gametes and embryos from overseas donors should be banned in Australia, but if that ban is not possible, any imported gametes and embryos should undergo the same requirements and terms and conditions as those gametes and embryos donated in Australia. Factually, on the evidence put to our committee, we have little confidence that the identity of the donors of gametes and embryos coming from overseas can be traced in each case.

We have made a recommendation that donors should be able to assist a maximum of four families Australia wide in the interests of donor conceived individuals. There are different laws applying at the moment in the four states I referred to, but we believe we should have the minimum number possible—certainly my preference is to have one. If there is to be a maximum of four, certain terms and conditions should apply, including the issues related to consanguinity and other relevant factors as set out in the report.

I am very deeply thankful for the opportunity to participate in this Senate committee investigation and inquiry. It gave the committee the opportunity to examine all the key issues relating to past and present practices of donor conception in Australia which, up until now, have received very little attention. Victoria has led the way in legislation going back to the mid-1980s, along with the other three states of New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia. I think there are lessons to be learnt in each state and territory in that regard.

I also want to acknowledge that the estimated number of donor conceived individuals in the country was very hard to identify. Different submissions put different views but we do know that there has been an average of 600 donor conceived people born each year since the 1970s and there would be about 20,000 donor conceived people in Australia. That evidence was put by Dr Sonia Allan in particular. Some estimates have suggested that there are in excess of 60,000 donor conceived individuals in Australia.

In conclusion I thank again the members of our committee. It is fair to say that we have a broad church in our committee, with different views and different values, but in this case we were able to put together a unanimous report. It is not easy on an issue like this when competing issues are at play. My thanks go in particular to the many submitters who put forward their views in a personal and emotional way. I am very saddened and regretful that Australia have not provided a better regulatory arrangement in past decades but I hope that this will be a springboard, a foundation for the future, so that we can go forward with confidence knowing that there is a future in store with some certainty and rights for donor conceived individuals.