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Tuesday, 25 March 2014
Page: 2014

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (19:31): The Community Affairs References Committee last year completed its inquiry into involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people in Australia. Senator Moore and Senator Boyce will also be speaking on this topic. We tabled the committee's report last year, but it was during a period when the Senate was not sitting and we did not get an opportunity to talk about the report in the chamber.

Representatives of Organisation Intersex International Australia are in the gallery. I would like to acknowledge Morgan and Tony, who both gave evidence to the inquiry. They have sent a very strong signal to the committee that they very much like the report and have expressed their appreciation to us about it. They noted what a significant milestone the report is. We wanted to take the opportunity to talk about the report and, as 7 April is World Health Day, we thought this was an appropriate time to do so.

As I said, the Senate reference to the committee was to look into the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people in Australia. It was also the second part of our inquiry into involuntary or coerced sterilisation of people with disability. This was the second reference made by the chamber to the committee on this issue and they asked us—I remind the chamber because it was a while ago—to inquire into 'the current practices and policies relating to the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people, including sexual health and reproductive issues and the impact on intersex people'.

We took much longer to complete this inquiry than we had originally anticipated because we identified and took evidence on some very significant issues. We made 15 recommendations that—and hopefully I speak for all of us on the Community Affairs References Committee—we will be pursuing implementation of, in the same way we pursue implementation of recommendations arising out of many other inquiries.

I will read a passage from the OII Australia submission about the experience of Michael Noble. For me, it captures some of the issues we have been talking about—how society forces decisions on people and parents that have extremely long-term implications. The submission, which contains some very important information, is available on the committee's website. The passage reads:

Around the age of 23, an endocrinologist discovered that my body had never produced enough testosterone for me to undergo a full puberty. He therefore suggested I commence testosterone therapy. Initially, I resisted the pressures placed on me to commence therapy. Yet, eventually, I crumbled under the constant onslaught of threats and horror stories of what my future would be like if I didn’t undergo therapy, which the doctors claimed would turn me into a ‘real man’. It was insinuated, even blatantly stated on occasions, that my life would be worthless; that I would be a freak; that I would never achieve my potential, and that I would never have any self-esteem (apparently the self-esteem I already had was invalid as it existed outside of the predefined paradigm of being a real man). So, eventually, from the age of 28, after about 6 years of constant threats and ‘counselling’ by my medical specialists, I began testosterone therapy. And I found it to be a horrifying experience.

Testosterone therapy generated profound and traumatic changes in me. I lost contact with who I was and thus my sense of self. I was mortified when I began to grow large amounts of hair, where hair had never been. My voice dropped. I developed a very strong libido, but found the feelings unwelcome. I lost contact with my heart and the ability to relate to people in a nonsexual manner … I just couldn’t function as a ‘normal’ male, and this caused me significant psychological and physical distress.

Worst of all, however, was that the therapy turned me into somebody I was not.

Hearing accounts like Michael's throughout the inquiry provided us with profound insights into the effects on intersex people of being pressured by medical professionals and society. It was really important that we heard those experiences so that we could get an understanding of just what it is like for people who have had such important life decisions forced on them.

As I said, we made 15 recommendations. First off, we needed to outline and define what 'intersex' is. I think most people in the community do not understand 'intersex' and do not understand the issues. People in the past have seen it as a disorder—in fact, I think it is fair to say that many still do. So one of our recommendations is that terms such as 'disorder' should not be used. We strongly recommend that government and other organisations use the term 'intersex', and do not use the term 'disorders of sexual development', because intersex people should not be seen to have a disorder.

We also point out that there is no single condition that is intersex; there are in fact 30 or 40 testable genetic, anatomical and hormonal types of sex difference. We need to make sure that that is clear. Most importantly, we need to understand that this is a human rights issue. That is why the committee has made the following recommendations:

The committee recommends that all medical treatment of intersex people take place under guidelines that ensure treatment is managed by multidisciplinary teams within a human rights framework. The guidelines should favour deferral of normalising treatment until the person can give fully informed consent, and seek to minimise surgical intervention on infants undertaken for primarily psychosocial reasons.

And I know—because I have spoken to both Tony and Morgan—that this is considered one of our key recommendations. It is also very consistent with the recommendations we made in the first part of our report, into involuntary and coerced sterilisation of people with disabilities. People will see a very similar theme that we have followed there—that is, we should not be making decisions for young people; they have a right to make their own decisions. It is important to minimise any intervention on infants, because currently society is forcing parents into making a decision now—which of course takes the decision out of the hands of that future adult.

We also make the point that the government should :

… provide funding to ensure that multidisciplinary teams are established for intersex medical care that have dedicated coordination, record-keeping and research support capacity, and comprehensive membership from the various medical and non-medical specialisms. All intersex people should have access to a multidisciplinary team.

That came across time and time again in the recommendations. I know my colleagues will pick up other elements of this report.

I would, as is tradition, like to take the opportunity to thank the secretariat, who put so much effort and detailed research into this report. We did a lot of research for this report. I usually do not pick out people for special mention, but I would like to mention Ian Holland, who did a superb job with this committee. He really went the extra mile to do the research; there was so little information that we had to seek some of the information overseas. I recommend that everyone have a read of this report. It really does start to address the issues that we need to be addressing.