In 1980, when Mr Ellicott, Australia's Attorney General during the Fraser Government, signed the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) at the United Nations Mid-Decade for Women Conference in Copenhagen, I, and a few members of Endeavour Forum, were the only Australians to protest against our country adopting this Treaty.
While we support the principle of equal rights for men and women, the Treaty is written in such vague and ambiguous terms, e.g., calling on governments 'To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women' (Article 5) and 'The elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women' (Article l0), that we could see inherent dangers in a legal document whose objective was to ignore all differences between men and women and to belittle the role of mothers as a 'stereotype'.
CEDAW was implemented in Australia through the Federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and we continued to express our concerns. But although we pointed out there could be long-term implications for marriage and abortion laws, we received little support from church leaders.
The Catholic bishops received assurances from the Hawke Government that the Church would be exempted from having to ordain women, and thereafter their concerns appeared muted. The bishops apparently did not realise that giving a government the 'power' to exempt from a theological teaching, not an employment issue, also hands governments the power to withdraw that exemption.
Our forebodings have been only too well realised. Years later, the Catholic Church fought a rearguard action, represented by Mr Ellicott QC no less, in the High Court, to stop single women and lesbians having access to IVF treatment. A Federal court had found that single women and lesbians could not be discriminated against on the basis of marital status, and the High Court decided that the Catholic Church had no standing.
The Federal Attorney General, Mr Ruddock, promised, but has yet to implement, an Amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act to stop single women and lesbians having access to IVF.
The CEDAW battle is now echoing in the US where the Democrats, who currently control both Houses of Congress, are attempting to have their Senate ratify CEDAW. Austin Ruse, President of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, has highlighted some of the dangers:
* CEDAW condemns prostitution but the UN's CEDAW committee has directed governments to legalise prostitution.
* The CEDAW committee has directed 37 pro-life governments to change their laws on abortion, even though the Treaty does not specifically mention abortion.
* The CEDAW committee has criticised Ireland for allowing the Church to have too strong a voice on public policy.
* The CEDAW committee has berated Poland on the issue of abortion.
* The CEDAW committee criticised Belarus for celebrating Mothers' Day.
In Australian states there have been further 'enhancements' of equal opportunity legislation in the form of 'vilification' laws, which deal not merely with discrimination in employment but also with what is said, written, taught or preached about certain groups, e.g., Muslims or homosexuals.
Under Victoria's Racial & Religious Tolerance Act, the on-going saga of the vilification case [Islamic Council of Victoria v Catch the Fire Ministries] that was brought against the two Dannys, Christian pastors, who analysed statements in the Koran for a Christian audience, is an example.
South Australia's Attorney General has proposed an Amendment to the state's Equal Opportunity Act to prevent 'victimisation' of any person on the basis, inter alia, of marital status, pregnancy choices or homosexual behaviour.
One wonders why the churches, in particular the Catholic Church whose teaching on these issues is quite unequivocal, have not opposed this legislation more vigorously. If this Amendment is passed, anyone, including a pastor, who publicly states that adultery is wrong and sinful, that sexual intercourse outside marriage, as for example in a de facto relationship, is wrong and sinful, or that homosexual acts are wrong and sinful, could be vulnerable to the charge of 'victimisation'.
Church representatives who think that they are protected by 'exemptions' or 'exclusions' may be too optimistic. Unmeritorious proceedings can involve an innocent party in long, costly and stressful litigation.
In Britain, where the Blair Government has refused to exempt the Catholic Church from the requirement to arrange adoptions of children by homosexuals, Catholic bishops, supported by Anglicans, Muslims and the Orange Lodge, say Britain is poised to overturn centuries of legal development in human rights.
Bishop Philip Tartaglia of the Scottish Diocese of Paisley wrote in a pastoral letter that there is 'something sinister' happening in Britain. 'For the first time in the modern era in this country, the Catholic Church is facing the prospect of being forced to act against her faith and against her convictions, or else face legal challenge and possible prosecution.' He added, 'we have probably not seen this coming'.
Let us pray that Australia's Catholic bishops will see it coming. For while the churches are protected to some extent by the conservatism of the Howard Government, which does not recognise same-sex unions or overseas same-sex adoptions, all that could end if a Federal Labor Government is elected later this year.
Babette Francis is the National and Overseas Co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc, an NGO with special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.