Medical council rules on IVF gender selection

Australia’s peak medical council has knocked back a push to allow parents to choose the gender of their baby in new national guidelines.

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But the National Health and Medical Research Council left the door open for future changes, suggesting sex selection may be ethical.

On Thursday, the NHMRC banned clinics from offering gender selection for non-medical purposes in its long-anticipated guidelines for assisted reproductive technologies (ART).

The council’s working committee – the Australian Health Ethics Committee (AHEC) – had recommended the council consider condoning sex selection in certain circumstances.

But the NHMRC ultimately concluded the Australian public was not yet ready for such a radical change.

“Despite AHEC’s majority view that there may be some circumstances where there is no ethical barrier to the use of sex-selection for non-medical purposes (current regulations apply) until such time that wider public debate occurs and/or state and territory legislation addresses the practice,” the report read.

ART facilities, including IVF clinics, must abide by the guidelines in order to retain their accreditation.

Several IVF clinics made submissions arguing for families that already have at least two children of the same sex to be able to choose the gender of the third. Currently, gender selection is only allowed in Australia on medical grounds to reduce the risk of serious genetic conditions.

The power to choose a baby’s gender for family balancing is already widely available overseas and Australians are heading to the US and Asia for access, Fertility Society of Australia president Michael Chapman said.

There was “extensive debate” within the working committee and in the media concerning whether would-be parents should be permitted to make an autonomous decision about the sex of their baby for non-medical purposes, chair of the AHEC Ian Olver??? said.

“However there has also been significant community concerns about this practice,” he said.

AHEC did not wish to endorse or perpetuate gender stereotyping or cultural bias based on sex, Professor Olver said.

But the committee hoped a reference in the appendix of the guidelines that stated sex selection may be ethical would stimulate public debate needed to affect legislation.

Further public discussion needed to take place before sex-selection could be recommended, he said.

“Australian society needs to be ready both socially and politically,” he said.

The NHMRC also quashed suggestions that sperm donors be offered financial compensation, diverging from the UK’s decision to provide donors with $1278 in “gratitude”.

More than 200 submissions during the consultation period raised issues concerning ART, including counselling for would-be parents, commercial surrogacy and international surrogacy, genetic testing, and sex selection for non-medical purposes.

Citizenship crackdown ‘could punish vulnerable migrants’

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Immigration minister Peter Dutton during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday 20 April 2017. Photo: Andrew Meares Photo: Andrew MearesThe Turnbull government’s proposed changes to citizenship laws, including tougher tests and a focus on social cohesion, could unfairly punish vulnerable migrants, community groups have warned.

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On Thursday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton unveiled tough new hurdles for prospective Australians, including a stricter English language requirement and an “Australian values” test. Applicants would also face a longer wait before being eligible for citizenship.

Mr Turnbull has challenged Labor to back the changes, framing it as a test of belief “in the values that have made Australia the remarkable nation that it is”.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten dismissed the Prime Minister’s “desperate” challenge and renewed focus on immigration as politically motivated. However, he suggested Labor was open to supporting some of the proposals, including the English language emphasis and increased waiting period.

The new citizenship test could ask applicants whether they think female genital mutilation, family violence and arranged marriages are acceptable.

Joe Caputo, chairman of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, said the government needed to avoid “an assumption that people from diverse backgrounds have values that are contrary to so-called Australian values”. He said important values – and problems – were not limited to specific ethnic groups.

Mr Caputo, who came to Australia in the 1970s, said his mother had very limited English because she had migrated in her 40s and spent a lot of time at home looking after the family.

“Every migrant knows that, unless you speak English in this country, you will not go very far,” he said. “So every migrant knows that English is extremely important. The question for us is what sort of opportunity we give when people arrive to learn English.”

Mr Caputo said that the citizenship test – which can be attempted only three times under the new proposal – risks being an arbitrary measurement that does not recognise a commitment to human rights and capacity for contribution to the community.

He said “people do feel singled out” and tests could “unfairly target” vulnerable migrants, such as refugees. He called for improved migrant education and settlement support.

Mr Turnbull said English proficiency was necessary to succeed in Australian life and that the values-based test was proposed “because it’s important to reinforce our values”.

Before a full briefing, Labor questioned the necessity of some measures, and asserted the renewed focus on immigration was about shielding the government from right-wing populist challenges from former prime minister Tony Abbott and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

On Tuesday, the government announced it would abolish 457 temporary worker visas and replace them with a program that includes stricter language requirements and labour market testing.

Mr Shorten said the proposal was “about Malcolm Turnbull desperate to save his own job”, but committed to consideration of the proposals.

Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said it was “a little odd” to ask people if they would obey the law regarding family violence and female genital mutilation when they had already pledged, as part of the citizenship process, to obey Australian law.

One Nation leader Pauline Hanson praised the Prime Minister for “finally acting on the suggestions I made to him about the citizenship test”.

Carla Wilshire, chief executive of the Migration Council Australia, said some elements of the package, especially the English language requirement, could be “problematic”.

“Particularly for vulnerable sections of the migrant community, particularly for those from a refugee background,” Ms Wilshire said.

“People from refugee backgrounds often come after prolonged periods in camps and can be illiterate in their own language, and we’re bringing them here for humanitarian reasons.”

Ms Wilshire said there were positives in the statement of Australian values, but speculated that the integration requirements – compelling applicants to provide proof of employment, school enrolment and community contribution – could be difficult to implement.

“The emphasis should be on settlement services, including the Adult Migrant English Program and broadening its capacity to teach new migrants. But we should also keep in mind that many new migrants, in order to support their family, will choose employment options which limit their capacity to learn English,” she said.

“We do need to look at increasing the level of cultural orientation we provide to new migrants, particularly around issues such as gender equality and access to justice.”

Keysar Trad, the president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, also questioned why the citizenship changes were needed.

“We want to support freedom of religion and the female education, and the safety of both the female and male members of the community, but it is very clear from the list [of changes] that the Prime Minister is appealing to the least-informed section of the society, and he’s pandering rather than being constructive,” he said.

Refugee Council of Australia’s CEO chief executive Paul Power said tougher English language standards and a limit on citizenship test attempts would discriminate against refugees, particularly older ones.

With James Massola

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OpinionMicrobeads a macro marine menace

Sometimes we are not spurred into action until a chance physical encounter.At our recent scientific conference in Muswellbrook the poster by UON PhD Student Hasintha Wijesekara graphically detailing his project on microbeads in biowastes caught my eye. This was because it was accompanied by a practical demonstration of the huge number of tiny plastic beads that are in use in products such as toothpastes, body scrubs, shampoos and many others.

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On display was a small vial with tens of thousands of beads extracted from one bottle of facial cleanser. Since their introduction into our households about 20 years ago, microbeads have become one of the biggest threats to marine wildlife because they are are too small to be captured and filtered out at the water treatment plant. They eventually end up in the ocean as indigestible targets for marine animals.Further, the plastic beads can accumulate dangerous toxins and heavy metals on their trip through our waste disposal network.

A typical usage of a facial scrub might flush 100,000 of these microbeads into the sewer and eventually into the marine environment.Along with plastic bags, microbeads are a major threat to our marine environment.These particles can be transferred to higher levels in the food chain, causing adverse effects and may serve as a global transport mechanism for accumulated contaminants such as persistent organic pollutants.

Many countries, including Australia, are encouraging industry to phase out microbead use, but progress is slow.I tried the free app, Beat the Microbead, and found that many of the barcodes on bottles in my bathroom were not recognised, but I commend it to you as a useful addition to your smartphone.

Professor Tim Roberts is the director of the Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment, at the University of Newcastle

Missy Higgins’ old Bondi pad snapped up within a week for $1.72 million

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Higgins family affair – North Bondi apartment formerly belonging to singer hits market

Missy Higgins: ‘I was a relationship addict for a long time’

Missy Higgins sells her Abbotsford warehouse for more than $2.2 million

What hope have first-home buyers when a two-bedroom apartment in North Bondi sells for $1.72 million only a week after it hit the market.

The Wairoa Avenue apartment made a gain of 170 per cent in the 12 years since it last traded when singer-songwriter Missy Higgins bought it for $636,000 from producer and director Anna Grieve.

At the time Higgins was no ordinary first-home buyer in Sydney’s property market. In 2005, she had won five separate ARIA Awards and Breakthrough Artist of the Year at the MTV Australia awards.

That success came only a year after she broke onto the Australian music scene with her 2004 album The Sound of White, followed up by On A Clear Night.

Higgins owned the art deco apartment for a decade before she sold it to her parents in early 2015, who then did another family transfer to Higgins’ sister, artist Nicola Higgins, in November of the same year.

Monique March, of Raine & Horne Double Bay, had an asking price of $1.5 million ahead of the planned May 2 auction, but the property was snapped up on Thursday.

The buyers are a local medico couple who plan to live in the apartment while they renovate their family home and then hold onto it as a long-term investment.

It’s not the only property Higgins has parted with in the last few years – she also listed and sold her Abbotsford warehouse conversion, scoring over $2.2 million for the Melbourne apartment in March 2016.

The hit Australian singer-songwriter stepped back from the music scene in 2009 and took an extended break. She returned with the album The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle in 2012, touring again in 2016 – including performing at the 2016 ARIAs – and releasing a song inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis.

What has changed for our returned service men and women in 100 years

SIMILARITIES: Victoria Cross winner Joe Maxwell wrote on Anzac Day in 1931 that the plight of many returned soldiers “and stands as a monument of disgrace to a country for which these gallant fellows sacrificed so much”.

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As thousands flock to Australia’s war memorials today to honour the dead from wars long past, too many veterans of more recent military service are homeless, jobless and traumatised and too many are taking their own lives.

According to some statistics, seven returned service personnel have taken their lives so far this year, and 75 took their own lives during 2016.

A parliamentary inquiry into suicide by veterans and ex-defence forces personnel, due to report in June, has received hundreds of submissions, many of them alleging neglect, carelessness and incompetence on the part of the government authorities that are supposed to provide help.

When the NSW Governor, General David Hurley, spoke in Newcastle last month at a luncheon to celebrate the centenary of the City of Newcastle Sub-branch of the RSL, he urged the organisation to maintain its traditional concern for the returned service men and women of recent wars whose problems were just as real as those who came home from The Great War 100 years ago.

The RSL charity DefenceCare this month launched a national appeal to raise funds to help veterans in distress, reporting a 27 per cent increase in requests for help over the past year.

According to figures recently released by theNational Mental Health Commission, suicide rates are 13 per cent higher for former ADF members than in the average population, with the problem particularly pronounced among those younger than 30.

“These and other cases of attempted suicide and self-harm as outlined in the report, combined with other recent figures of veteran homelessness, speak to a great need to support veterans on a case-by-case basis following discharge,” Robyn Collins, general Manager of DefenceCare, said.

“We see the human face of these statistics play out on a daily basis, with the mental health issues faced by many veterans exacerbated by chronic physical pain as a result of their service to our country,”

Research undertaken for the recently-published centenary history of the sub-branch shows many disturbing similarities between the treatment of veterans today and those of 100 years ago.

One of Australia’s most highly decorated Great War soldiers, Victoria Cross winner Joe Maxwell, wrote in The Newcastle Morning Herald on Anzac Day 1931 that the plight of many returned soldiers was pitiful, “and stands as a monument of disgrace to a country for which these gallant fellows sacrificed so much”.

Maxwell described a tour of the Depression-hit streets of Newcastle, where he found scores of ex-Great War Diggers sleeping rough in parks.

“Near the gas works another “battalion” is bivouaced in dug-outs, shelters, and two hard-boiled members of the 18th Battalion have made their abodes in adjoining 6ft cement stormwater pipes,” Maxwell wrote.

“The crowd of men congregated at the municipal tip near the Sports Ground recall memories of Egypt, with its scores of hungry natives salvaging the garbage tins at the AIF camps, for scraps of food. To add to the family coffers – as one fellow confided – they collect old tins, pieces of copper wire, and, in fact, anything which can be bartered to the second-hand dealer, who calls each evening.”

This general neglect of returned Great War servicemen was not confined to Newcastle.

In 1932 the retiring president of the Coonabarabran RSL Sub-branch, Rev. Father C. Lonergan, wrote that the returned soldier was “without honour in his own country, and his fate writes a page in the history of this country of which no-one can be proud”.

“Amid rapturous scenes at their departure, Diggers were assured that: ‘living or dead, they were never to be forgotten’. They were to be placed high on the pinnacle of the nation’s gratitude,” Fr Lonergan said.

“Bravely and faithfully the duty was borne, with well-nigh infinite patience and steadfastness, even when all round appeared to fail. The world proclaimed it! But the war was scarce over when a change seemed to set in. Public opinion forgot the promises and the cheers.”

Newcastle’s RSL journal complained about the government’s treatment of Diggers: “Departmental failings: No perspective, no imagination, no sympathy, no ability worth anything; and the Digger suffers”.

Hunter Region wartime leader Brigadier-General John Meredith wrote that men had returned “with their ability dulled by years of service and unaccustomed work and we find that they must be classified as perfectly sound, totally incapacitated, partially incapacitated, shell-shocked and recurrent sick”.

“These men who have sacrificed the best part of their life to the honour and glory of this glorious Commonwealth are almost starving. The streets of the towns and cities are full of Diggers who are unable to work owing to their disabilities, and whose pensions are not sufficient to keep them, are compelled to ask charity of the public, who unfortunately look askance at them, and they are fast becoming derelicts with no thought of the future. They start to wander from place to place, and also many of them are dying in strange places without a friend or relation near them,” Brigadier-General Meredith wrote.

That was in the Great Depression, of course, and the huge number of Diggers in need was greater than today when relatively few need support in an apparently prosperous country at a time when the traumas of military service are said to be well-understood.

While Australians properly pay their respects to the warriors of the past, they might care to spare some thought for those of the present, and to ask themselves whether the nation has learned from the lessons of the history.

Amidst the hymns and exhortations to never forget, it seems, something very important is being forgotten after all.

The history of the City of Newcastle RSL Sub-branch is contained in the new book, The Hunter Region in The Great War, byGregand Sylvia Ray